Ah, television; the electronic hearth that has dominated American home entertainment — and American culture — for more than 60 years. Today Anderson Valley residents enjoy television delivered via a multiple technologies: cable, satellite and internet. In the Anderson Valley of my childhood in the late 1950s and early 1960s, local folks also depended on technology for television reception and that technology was the Anderson Valley translator.
An explanation is in order here. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, television channels — then 2 through 13 — used VHF (very high frequency) wavelengths for broadcast and these wavelengths traveled in straight lines. Television antennas had to be in line-of-sight for the signal to be received. In addition, the television signal weakened as it traveled, and had to be boosted to be received clearly at distant locations. With Anderson Valley a full 100 miles from San Francisco’s television stations and isolated by the high ridges of the Coast Range, television reception in the Valley was virtually impossible.
Enter the Anderson Valley translator. I believe the translator went into operation in the late 1950s, though it could have been as late as the early 1960s. Situated atop a ridge south of Boonville, the translator received television signals from San Francisco, boosted their strength and rebroadcast them into Anderson Valley. The translator location was marked by a bright light visible at nightfall and through the night, which valley residents used to align their antennas. The translator — if I recall correctly — was a community project and families each paid $25 a year towards its cost. Today the price sounds awfully reasonable, but in 1960 it was real money (gasoline was approximately 30 cents a gallon back then). It was how the valley got television — all four channels (4, 5, 7 and 9) of it.
Or not. Among my parents’ early discoveries upon arriving in Anderson Valley in 1957 was that the property they were buying — due to its location and nearby topography — offered no site from which a television signal could be received. Fortunately, they had a partner in their land purchase who owned a television shop (yes, there were such things back then) and who was determined — location and topography be damned — to have television. Towards this end, he installed an antenna and a signal booster at the highest point of the property and ran wire nearly a mile down the hill to the house. He succeeded, albeit not in the manner he had hoped. The only reception was at night, the picture looked like a snowstorm, sound was non-existent and the lone station received was broadcasting from Phoenix, Arizona. By the time we began living in Philo full-time in 1959, the elaborate antenna system was long gone.
Though many would consider moving from a place with television to a place without difficult, I don’t think we missed it much. At least I didn’t. We Newman kids had plenty of chores to do year-around, lots of forest to explore when the weather was nice and lots of books to read during the winter. I saw an occasional program when visiting friends, but except for The Beverly Hillbillies, none left an impression.
We also had radio. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the very end of the “radio drama” era. We would gather by the radio at 8 p.m. on Saturday night to listen to the only two half-hour radio dramas still broadcast to our corner of the woods; Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. The latter was a favorite: Johnny Dollar was an insurance investigator who had all sorts of adventures. Sadly, by the end of 1962, both shows — the last of their kind — had been discontinued.
Although UHF (ultra high frequency) television was available in some regions earlier, it didn’t come to San Francisco until 1964 or 1965. I am reasonably certain the Anderson Valley translator was upgraded to handle UHF as well as VHF. It didn’t matter to us — we remained television-free in our unreachable — by-television-broadcast-signals corner of Philo until my parents sold the main portion of the property in 1988.
Ironically, new television signal — and content — delivery technology had already arrived. Satellite dishes became prevalent beginning in the early 1980s. Cable would come next, followed by internet television, a 21st century innovation.
The Anderson Valley translator could not compete and consequently was doomed. I’m not sure exactly when translator service was discontinued (hopefully a local reader with knowledge of the events will provide the precise years translator service began and ended in a comment about this article), but my best guess is around the turn of the millennium. It certainly was gone by 2002. The Anderson Valley translator may not be missed, but it was a major step in the transition of Anderson Valley from isolated to wired.