The phoenix of Colorado 

11 February 2008

KREX news team member stands in front of the ruined news studio

KREX-TV, out of Grand Junction Colorado, is by no means what one would call a “key player” in the CBS network. In fact, the area is number 187 out of the 210 market areas measured by Nielsen Media Research. So why write an article about a small-town television station with no real international appeal?

Because in the face of absolute ruin and destruction, this station has literally risen from the ashes to get back on the air and service its community, and in the process, is evoking memories of television’s early years.

KREX-TV, also home to the local Fox and MyNetworkTV affiliates and satellite stations (translated stations broadcast to outlying, hard-to-access areas), was headquartered in a tiny, art-deco style structure that was purpose-built for the station when it operated in the Golden Age of radio, back in 1931. As radio gave way to television, the studio was outfitted to accommodate the new equipment. Over the decades, the building was remodeled and refurbished, additions were built, and the station was preparing to convert its studio and hardware for the upcoming conversion to all-digital broadcasting.

But that all came to an abrupt end on 20 January 2008, when a fire started somewhere in the studio around 8:45am local time. Within minutes the building was overcome with smoke and flame, and the five employees in the building at the time rushed to escape. Viewers at home knew nothing of the incident unless they switched to another channel’s news report, or until 10:30, when their picture suddenly cut to static. Within hours, the building was completely consumed. Explosions further spread the flames, and it quickly became apparent that little, if anything, would be saved.

Security guards watched over the smouldering rubble through the night, as firemen could do nothing but let the fire burn itself out. When daylight came the next morning, the destruction and debris were evident. The building was razed, at a complete loss of over $6 million, not to mention the loss of nearly 70 years of archival video, film, and audio records of Colorado broadcasting history.

It is said that every disaster story needs a ray of light, of hope, and for the mourning staff of KREX, that light came in the form of a bomb shelter. Installed during the height of the Red Scare and threats of nuclear holocaust, the steel-enforced enclosure—once home to government food rations and cots—had been converted to house the station’s essential transmission equipment. It took three days for crews to dig down into the basement of the ruined building, through bricks, charred wreckage and mud, to reach the shelter room. What they found was nothing short of a miracle. A myriad of cables, servers, transistors and switches, though heavily coated with smoke residue and partially waterlogged, had survived.

Among the piles of melted, battered computers, monitors, and set pieces withered to ashes, a proverbial phoenix waited to rise.

Almost immediately after the last flame died out, bulldozers approached and carried out what little remained of KREX-TV, while engineers and broadcast professionals carried out extensive tests and data recovery operations on what little equipment had survived along with the transmitters.

A rush against the clock had begun at KREX. Exactly two weeks from the date of the fire would be Super Bowl 42, the single biggest night of television across the country. And until they could get both KREX and the Fox station airing the football game back on-air, many Coloradians would be without a game to watch.

Immediately, contingency plans were activated. The local PBS station, operating out of a college campus, gave KREX office space and use of their studio equipment. A nearby Wells Fargo bank donated office furniture for the benefit of the staff. Meanwhile, at the charred remains of the studio, portable buildings went up alongside construction fences, and orders for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new, state-of-the-art digital television equipment were placed. The transmitting equipment was moved into the portable buildings.

Tests were being run on an almost constant basis. Controlled experiments were carried out, the likes of which American television had not experienced since the days of experimental monochrome TV transmitted from the Empire State Building. Not only did the staff and engineers at KREX have to learn a host of new digital and High Definition equipment and operating rules, they had to do so within a fortnight.

Thanks to the new craze of mobile journalism, KREX’s “NewsChannel 5” staff started creating their own miniature newscast, despite the fact they had no TV channel to air them on. Instead, the reports were uploaded to YouTube and offered via their website. A blog was created documenting the day-to-day rebuilding progress and giving a behind-the-scenes look at starting a TV station from scratch.

The engineers came back to the owners of KREX at the start of February with good news. Not only would the stations be back online within a few days, they would indeed be able to air the Super Bowl, to the delight of football fans across Western Colorado. Before the start of the game on 3 February, KREX and Fox station KFQX, blinked back on the air. Two of the station’s main personalities greeted the viewers, thanking them for their support, good wishes, and ultimately, their patience. With great pride, they handed over to Fox Sports and high definition coverage of Super Bowl 42.

A major hurdle had been approached, cleared, and passed. But many more lay ahead. The fire had consumed hours and hours of taped programmes syndicated to the station, and as yet they had no ability to re-capture the feeds off satellite to air. Without a news studio and dedicated newsgathering sources, NewsChannel 5 could not feasibly be put together on a daily basis. At least, not yet.

So for the time being, KREX and KFQX have to do something British TV historians have had fond memories of… the midday closedown. The closedowns happen with somewhat more frequency than even the die-hard TV historian would like; as of the time of this writing, KFQX closes down no less than seven times during a broadcast day to account for loss of programming.

It will continue to be a long, uphill struggle in Grand Junction’s KREX. The loss of nearly three-quarters of a century of history is a pain nobody who works for, or is a fan of, television could possibly bear. But the station is certainly making its own history, working at breakneck pace to return to a 24-hour schedule of airtime, creating new headlines and memories all the while.

• Keep up to date as KREX-TV rebuilds – visit their web site.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Joanne Gray 17 October 2015 at 8:53 pm

Thank heavens for the bomb shelter, though on reflection, it doesn’t seem like it would have sustained life for long if there had been a nuclear holocaust.

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