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Arkansas PBS adds additional signal to expand coverage area

Arkansas PBS
U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, discussed on Tuesday how funding from the federal CARES Act is being used to expand the number of signals broadcasting Arkansas PBS.

Arkansas PBS can now be watched on a new broadcast signal in eastern Arkansas. On Tuesday, network executives and political leaders gathered in West Memphis to celebrate the new channel going on the air.

With a tower located near Forrest City, the signal extends east to the Tennessee border. Other cities included in the coverage area, broadcast on channel 9, are Brinkley, Wynne, Marianna and Helena-West Helena.

This becomes the eighth signal to air Arkansas PBS programming and is part of a $6.4 million project funded by the federal CARES Act which was passed by Congress to provide COVID-19 assistance. A steering committee created by Gov. Asa Hutchinson approved allocating the money to the public broadcaster, which is an agency of the state government.

Another signal was added a year ago near Russellville. In the next six weeks, two final signals in this project will be going on the air near Texarkana and Harrison, said Director of External Relations Marty Ryall. That will expand the coverage to nearly 96% of Arkansas. Before the project began, the six signals that had long been in place covered only 76% of the state.

U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican of Arkansas’ 1st District, said the pandemic showed the need to have statewide coverage.

“We had some educational issues that we needed to rely on organizations like Arkansas PBS to be a partner in educating our young people, and so they became sort of a force multiplier for when we were shutting down schools,” Crawford said. “We said, we’re going to have to rely on Alternative Methods of Instruction and we leaned on Arkansas PBS to fill that void, but not everybody was served because there wasn’t universal coverage across the state.”

Alternative Methods of Instruction had originally been intended to provide schools with short-term solutions for things like snow days. But as cases of COVID-19 quickly spread through the state beginning in March 2020, Hutchinson ordered districts to close schools for the rest of the school year.

Arkansas PBS responded by recruiting teachers to host programs that eventually grew into five hours of daily content intended for students in pre-K through 8th grade to watch via the broadcast signals or online.

Ryall said that effort was limited by Arkansas PBS’ coverage area. Broadband internet service was also not available in much of the state.

“We wrote and produced educational programming, and of course it was all based on Arkansas-approved curriculum from the Arkansas Department of Education. We broadcast that and it was hugely successful, but the problem was, you know, there are a lot of families out there, they can’t afford cable or satellite,” Ryall said. “They watch by broadcast, so they get it off the antenna.”

Arkansas PBS
A map displayed during Tuesday's event in West Memphis shows the coverage areas of Arkansas PBS' television signals once a $6.4 million expansion is complete.

After getting funding for the expansion, Arkansas PBS officials studied which areas weren’t covered by existing signals and where transmitters could be placed to fill those gaps. Ryall said the new signal for eastern Arkansas is emitted from a tower owned by the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management.

“They built the tower and they maintain the site, but we had to, for it to hold our transmitter and for us to be able to broadcast from it and put our antenna on it,” he said, “we had to pay for some upgrades… but it was that partnership with them that made it really cost effective to do this.”

State Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, said the new signal will also help address a problem brought by a federal deregulation of the industry which in recent years has limited residents in his district to only being able to watch Memphis-based television stations.

“Typically they don’t cover much over here in Arkansas news unless it’s something probably pretty bad,” Ingram said. “At one time we had cable companies that had franchise agreements that were required to carry AETN [which was later rebranded as Arkansas PBS]. They were required to carry the ABC, NBC, CBS affiliate from Little Rock so that we could get the news. But hiding behind federal laws, they discontinued that and that left us in a news desert.”

Ingram also noted the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette only now prints a Sunday edition, which he says has contributed to a “dearth of news.” Ingram said he hopes the addition of Arkansas PBS in the eastern part of the state will help fill the void in news and entertainment.

“It is so great when we can watch the state basketball tournament,” Ingram said, “things that we didn’t get before. It’s great to be able to get the political news from Little Rock, from the Capitol, from Arkansas Week. To be able to see Arkansas-based documentaries; those are all so meaningful for the Delta and this region.”

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.