STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now we'll get an update on an issue that has angered all sorts of folks in rural areas. It involves the switch to digital transmission by TV stations. About one-third of the stations switched three weeks ago, and most of the problems we've heard about had to do with those converter boxes that many people needed to buy.
There's another problem: It's costing some rural viewers access to local TV. NPR's Howard Berkes explains.
HOWARD BERKES: A week after the local TV station disappeared from screens in Bergton, Virginia, a third of the town's population crowded into elementary school auditorium. All 90 of the folding chairs were filled, according to the reporter we sent. Another 50 people stood on the fringes and spilled out into the hallway.
This television town meeting was organized by county officials and the only local TV station. Its signal reaches Bergton. After leaving the main transmitter 30 miles away and traveling through translator antennae in between, the translators boost the signal and get it down into valleys and around hills and mountains.
But after February 17th…
Mr. ROBERT HANNAM: My mother and father-in-law have lost total signal. We bought a new TV. We bought a converter box - no signal. And everybody else in the community around here has had the same difficulty.
BERKES: Robert Hannam is a retired utility worker who says no local TV is a serious problem.
Mr. HANNAM: Because you're putting a lot of people in harm's way by not being able to get news and weather and emergency broadcasting.
BERKES: A local radio station provides all that, but its signal doesn't reach the area at night. The problem here is that most translators need digital converters, too, but they weren't included in the intensive preparation for the digital switch. Some are so old and decrepit, they need expensive upgrades or replacement.
More than 4,000 licensed translators serve thousands of rural communities across the country. No one's sure how many people they serve or how many are losing their local broadcasts. Kent Parsons has a guess.
Mr. KENT PARSONS (Vice President, National Translator Association): Well, I made the prediction four years ago that at least 50 percent would go dark because of lack of planning.
BERKES: Parsons is a Utah-based translator expert and vice president of the National Translator Association.
Mr. PARSONS: None of it's been addressed. None of it's been addressed for the small rural communities by anybody - not by Congress, not by the FCC.
BERKES: Translators are built and maintained by a hodgepodge of groups, including country governments, Rotary and Lions Clubs, and informal associations of farmers, ranchers and townspeople. In some places, the handiest volunteer around is all the maintenance. Some may be too busy or inexperienced to keep up with the digital conversion, especially without the pressure of a federal mandate. Many just don't have the money.
John Nichols is a rancher and former commissioner in Kit Carson County, Colorado.
Mr. JOHN NICHOLS (Rancher; Former Commissioner, Kit Carson County, Colorado): Our equipment was old and worn out, and, you know, it was going to cost three or $400,000 to replace it. And that's the main reason we quit.
BERKES: The county shut down its translators, even after a survey showed that 300 people - about 4 percent of the population - depended on translators for local television.
At the Federal Communications Commission, Robert Radcliffe is a top aide to the acting FCC chairman.
Mr. ROBERT RADCLIFFE (Top Aide to FCC Chairman): It definitely would've been better had the commission been able to address this issue more comprehensively earlier in the process. I think we are a bit behind the curve with respect to translators.
BERKES: And the oversight seems insurmountable back in Bergton, Virginia. The relevant translator there is at the top of a mountain with no road access. Converting, upgrading and maintaining a signal seems daunting to local TV station manager Tracey Jones. She thinks it would be cheaper to simply get everyone satellite TV.
Ms. TRACEY JONES (TV Station Manager): It would definitely make more sense in some cases than building this huge infrastructure to serve a very small number of people. I guess the American people would have to decide, you know, is TV a luxury? Is it a necessity? And is that something we would ever consider subsidizing?
BERKES: The FCC wants to try catching up first with programs and policies that could help. Grants for translator conversions and upgrades are available from the Commerce Department, and more than a thousand translator licensees have received some funding. No one's sure about the status of the rest.
Howard Berkes, NPR News.