WDET's new transmitter goes live. So long, static on Detroit public radio

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — The static and buzz had become so severe at Joan Isabella's house in Farmington Hills that she had stopped listening to WDET-FM (101.9) on the radio.

Since she is the station's program director, the annoyance must clearly have been considerable — and the relief was evident Tuesday as the public radio mainstay's new, $150,000 transmitter, funded by the Kresge Foundation, replaced one machine that's old enough to drink and a backup that's nearly old enough to run for president.

As WDET served celebratory donuts and cider in the shadow of its 550-foot-tall Midtown tower, Isabella and other staffers said the lengthy replacement process helped tell a tale of both the condition of the station's city and the devotion of its listeners.

Ryan Patrick Hooper, right, hosts WDET-FM's CultureShift program on Tuesday during a special remote show near the station's Midtown tower. He interviews Wendy Lewis Jackson of the Kresge Foundation, which donated $150,000 for the public radio station's new transmitter.

It also helped introduce them to a condition called frequency creep and a part called an exciter, two terms they hope to forget.

When vibrating capacitors in an outdated piece of equipment created an aggravating crackle, Isabella said, she simply tuned in on her laptop. In Detroit, however, "lots of people don't have Wi-Fi in their house. They don't have internet. They don't have access to broadband."

Under previous and prescient leadership, said General Manager Mary Zatina, the station made significant digital investments in the past few years, crafting platforms such as podcasts and music on demand and hiring staffers to oversee them.

While a new transmitter might seem like a giant step toward the past, she said, "We think about 80% of our listening happens on traditional radio. While people might have been well-intentioned to think about a digital future, we're not there yet."

For Kresge, the transmitter is a portal to a local voice delivering cultural information and discussions of important issues, said Wendy Lewis Jackson, managing director for the foundation's Detroit Program. 

Buying it "was an easy decision," Lewis Jackson said.

Jackson was the first live guest Tuesday as WDET's Ryan Patrick Hooper hosted the noontime CultureShift program beneath a canopy outside the transmitter building.

Inside, a Canadian-made Nautel GV30N, which looks like a big gray supply cabinet with vents and an oversized dashboard screen, sent a signal up the tower to an antenna and then out across an 80-mile radius.

Alongside the Nautel stood a 21-year-old Continental model, now the backup, whose decline began on a hot day in the summer of 2020 when the squat white building's air conditioner failed. Also failing: the system that was supposed to activate an exhaust fan, and yet another device that was supposed to holler to the staff that the room was overheating.

By January, WDET's signal was bleeding into the broadcasts of nearby stations on the radio dial.

The messages from other stations, Zatina said, were basically, "Knock it off!"

The culprit turned out to be the exciter — low-powered transmitter equipment used to aid the main transmitter in fully functioning and operating — fried when the building overheated.

An exciter for an elderly transmitter does not simply sit in a bin waiting to be purchased. It needed to be created. That pressed the 34-year-old reserve transmitter into service, with its quivering capacitors and no plan B.

While the buzz that frustrated Isabella did not affect streaming, it was apparent to enough callers and commenters that Zatina was being asked to knock that off, too.

The silver lining was that listeners were willing to put their money where their irritation was. WDET's fundraising focused on a replacement and made more than enough headway to pay for as much as $47,000 in ancillary expenses like labor, fire extinguishers, cooling equipment and a system that will identify songs on digital radio dials.

After Kresge stepped up, Zatina said, she phoned the donors who had given specifically toward the transmitter, asking if they'd like their money back.

All declined — which was not only generous but encouraging.

It's too early to ask, she said, but the station is outgrowing its often leaky headquarters in a residential hall on the campus of Wayne State University.

A new building would be nice.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn