UPDATE: Champaign’s NOAA Weather Radio station could be back on the air in a couple of months. The National Weather Service office in Lincoln announced Thursday, March 11, that a new lease has been signed on a transmitting tower for WXJ-76. The station broadcasts weather information from Champaign to a nine county area. But it’s been off the air since February of last year. The Weather Service lost its lease on the WDWS Radio tower in southwest Champaign. Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Schaffer says engineers will first make sure their equipment can be mounted at its new location, the WCIA-TV tower outside of Seymour, before going ahead with installation. – Jim Meadows, 3/12/21, 4/25/21
URBANA – Officials at the National Weather Service say they’re in the process of negotiating a lease for a new transmitting tower for the NOAA Weather Radio Station in Champaign-Urbana, which has been off the air for more than a year.
The station, WXJ76 (at 162.550 MHz), went off the air in February 2020, due to the failure of a coaxial cable. It stayed off the air when the National Weather Service lost its lease to transmit from the WDWS transmitting tower in southwest Champaign.
Weather radio stations broadcast local weather information around the clock, and can trigger urgent weather warnings on specially equipped radios. The U.S. (through NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs the National Weather Service), along with Canada, Mexico and Bermuda broadcast FM weather radio services on seven frequencies on the marine VHF radio band, from 162.400 to 162.550 megahertz.
Meteorologist Mike Albano at the Weather Service forecast office in Lincoln says he hopes the current negotiations lead to the resumption of broadcasting by WXJ76 before the year is out.
“We do remain hopeful that at some point here in 2021, that that service is restored,” said Albano. “I mean, that’s our mission. It’s been a source of frustration for ourselves and the general public. So, we are fighting hard to get this service restored.”
In a February 27 statement, the Weather Service office in Lincoln said that work was underway to procure a new transmission tower. The new tower’s location was not announced. The Weather Service said more details would be announced when a lease is signed, or by March 29, whichever comes first.
Albano says there are other sources for urgent local weather information, from smartphone apps and text messaging offered by FEMA and various private services, to weather alert texting services. The National Weather Service offers local weather conditions and forecasts at its own website, weather.gov . But Albano says many rural areas have spotty internet service and lack reliable reception for WiFi or cell phones.
“Fortunately for those who don’t have a smartphone and maybe don’t have cable or Internet, nothing is going to quite beat the power of the NOAA Weather Radio,” said Albano.
When it was on the air, WXJ76 was relied on by a lot of Champaign County residents, according to meteorologist Andrew Pritchard. His Chambana Weather forecasting service provides local weather forecasts for WILL Radio and others in the Champaign County area.
“It does seem like Champaign County takes their severe weather preparedness seriously,” said Pritchard. “And a lot of people do have these NOAA Weather Radios. A lot of folks have been aware, going back to last spring and summer, that there is no NOAA Weather Radio coverage. And they’re aware that that’s continuing into this spring.”
Signing a lease for space on a different tower will be just the first step towards getting WXJ76 back on the air, says John Dwyer, coordinator for the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency.
“Realize that there’s still work to be done about climbing the tower, to ensure that things can be operational, put the transmitter on that tower,” said Dwyer. “And then it’s going to take a tower crew to install it. So, it does take time. But we’re very hopeful that they can get it up and running soon.”
When it was last on the air, WXJ76’s signal served nine central Illinois counties. There are other NOAA Weather Radio stations in central Illinois, but Dwyer says none of them provide a strong signal to Champaign County.
“There’s very few distant stations that people can turn into,” said Dwyer. “If you look at the map (of NOAA Weather Radio Stations on the National Weather Service Website), you can see Champaign has limited coverage from outside transmitters.”
Despite any reception problems, the National Weather Service has moved the broadcast of Champaign and Piatt County weather warnings to its Springfield station, WXJ75 (162.400 MHz). This is being done primarily so that they can be sent out over the Emergency Alert System by local radio and TV stations.
The National Weather Service says it “highly recommends” having multiple ways to pick up weather warnings and information. In addition to NOAA Weather Radio, this can include enabling Wireless Emergency Alerts on mobile phones, monitoring local broadcast media. And using weather apps from FEMA and trusted weather services.