Tower of Power

KOAM has been the leading television station in the area since it began broadcasting on channel seven 69 years ago. Now, thanks to the $2.5 million “More Power” project, KOAM and its sister station, Fox 14, are overcoming challenges brought on by the digital transition and reaching more homes than ever before.

“We are a community service business, so we exist to deliver information – news and weather – to the community,” said Brook Arnold, vice president and general manager of KOAM and Fox 14. “Joplin is the biggest city in the area, but a lot of Joplin couldn’t get our station. I couldn’t even watch my own product.”

Chief Engineer Bill Vickery said the trouble started in 2009 when TV stations were required by the federal government to convert from analog to digital broadcasts. The first-generation equipment was simply not up to the task.

“We quickly realized at that point that our signal was not very robust, and many viewers across the market experienced significant difficulty in receiving us over the air,” Vickery said.

The stations continued to operate successfully despite these challenges. But in 2017, when the Federal Communications Commission opened a window to request modifications to existing broadcast stations, Vickery jumped at the chance.

“It took about a year, and we were granted a construction permit in 2019,” Vickery said. “There was a mad rush.”

Once the stations’ parent company, Morgan Murphy Media, signed off on Vickery’s plans for new equipment, the first step was to replace the transmitters. These devices generate radio frequency (RF) broadcasts based on the data fed to them from the computers at the station.

“Immediately when we fired that up, we put out a much cleaner product,” Vickery said. “The biggest change, though, was the RF system post-transmitter, which is the transmission line and the antenna system up on the tower.”

Sitting atop a 1,000-foot tower, the new antennas focus the majority of the signal strength toward the south, aiming for those in the Joplin area who previously had trouble receiving the signal. But even in the north, where Vickery and his team had to tread carefully so as not to interfere with Topeka and Kansas City-area stations broadcasting on the same channels, they were able to boost power significantly.

On July 8, antenna installation was completed and the stations were able to begin broadcasting at full strength. KOAM’s signal strength increased from 14.8 kW to 98.8 kW, while Fox 14’s increased from 5.6 kW to 45.1 kW.

Vickery says that makes KOAM the 12th highest-power VHF station in the country.

“We estimate that we have the capability with these improvements to reach an additional 200,000 people,” Vickery said.

As long-time members going back to Heartland’s predecessor cooperative, Sekan Electric Cooperative, Inc., KOAM and Fox 14 rely on Heartland for power most of the time, but they are also equipped with powerful diesel generators that ensure the stations can broadcast during an outage. The generators also come in handy when conserving energy on Peak Days.

Vickery said the station’s rural location in southeast Kansas was very much intentional.

“This station was built around the concept of it being the geographic center of the market,” Vickery said. “I think on the Kansas side it gives us a little bit of an advantage because we’re 10-15 miles closer (than Joplin-based competitors), especially for the outlying counties like Montgomery and Wilson.”

Even with these signal boosts, KOAM and Fox 14 might not reach every household in the Heartland service area but they will likely reach more than they did before. Vickery and Arnold encourage those who haven’t received the stations in the past to re-scan for channels and see if they are now within range.