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Life in the SNG trenches: The Sequel

By | October 10, 2001

      James Careless

      Some months ago, (December 2000, p. 38-48), Via Satellite profiled the unsung heroes of Satellite News Gathering (SNG). Specifically, we focused on the SNG uplink operators who get the news out, day in and day out: no matter how tough the conditions, and how stressful the situation.

      Well, sequels are all the rage in the United States these days, and this story is no exception. However, instead of telling war stories this time, we’ve got a few different SNG stories to tell.

      One SNG Truck, One Hurricane And One Dan Rather

      As a 16-year SNG field veteran, Crawford Communication’s senior transportable engineer Benny Griffis has seen it all.

      His personal favorite? You just can’t beat hurricanes, replies Griffis. “I’d say they’re always fun.”

      One stand-out “fun time” happened in 1998, when Hurricane George was plowing its way through the Deep South.

      Griffis and his TES-6, 34-foot Ku-band SNG truck had been hired by CBS News as the personal uplink for Dan Rather. Never a reporter to hide behind a desk, Rather had decided to anchor the network’s hurricane coverage live on location, starting in New Orleans.

      It didn’t take long for Griffis to figure out that this was not going to be any run-of-the-mill shoot. That’s because the location chosen by the CBS News producer–on top of the Hilton Hotel–was too far away from his truck for a normal cable run. The only solution? In the midst of the blinding rain and wind, Griffis had to run a cable up the side of the building, then across the roof to a point overlooking the Mississippi River.

      “The hotel was reluctant to let us go up there, but they relented once we groveled a bit,” he recalls. “They said, ‘You can put the cable up there, but it’s not coming down until the storm’s over.’ We agreed, although–needless to say–we took it down right afterwards.”

      With the truck and equipment in place, all that was needed was Rather himself. “He soon arrived with his entourage of five producers and seven camera crews,” says Griffis. “Dan took one look at the set-up, with its perch over the wind-swept Mississippi, and said, ‘This is wonderful!'”

      Rather’s 6:30 live newscast to the network went off as planned. With that, he and his entourage took off, and Griffis and his freelance driver went inside for some much-needed sleep. They were now officially on ”downtime” because CBS News had hired another truck for Rather’s next stop in Biloxi, MS.

      Within an hour of lying down, however, Griffis got a call from CBS News’ New York satellite desk. “‘We’re very happy with the job you did tonight,'” he recalls the CBS producer saying. “‘Now we want you to do something difficult for us.'”

      Choking back any retorts that stringing cable up a skyscraper during a hurricane was hardly easy, Griffis listened. Rather had arrived in Biloxi, seen the truck, and said it was “totally inadequate” for the job, said the CBS producer. Could Griffis get up to Biloxi pronto, in time for the CBS Morning News?

      Shaking his groggy driver awake, Griffis fired up his SNG truck and got going.

      Three hours later, at about 1 a.m., they arrived in Biloxi. “There were gale force winds when we arrived,” Griffis says. “After we set up, we had three hours downtime before going to air. However, the wind outside the hotel was so loud that we couldn’t sleep.”

      Dawn in Biloxi: Dan Rather does another live shot. Then, “as soon as the eye of the storm gets over us, Dan’s got to move again. He’s one of those guys who likes to stay in the soup.”

      Next stop: Mobile, AL–the next place projected to be pounded by Hurricane George. Moving out like a refugee procession, seven CBS cars–including Rather’s–and Griffis’ SNG truck head out along the I-10.

      However, on an on-ramp, trouble looms. The storm has forced down some power lines. They’re still high enough for the cars to pass under, but not the SNG truck.

      Griffis ponders what to do. The lines look dead; in fact, he’s “99.99 percent sure they are dead.” But before Griffis can take matters–and his life–into his own hands and try to move them, Rather steps out of his car.

      “‘I forbid you to touch those wires,'” Griffis recalls Rather saying. “‘We’ll find some other way around.'”

      “That’s Dan Rather,” he adds. “You’d think he’d be obsessed with getting the story, but he was actually more concerned for our safety.”

      As it turned out, Rather was right: they found another way into Mobile. However, flooding had blocked the entrance into the city itself. As the 6:30 news time approached, they needed to find somewhere else to shoot.

      Worse yet, all the driving had cut the SNG truck’s fuel down to 45 gallons. With power out–and hence no gas stations operating–the CBS News crew either had to stop and shoot now, or risk running out of fuel later on.

      Eventually, they settled on a residential road running right down to the seawall. Trouble was, “the winds were coming in at 60-70 miles an hour, and satellite antennas aren’t designed to operate in that kind of pressure,” says Griffis.

      “One of the producers came to me and said, ‘We’re not going to make the shot, are we?’ I replied, ‘Heck, yes: if we want to do this, we will find a way to make it work.'”

      Griffis’ solution? He parked his truck behind an abandoned house’s double gate. It wasn’t tall enough to shelter the antenna, but it did protect his truck, and provide a somewhat stable platform.

      Granted, it did require Griffis to climb onto the truck’s roof during the storm. Some fallen telephone and cable TV wires were blocking the way: he had to lift them up by hand, so that the truck could drive underneath.

      As well, Griffis did have to perform this duty “crawling on my belly, since the wind was so intense that I simply couldn’t stand up.” But it worked. CBS News got Rather on air, and the live shot went without a hitch.

      From there, the rest was easy, says Griffis. Rather headed off after the storm subsided, and another reporter joined his truck to cover Hurricane George’s aftermath.

      When it was all over, Griffis and his SNG truck had handled “10 live hits in four days, without losing a single window,” he says. “It was phenomenal.”

      Meanwhile, Rather followed up his class act in the field some days later, with a personal thank-you letter to Griffis and Crawford Communications. That’s why today, if Dan Rather ever wants to chase down another hurricane, Benny Griffis will have an SNG truck gassed and ready for him.

      Tom Baer’s Magic Box

      If you’re doing an SNG remote in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from the nearest parts depot, then you’ll want Tom Baer and his Magic Box to be there with you.

      As Engineer in Chief of the 35-foot NBC News SNG truck “Snowboy”–built by Frontline Communications Corp. in Clearwater, FL–Baer is an undeniable SNG heavyweight. In 16 years he’s about seen it all, from air raids in Baghdad to the heat of the Somalian desert, numerous Democratic and Republican presidential conventions, and the Sydney Olympics.

      “I am part of an elite staff of folks who service NBC’s technical needs around the world,” Baer explains. “Believe me, I am not alone out there,” he adds.

      So what has Baer learned from all this SNG field experience? Two words: Be prepared.

      That’s why, whenever Baer’s out in the field, he takes along his Magic Box. It’s a Marine Corps’ tool kit–about the size of a microwave oven–which contains “every kind of RF connector I can get my hands on,” Baer says. But that’s not all: whether it’s exotic cable adapters, test equipment, or anything else you might want in the middle of nowhere, chances are he’s got it.

      “As NBC’s Robert Dembo used to tell our NBC editorial people, ‘If you need anything, just go see Tom Baer,'” Baer laughs. “‘He has every kind of connector that you would ever want in that box. He’ll get you on the air.'”

      Where the Magic Box really comes in handy is during press pool situations. Take President Clinton’s tour of Tanzania. Because he was providing pool SNG uplinks, Baer had to be able to work with all kinds of equipment.

      “For instance, Fox had SX, while other people had Beta and DVC-PRO,” he recalls. “Then there was the guy from the South African broadcaster, who was using a DVC-PRO unit in PAL. Fortunately, I was able to use a combined XLR connector/phone line cord to patch directly from his unit into our satellite truck.”

      However, the Magic Box isn’t Baer’s only SNG edge. There’s also his Rapid Deployment Box (RDB), a kit that contains everything an SNG uplink operator might need in a hurry– which is a state in which SNG uplink operators frequently find themselves.

      When not sitting by Baer’s front hallway at home, the RDB is with him in the field. Because it contains all the cables, connectors, and other equipment to bring an SNG site on line fast, he never has to waste his time rummaging through storage boxes during a crisis. Instead, “I just give the RDB to my assistants, and they get the cables set up outside while I ready the truck for action,” Baer says. “This way, I don’t have to baby-sit them, and they can get on with their jobs.”

      Of course, Baer’s most important advantage is experience. This, combined with the ability to keep his cool during tense times, is what has made him a real SNG pro.

      A case in point: the 1998 U.S. bombing of Baghdad. Baer was right in the thick of the air raid, sending back live voice reports to NBC News from the Al Rasheed hotel.

      “I was live with Brian Williams when a cruise missile went by my window and hit the building next door,” he recalls. “The concussion knocked me over, and shook apart the Thrane and Thrane satellite phone whose antenna was sitting on the window ledge.

      “Fortunately, we had lined the room’s walls with mattresses for protection,” Baer continues. “The phone hit a mattress, and fell to the floor, unbroken. In fact, it lay there, with its battery light still flashing green.”

      “The blast had also pulled the phone’s SMA connector out of the antenna. Fortunately, being a good TV room, we had lots of gaffer tape and tools handy. So I gaffer-taped the whole rig back together, put the antenna back in the window pointing approximately in the same direction, and instantly got four bars on the phone unit. With that, we were back on the air.”

      Of course, no good deed ever goes unpunished. In Baer’s case, his problem-solving skills led NBC to designate him as a “firefighter” during the last presidential campaign. In other words, whenever breaking news hit, it was Baer’s job to get to the scene with his “Snowboy” truck, and get the pictures up onto the satellite as fast as possible.

      It was during this campaign that Baer and his security man Charles Mulham spotted a different kind of fire on the freeway. An 18-wheeler ahead of them was spewing flames from its rear brakes, its driver blissfully unaware of how close he was to impending doom.

      “It was quite a chase before we were able to catch up to him, but eventually Charlie managed to wave him down,” says Baer. “We then stopped, ran out of our truck, and doused the blaze with our fire extinguishers. As the trucker looked on in amazement–he hadn’t even known he was in trouble–I turned to Charlie and said, ‘Well, that’s the first fire we put out today.'”

      Too true. However, given Baer’s experience–and his famous Magic Box–it won’t be the last.

      The World’s Biggest Flyaway

      A few years back, PSSI was hired by the U.S. Navy to uplink telemetry from a missile test in California. The only catch: PSSI had to uplink from San Nicholas Island, about 100 miles west of San Diego.

      This was a catch, because the Navy didn’t want PSSI to bring in a portable SNG flyaway. Instead, they wanted a complete production truck, equipped with a 2.4 meter antenna. That’s because PSSI had 25 channels of video and telemetry both to ships offshore, and to the Pentagon in Washington.

      To do the job, PSSI assigned one of its lowboy SNG trucks, says senior engineer Joe Kittrell. The truck then headed out to the airport, where it was driven into the belly of a Hercules C-130 transport plane.

      “It was certainly a strange sight, seeing a truck that big drive into an aircraft,” he recalls. “To our knowledge, no one had ever tried to put an SNG truck inside a C-130 before.”

      Over on San Nicholas Island, there were other challenges to be tackled. First was power on the remote island. Fortunately, there was a naval installation located by the crude runway, so that PSSI were able to power their truck.

      Next was the actual signal relay. The telemetry and video for the missile firing, which launched from an AEGIS missile destroyer 200 miles offshore, and headed east to impact in the China Lake/Mojave Desert missile range, was delivered to PSSI’s truck from a remotely-controlled F-4 drone. “The drone followed the missile all the way from the ship to the impact area,” says Kittrell. “Our job was to get its signal up to space, so that the military commanders could watch the test as it happened.”

      So how did it go off? “Well, the transmission itself went off without a hitch,” says Kittrell. “Unfortunately, the missile missed its target.”

      Which just goes to show that, if you want the job done right, send an SNG crew, not a missile.

      The Good, Bad, Exciting, Dull Life Of An SNG Operator

      Years ago Willie Nelson once sang, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Well, maybe he should have changed the word “cowboys” to “SNG uplink operators,” at least for those mamas who like to see their kids every once in a while.

      The reason: like cowboys, SNG uplink operators spend a lot of time away from home. Just ask Dennis Stacklin. He’s knows what Willie’s talkin’ about.

      Along with his partner Nelson Durfey, Stacklin runs Red Dirt Communications in Stillwater, OK. It’s a two-man shop based on a 25-foot BAF Commander Ku- Uplink Truck.

      Despite their small size, Red Dirt seems to always be in demand. Since being launched in 1996, for instance, Stacklin and Durfey have uplinked at two Superbowls, two World Series, the MLB All-Star Game, and both of the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions. “We were the only digital vendor that was at both conventions,” says Stacklin. As well, they’ve been on site for major news events like the Los Alamos wildfire and the Columbine school shootings.

      Over this time, Stacklin’s experienced the good, bad, exciting, and dull aspects of life as an SNG uplink operator. Here’s his take on what life on the road is really like.

      The Good: “One of the very best times was when we covered our first World Series in 1997,” says Stacklin. This particular Fall Classic–between the Florida Marlins and the Cleveland Indians–was held at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field, which meant a lot to the young SNG uplink operator. “I grew up in Ohio,” Stacklin explains, “so it really meant something to step out on the field, knowing that I was covering my ‘hometown’ team.”

      So how did he feel about the Indians losing to the Marlins 3-2, in an 11th inning heart breaker? Stacklin wasn’t too broken up. “Red Dirt was working for WPLG out of Miami, FL,” he explains. “I do have to admit I had a very pleasant experience working for the enemy; after all, we are hired guns.”

      The Bad: Sooner or later, anyone who works with the news business has to meet tragedy face-to-face. For Stacklin and Durfey, the event was the 1997 Pedeucah, KY, school shootings, where three students were killed and five wounded by a 14 year-old gunman.

      “It’s times like these that I wish I was doing something else,” Stacklin says. “It was a bummer walking into people’s houses, trying to act professional while they’re doing their best to hide their pain.” Also included on his list of bad memories are the Columbine school shootings, and the Oklahoma City bombing.

      The Exciting: Stacklin points to last year’s Los Alamos wildfire as a typically exciting assignment. Over 47,000 acres went up in flames, with no refuge in sight.

      “Every day we would make the trek up the mountain from Santa Fe to Los Alamos to do live shots for Fox News,” he says. “Everyday we found Los Alamos blanketed in smoke, and overrun by firefighters, National Guard, local authorities, and slurry planes roaring in the sky. As a result, our sense of excitement was fueled by the fact that we were there on the front lines with the element of risk being real.”

      The Dull …Or Maybe Not: It should have been a short assignment. But things had a way of dragging on in Tallahassee, FL, last fall: especially for the Red Dirt crew, who were covering the 2000 election returns. “When we left, we told people we’d be gone for five days,” Stacklin says. “Forty days later, we returned home.

      “However, the word dull just does not fit,” he adds. “Granted, sometimes the work gets repetitive, so someone might think it would get dull. However, when this happens, the time gets taken up becoming familiar with the people you’re working with. Many of my good friends I have met on the road. Moreover, the road is where I will see them again, and these people are the single most important reason I continue to do what I do.”

      The Future: So what’s next for Red Dirt Communications and their SNG uplink truck? Well, Stacklin’s next dream is to cover the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. “We’ve already had some inquiries about us doing that,” he says. “I’m looking forward to giving it our best shot.”

      Keeping The Trucks Moving

      It’s not just the SNG operators in the field that tear their hair out from time to time. It’s also the people who decide where to send them.

      Take BT Broadcast Services. When Princess Diana was tragically killed in a car accident in 1997, chaos broke loose.

      “It was the craziest thing we’ve ever had to coordinate,” says Jon Romm, general manager for BT North America Broadcast Services. “Not only was every single one of our SNG trucks fully utilized, but we had 13 transatlantic satellite paths also fully booked. Since she passed away in France, our Paris Teleport was also extremely busy.”

      Getting SNG vans and flyaways to where the news takes place is BT Broadcast Services’ bread-and-butter. “We have 46 transportable earth stations,” says Romm. Depending on what day it is, you can find BT trucks covering the Olympics, the Superbowl, or Caribbean cricket, as well as the latest news stories of the day.

      To make things more difficult, BT broadcast also has regular, ongoing SNG truck leases to honor. Hence, when big news breaks, it’s a scramble to make sure everyone’s bases are covered.

      “The key is to stay on top of it all,” says Romm. “Thankfully, our staff does a fantastic job, which allows our business to have continued success.”

      Keep The Stories Coming

      If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the course of researching these stories, it’s the more SNG uplink operators one talks to, the more, great tales one hears.

      The SNG life is an exciting, romantic one. “Evening driving–windshield time is where we spend most of our working hours–I find myself far from being bored,” says Red Dirt’s Stacklin. “Any uplink operator will tell you that this is the time to mellow out, reflect, and prepare for the next job.”

      “Like the cowboy, the uplink operator spends a lot of time riding.” v

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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