This rural setting is a source of pride for those residents and their elected officials. But it’s also a constant struggle, most recently manifested in the people’s inability to watch the deadly storm system creeping west to east across Alabama on April 27. They had to keep an eye out for news on a ticker running across the bottom of the screen of Atlanta weather stations rather than choosing from among Alabama broadcasts of wall-to-wall tornado coverage.
Most Randolph County residents can only rely on satellite or cable providers for reliable television service. Those companies are required by congressional statute to provide viewers with local stations based on market areas determined by the Nielsen Company, a television ratings service.
People in Randolph County are feeling a renewed sense of urgency after the April tornadoes. Some have gone so far as to provide false addresses to cable and satellite providers to receive Birmingham stations, and more plan to once they can figure out how to get around steadily improving proof-of-residence standards.
Neighboring Cleburne County also falls in the Atlanta television market. But cable and satellite providers are able to provide Birmingham’s Fox and NBC affiliate stations to Cleburne County customers because the stations’ over-the-air signal is determined by the Federal Communications Commission to be “significantly viewed.”
Signals from each station reach towns along Interstate 20, where Heflin, Cleburne County’s most densely populated city, sits on the edge of their signals’ strength.
So without access to the Birmingham news stations, Randolph County residents, forgotten by the Atlanta broadcasters, had to rely on Randolph County Emergency Management Agency broadcasts over scanners, local radio stations and weather alert radios for up-to-the-second information on the track of a deadly storm originally predicted to pass through Wedowee.
Many people think that had the storms come through Wedowee, the death toll would have been much higher than 238. They hope it doesn’t take a disaster like that to spur action on what they view as an important public safety issue.
“The only time we know a tornado is here is when it hits,” said Tom Dunaway, a Delta resident on the Randolph County side of the county line. “What if it hits my home, my neighbors? What do you do? We all wonder that.”
Frustration and fibbing
Nielsen reviews the boundaries of television markets, called “designated market areas,” each spring. The New York-based private media research company uses data pulled from quarterly surveys to measure the channels consumers within a given area are watching, Bruce Hoynoski, a Nielsen executive, wrote in an email.
The survey measures specifically what people watch, which means the signal must be accessible to the household either through cable or satellite provider or an over-the-air signal, Hoynoski wrote.
Randolph County lies on the edge of Atlanta and Birmingham television stations’ broadcast range, appearing as the lone commonality between the distant cities in the Venn diagram of the FCC’s digital television reception maps.
Residents have struggled to receive a clear signal from most Birmingham stations with antennas through the years. When broadcasts switched from analog signals to digital in June 2009, those still using antennas could no longer pick up the static-marred signals from Birmingham.
Since the digital switch, only one Alabama television station — a public broadcasting station with a tower atop Mount Cheaha — has a broadcast signal strong enough to reach Randolph County residents using an antenna, according to Federal Communications Commission reception maps.
The digital switch improved broadcast quality — but if the signal isn’t a certain strength, antennas don’t pick up the signal at all.
“You either get it or you don’t get it,” said Lou Kirchen, general manager of WBRC Fox 6 in Birmingham.
It has trapped Randolph County residents, unable to pick over-the-air signals from Birmingham, in Atlanta’s designated market area against their will.
People put down on surveys that they watch Atlanta-area television because there is no choice, said Sheila Fincher, a Woodland resident who has spoken out about the issue. She remembers being able to watch Birmingham TV news with her old antenna before the digital switch and can’t imagine any of her neighbors choosing to watch anything other than Alabama-based television if they had a choice.
Fincher and her neighbors don’t want to watch Atlanta news, they can’t watch Birmingham news, and because the Nielsen surveys don’t permit people to put down what they want to watch, Fincher doesn’t see a way out.
“I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall,” Fincher said. “It’s not the right thing, you know? It’s frustrating.”
Some around the county have grown tired of the back and forth between cable and satellite providers, trying to talk their way into receiving Birmingham stations, and have taken to providing their television suppliers with false addresses inside the Birmingham designated market area.
“Probably the biggest benefit is the weather, knowing what’s coming,” said Jane Brown, a convenience store co-owner whose husband fudged their address with DISH Network. “Next in line to that would be, you know, election time, knowing who’s running and having the names. If you don’t have Birmingham channels, you could go into the voting booth and it’d be names you’d never heard of in your life.”
Her husband and the store’s other co-owner, Larry, called the satellite company and switched their address in December 2003 so they could watch the local high school team play in the state championship game.
They haven’t had a problem with the satellite company in the eight years since Larry told the company they’d moved and were no longer in the Atlanta market area, Brown said.
Jane and Larry Brown pay the bill each month and don’t feel it is illegal or immoral, which is why she decided to allow their names to be published in this story.
Besides, she’s only heard of an Atlanta reporter coming to Randolph County once in recent memory: when a construction worker was trapped on scaffolding during a fire while working on a site in Atlanta.
“Personally, I think if you wanted New York channels you should be able to get New York channels. I don’t see why the government should determine what channels you watch,” Brown said.
This time, new urgency
Grassroots efforts to get Randolph County in the Birmingham designated market area have been made in the past but none made it much further than the local level.
But the April 27 tornadoes that ripped across the state have given those hoping to make a change a renewed sense of urgency.
“It’s just ridiculous,” said Tom Dunaway, a retired Federal Emergency Management Agency hazardous materials specialist. “We’re treated like a third-world country.”
Dunaway, who lives on the Randolph County side of Delta, circulated a petition around gas stations in Cleburne and Randolph counties before this past November’s elections. In three weeks and with little fanfare, more than 2,300 people signed his petition to get members of the Alabama congressional delegation to support bills moving Randolph County into the Birmingham designated market area.
Nothing came of it, but Dunaway has gotten in touch with Mike Fisher, Roanoke’s mayor. Fisher is working to build a base of support among Randolph County politicians in an attempt to give the issue some momentum to possibly carry to the federal level.
Already Fisher has sent a letter to U.S. senators Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby as well as Rep. Mike Rogers. The Randolph County Commission threw its support behind the effort in its first June meeting, voting to draft a letter expressing commissioners’ concerns on the public safety issues presented by the county falling in Atlanta’s designated market area.
Attempts to reach the senators for this story were unsuccessful.
Rogers, who represents Cleburne, Randolph and three other counties in Georgia markets, wrote a letter to the FCC chairman on June 7 asking for the commission to “explore ways to allow these counties to receive Alabama-based broadcast television stations.”
The congressman met with the National Association of Broadcasters at the end of the month, but it appears nothing will come of it.
After spending that April day watching recycled storm images on national television with limited means of gathering relevant local information, Randolph County residents aren’t going to let this grassroots effort fizzle out.
“I’m not going to let this die,” Fisher said.
Star staff writer Jason Bacaj: 256-235-3546