Saturday, January 18, 2003

LHS grad beams KU hoops to millions


Huddled in a satellite truck outside Allen Fieldhouse, Matt Roberts and Mike Scarcello were sipping coffee and talking about an upcoming trip to Des Moines.

That same moment, they were responsible for sending TV images of a Kansas University basketball game to millions of houses.


"I could just as easily be sitting in an easy chair in my living room," Roberts said.

Roberts, a 1987 graduate of Lawrence High School, and Scarcello own Freebird Communications, an Olathe-based company that provides one of two independent satellite uplink trucks in the Kansas City area.

For the past two years, they've been hired by ESPN to send signals from Allen Fieldhouse at the speed of light to a satellite 22,500 miles in the air. That takes about one quarter of a second.

The satellite then distributes the signal to ESPN offices in Charlotte, N.C., for distribution to cable companies.

By the time tipoff arrives, most of the duo's work is done. Between 30 minutes and an hour before the game, they enter the correct satellite coordinates into their computers and connect with the satellite, which they call "the bird."

Once that happens, the equipment takes over, though they occasionally have to tweak the signal. At Wednesday's game, ESPN officials called to say some of the white on the screen appeared fuzzy. Roberts and Scarcello adjusted the signal to eliminate the problem.

Heavy rain affects the satellite signal, though Wednesday's snow did not. They did have to clean snow off the dish several times.

"We're the last line out of the fieldhouse," Scarcello said. "What we send out has to be perfect."

The satellite uplink is one of three TV trucks generally parked near the southwest corner of the fieldhouse. One is the ESPN production truck, where directors and technicians determine content for the broadcast. The other is the 6News truck, which prepares the re-broadcast of the game that night.

Roberts and Scarcello were working for KCTV-5 in Kansas City when they decided to open Freebird Communications in November 2001. Since then, they've logged 30,000 miles on their satellite truck and have covered such events for networks as a presidential speech in South Dakota, Hurricane Lilly in Louisiana and the 9-11 anniversary in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, they sent satellite signals from Kansas City to Good Morning America, which was in town to do a story on the weather. On Friday, they drove to Des Moines, where Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was making an early campaign appearance.

"We're anywhere from 200 to 2,000 feet from the action, depending on how long the cable is," Roberts said.

Roberts, a graduate of Emporia State University, has two streaks he's proud of as his company has taken over satellite uplink for ESPN at KU.

The first: "We've never had a problem with transmissions."

The second: "KU's undefeated out of this truck.".

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