Have you ever been driving down a rural road somewhere in Oregon and rolled your eyes at the radio announcer’s breakdown of Portland traffic problems? You’re not alone.
But Lake County resident Cam Newton and his wife Christine put up with it because that same radio station — OPB — also keeps them from feeling out of touch.
“It’s a member of our household,” said the Eugene native, who now lives 4 miles from his nearest neighbor on the edge of a pine-fringed camas prairie — a place he calls ‘church.’ “If we couldn’t get OPB radio, we would have thought seriously about moving here. It’s true!”
Newton and thousands of other Oregonians stay connected thanks to a handful of skilled and intrepid OPB broadcast engineers who maintain the 84 towers, translators and transmitters that service the nearly 100,000 square miles of Oregon and parts of Southwest Washington.
“There’s a lot of driving involved in the job,” admitted Central Oregon chief engineer Max Culbertson.
Culbertson, who is based in Bend, services an area that stretches from the Columbia River to the California border. In an area that vast, he depends on automated monitoring equipment at each site to let him know if everything’s in working order. But that technology only goes so far, especially on isolated towers like the one that serves Lakeview and the Newtons.
“If it’s down for five minutes, I’m getting a call from Cam,” Culbertson cracked.
If a remote “reboot” doesn’t get the signal back up, Culbertson is obliged to get into his rig and drive the 175 miles to Cox Mountain.
“Cox Mountain is my Moby Dick. It’s tried to kill me on a number of occasions,” he said.
Huge snow drifts and howling winds make the mountaintop microwave repeater site very difficult to maintain in winter, which is also when it’s most likely to go down. Culbertson pulls a snowcat along for these trips.
“I’ve had incidents where I thought I was on stable snow and ended up screaming down the hill; it can get your adrenaline going!” he said.
Culbertson and the other regional engineers have to know how to handle a snowcat, but also how to repair one; and if that fails, how to survive the elements in OPB’s many remote relay locations. That’s on top of knowing how to climb towers and repair broadcast equipment.
Cam Newton is grateful.
“As far as he knows I may be the only person listening to this full-time, you know, and everybody else is just kinda passing through," Newton said. "So I make sure he knows how much we appreciate his fortitude. But I really don’t need to hear about the traffic in Portland.”