Engineer closes book on longtime OPB job

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer February 24, 2010 02:37 pm

As OPB’s chief engineer in Northeast Oregon, Al Steffler’s job often requires travel to remote mountaintops in the dead of winter. Above, Steffler relaxes for a moment during a trip to the Mount Fanny transmitter. Submitted photo
As OPB’s chief engineer in Northeast Oregon, Al Steffler’s job often requires travel to remote mountaintops in the dead of winter. Above, Steffler relaxes for a moment during a trip to the Mount Fanny transmitter. Submitted photo
Al Steffler, the man in charge of keeping Oregon Public Broadcasting and other local television and radio channels on the air the past 18 years, is retiring.

No longer will he be braving rain, sleet, hail and snow to fix problems with transmitters on high lonesome mountaintops.

And that’s not all bad.

“When I was younger, going up in the snow was an adventure,” Steffler said. “But as you get older your knees begin to hurt, your back begins to hurt and you start looking for someplace warmer.”

Steffler, 65, was born and raised in Charles City, Iowa. As a young man, he tried college, but came to feel he would do better in a technical school.

 He switched from Iowa State University to Austin Area Technical School in Austin, Minn. From there, he never looked back.

“The tech school looked like it would give me a career. I always liked to monkey around with TV and radio,” he said.

Licensed by the Federal Communications Commission as a general radiotelephone operator, Steffler got a job as operations engineer at a television station in northern Minnesota.

In the days when television stations were just converting from black-and-white to color broadcasts, Steffler was responsible for all station operation and maintenance — and some other things as well.

He switched in commercials, and even got some on-air time.

“I did a sort of Tradio program,” he recalled with a laugh. “There were a few office people around the station, but basically, when you were there, you were it.”

Steffler moved to Montana in 1969, working as an assistant chief engineer first for KGVO-TV in Missoula, and later for KBLL-TV in Helena.

Then he moved up the career ladder, landing a job as chief engineer for KAPP-TV in Yakima. He worked as chief engineer also for KEPR-TV in Pasco.

He changed direction a bit in 1978, taking a job as an equipment technician for General Telephone Co. He operated and maintained analog, digital microwave and fiber optic systems and equipment, always with an eye toward keeping customer impact to a minimum.

The job came to an end in 1987, through no fault of Steffler’s.

“When they deregulated, General Telephone laid off a whole bunch of us,” he said.

In 1988, Steffler saw an ad from OPB seeking a maintenance engineer for Eastern Oregon. Steffler got the job. When chief engineer Fred Leitch retired in 1994, he took over as the man in charge.

His base of operations is a small engineer’s shack on Union Street in La Grande. From there, he and his maintenance engineer, Dana Moore, cover a big territory.

“We’re responsible for a district from The Dalles to Ontario, including 17 radio, television and microwave sites,” he said.

The job involves more than keeping OPB’s educational content on the air, because OPB has a contract to maintain Blue Mountain Translator District equipment as well. That equipment beams signals for television stations in Boise and Portland.

“We do the same work for them as we do for OPB,” Steffler said.

In 2004, OPB installed digital equipment for its transmissions, though for a time it continued with analog broadcasts. Steffler oversaw the change in Eastern Oregon.

Today, OPB signals originating in Portland are transmitted over fiber optic lines. Locally, they are picked up at Eastern Oregon University and beamed to the transmitter on Mount Fanny.

It’s a huge technological change, but in Steffler’s view one for the good. He said digital equipment has its quirks, but is generally more stable.

Over the years, Steffler has kept up with technological changes with help from professional organizations and trade journals. He said perhaps the biggest challenge has been learning to deal with computer-driven microwave equipment.

“You find a lot of equipment these days that doesn’t even have a slot for a screwdriver,” he said.

For a long time after Leitch retired, Steffler was a one-man engineering staff. Later, OPB decided to add a maintenance engineer to the Eastern Oregon operations.

It always helps to have two pairs of hands, but safety is an issue, too, Steffler said.

“A lot of our sites are in remote, rugged country. It became obvious that for safety reasons we needed two people,” he said. “We go places where the cell phone doesn’t even work.”

Moore, who has worked as Steffler’s maintenance engineer the past five years, will step into the chief’s job when Steffler retires March 1. OPB will then hire a new maintenance engineer.

Steffler and his wife of 45 years, Linda, have a daughter who works as a registered nurse in Tri-Cities and a son who is an electrical engineer in Dallas, Texas.

With the kids grown and retirement finally a reality, the Stefflers are planning a move to Arkansas, where they have purchased property fronting a lake.

“I don’t mind La Grande, but it’s 80 miles to launch my boat,” Steffler said with a grin.