What Happened to San Diego Broadcasters When the Lights Went Out

At 3:40 pm on September 8, Paul Redfield, Director of Technology at XETV, heard a faint click from his San Diego TV production control room. He saw the hall lights go out briefly, but the production room lights and equipment hummed along. A few seconds later the hallway lights returned as their 600kW generator kicked on, replacing the missing street power.

Outside, traffic lights went dark, creating lines of cars with drivers waiting to cross intersections tentatively, one or two at a time. Car radios heard either static, or silent carriers, or the rare voice trying to make sense of the electrical outage that seemed to be affecting listeners calling in from throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties, as well as southern Orange County and Yuma, Arizona, affecting 1.4-million customers total for up to twelve hours.

Clear Channel Communications

Director of Engineering John Rigg said generators at their Emerald Hills site fired as tested, serving their KOGO (AM 600), Lincoln Financial’s KSON (FM 97.3), and Univision’s KLNV (FM 106.5) transmitters. KOGO has LP-1 EAS status, and their news-talk format and veteran voice of Cliff Albert taking on-air calls immediately grabbed most of the English-speaking audience. Cliff supplemented his own wall-to-wall call-in coverage with that from KGTV’s anchors.

His 52nd Street site across the CA-94 freeway lit up with locally-generated power serving KGB (FM 101.5), KHTS (FM 93.3), KLSD (AM 1360), and Entravision’s KTCD-LD.

Clear Channel has auxiliary transmitters to backup their Mt. Soledad KMYI (FM 94.1), KUSS (FM 95.7), and KIOZ (FM 105.3) transmitters, but engineers Bill Thompson and Steve Frick could not remotely switch them. They were treated to gridlocked traffic as the region’s workers all decided to leave their dark buildings simultaneously through intersections with no flow control. Cell phones didn’t work as sites with backup power were overloaded with voice data. They arrived at the two sites up to an hour later.

Looking ahead, John plans to augment his remote control systems so that he can bring up their aux transmitters. He recommends stations not rely on cell phone technologies for emergency communications in favor of good old-fashioned analog two-way radio.

KGTV/KZSD-LP – McGraw-Hill

Chief Engineer, Andrew Lombard said, “Our generator on Mt. San Miguel wouldn’t start. It ended up being a bad battery. We tried to jump start it with no luck. That took down our Channel 39 NTSC low power Azteca network [LPTV transmitter] and our remote ENG receive site.

“Our news assignment desk had some power strips that were run from a non-backed up source. Everything else went extremely well. We did share content with KUSI in the middle of all the chaos. Power came back at the station around 9:30 pm.”

KFMB AM/FM/TV – Midwest Television

Director of Engineering Rich Lochmann said that “Starting with the studio, when the lights went out it took six seconds for our generator to come on line.  That was the longest six seconds in history. Television did very well.  All the vital equipment stayed on line with our UPS, and once the genset came on line at the transmitter, we were back on the air broadcasting to no one.”

“Radio did not do so well. The AM generator at Santee sprang a leak and shut itself down. We had to cut up a garden hose and clamp it on the generator to get it back running. FM tripped a breaker and did not come back up. Needless to say the outage caused massive traffic jams so it took approximately an hour to get to either site to assess the damage and get us back on the air. Once we were back on the air with AM and FM we went wall-to-wall with coverage on all three stations.”

Lincoln Financial Media

Chief Engineer Bill Eisenhamer gave their emergency capabilities mixed reviews. “We did OK in regards to KSON.  We are on backup power at the KOGO site with which Clear Channel owns.  It’s nice that they provide this at a reasonable cost.

“At the studios we have a different issue:  Our generator is undersized, so if/when we switch we turn off all unnecessary rooms and equipment. We plan to upsize, but we do not know how this will go as the EPA, city, and any other government frowns on diesel.  We are natural gas now and what is turned off in an earthquake?  This will be a project from hell.  A shame broadcasters do not get some sort of leniency because of their roll in public safety.

Eisenhamer has been building an aux transmitter site at Mt. San Miguel, but not all transmitters are ready for air. “We also discovered that Mt. San Miguel did not have generator power, and has not had it since the fires that burned there [in 2007]” He is working with site owner Richland Towers to provide backup power for their auxiliary transmitters.

“Other issues:  AT&T fiber huts only have battery power for about 12 hours, if that much.  Once that is gone, the T1’s go down.  We were pro-active and ran an extension cord for our equipment rack at our mid-point to a generator provided outlet.  This saved us when AT&T lost their equipment when batteries failed.  In addition to fiber huts, AT&T pair-gain equipment that runs on battery only lasts about 8 hours.  Remote control data and phone lines began to drop at that point. So, if you have lines running through pair-gain equipment you are at risk.

“KSON was the big winner judging from all the nice emails we received.”

Eisenhamer said they do not have backup generator power at their Mt. Soledad stations KBZT (FM 94.9) and KIFM (FM 98.1) due to the high cost.

KSWB-TV – Tribune

Kyle Major, Director of Technology, said he was pleased with their readiness. They lost 30 seconds due to an automation server being plugged into an unprotected outlet, and their transmitter is protected by a generator and not UPS, but otherwise, Fox 5 stayed on for the duration and largely went wall-to-wall with news to the few viewers who had battery-operated TVs. They cut back on power usage to save as much fuel as possible. He said they are working to re-introduce a 2-way radio system for news and engineering.

KUSI (TV) – McKinnon Broadcasting

Director of Engineering Richard Large said, “During the power outage both of our generators came on line at our transmitter site and studio. We only had one UPS that failed to hold, which only affected the primary weather computer. We switched it to the backup UPS and rebooted it.

“The biggest problem we had was with poor or spotty cell phone service.”

KNSD (TV) – NBCUniversal

Director of Technology Dave McKinnon said, “We lost chilled water from NRG, which we’re going to replace with a local loop system. Due to lack of cooling we did our news from Cox SD4, but once power was restored and cooling returned, we were back and totally local. Other than that we were all good.”

XETV – Televisa

Paul Redfield said, “We did quite well, actually. We had enough fuel on-hand to last about 17 hours at minimum load. We did not go wall-to-wall because we felt that nobody had electricity thus nobody had TV. We did consider [our channel 6 FM aural signal at] 87.75 but we decided to concentrate on the web platforms, which had a nice effect. We got really good feedback on the web stuff. That was [our News Director Christine Tanaka’s] decision.

“My biggest concern was fuel. At about 5:30 pm, I started calling for fuel delivery as I knew that I probably wouldn’t get fuel for days if this was an extended blackout. As it turns out, the fuel truck from Bay City Electric was a block away when the lights came back on.

“We had the generator running, but at a severely reduced load. I think we got the thing down to around 30KW. We pulled the breakers to all the nonessential air conditioning, etc. It was fun! Like a game to see how low can you go.

“I was sitting in my office when the lights came back on. I didn’t even notice. I went down to check on the generator and it had simply stopped running. This was about 2:30am.”

XETV is part of a seven station Televisa TV cluster in Tijuana, Mexico, which had also suffered the full power utility outage. The master control and transmission site is well equipped. Redfield says they have “three generators in tandem, thousands of gallons of fuel and a new, insanely huge UPS.” XETV 6 analog and 23 digital stayed on, as did XEWT 12 analog and 32 digital, XHUAA 57 analog and 22 digital, and XHBJ 45 analog.


Leon Messenie, Director of Engineering and IT for the public broadcasting stations at San Diego State University had it easy. “KPBS does not have generator at either the KPBS studios nor the transmitter site. When the power went off we were completely off the air.  Ironically, I was in our Station Manager Deanna Mackey’s office discussing our option for generators when the power went off. KPBS news reporters joined forces with KOGO to report on the situation. Our Web team used a portable laptop and a Verizon card to update the KPBS web site which is housed off-site in a location that did have power. We had a staff person bring in an inverter and we powered up an area for the news staff to recharge their cell phones. That was about all we could do until the power came back on.”

KPRZ/KCBQ – Salem Communications

Chief Engineer Craig Caston says, “We don’t have backup power at our studios, and probably never will. The only generator we have is at the KPRZ (AM 1210) site, which I’m grateful for but, of course, it didn’t help in this circumstance. I’m still hoping that, someday, I can get a generator for the KCBQ (AM 1170) transmitter site.”


KYXY (FM 96.5) and KSCF (FM 103.7) Director of Technical Operations Mike Prasser explained, “About four years ago, I installed an automatic transfer switch and connection panel for our transmitter site, but we did not have a generator installed because everyone I talked to said that the power never goes out, so we had a plan in place to rent a generator should the need arise. The problem with that plan is if the power goes out in all of southern California and you cannot call your vendor to get a generator, then what do you do?

“After what seemed like hundreds of attempts to call the generator vendors in town, I ended up talking to my coworkers in LA and asked them to contact a rental place and have them call me. I received a call a few hours later, there was a generator on the way from Mira Loma California. The driver called me when he got close and I met him at the transmitter. We got it connected and both stations were on the air by 11:00 pm. I have been working on getting a permanent generator installed ever since.

“I learned two things. First of all, no matter how prepared you think you are, you are not and in your disaster plan, for every vendor that you have locally you should have one that is out of market, just in case.”

KSDS – San Diego City College

Chief Engineer Larry Quick said that they do not maintain backup power and as a bonus, had a couple of failures in some old TV equipment when power returned.