While half the twentysomethings in Silicon Valley are working on a way to bring the Internet to your TV, Dick Baughman, a man old enough to be their grandfather, has another way to hook you up
While half the twentysomethings in Silicon Valley are working on a way to bring the Internet to your TV, Dick Baughman, a man old enough to be their grandfather, has another way to hook you up.
He’s the man behind Dick’s Antennas, an institution as much as a business, who’s been configuring metal signal snatchers on valley rooftops for nearly 50 years. Yes, antennas — those faithful old devices that date back to the days of “The Howdy Doody Show” and warming up the set.
“I can’t drive down a street in San Jose, or in any adjacent city, and not see an antenna I put up,” says Baughman, who lives in the Almaden Valley neighborhood. Just how many has he put up? “I don’t have any idea. It’s in the thousands.”
And he’s still going, buoyed by a little antenna renaissance owing to two technological leaps and one bad economy. When the FCC last year ordered broadcasters to switch to digital-broadcast signals, local stations started putting out crisp, clear signals; including high-definition options. Consumers realized they could receive superb local signals for free. Add in the strain of hefty cable or satellite bills, and over-the-air TV was looking pretty good.
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You can think of all those Baughman antennas on top of all those roofs as small monuments to a guy who is a throwback.
“He’s old-fashioned and he reminds me of my late father in terms of his work ethic,” says John Demertzis, a repeat customer in Almaden Valley. “He will not rest if the customer is not completely satisfied. He will do whatever it takes.”
Most everything that Silicon Valley is, Dick Baughman isn’t. In a land built on vaporware and promises broken, Baughman seems to spend most of his time telling prospective customers what they won’t get if they switch from cable to antenna.
“You’ll no longer get CNN or C-SPAN, Disney or History Channel,” he tells customers. “It doesn’t deliver the Internet.”
In a valley where the hotshots keep score with their bank accounts, Baughman says the only good buck is an honest buck. He’s as likely to tell you how to fix your reception problems yourself — no charge — as he is to take on a job at your house.
“You can’t be in it just for the money,” he says. “It doesn’t work that way.”
And in a place where you are what you drive, Baughman shows up for work in a 1974 Chevy box van that’s been through four engines and, from the looks of it, the war.
“It’s got everything in there that I need,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about scratching it.”
Baughman got into the business in 1963, when he was a young county firefighter looking for moonlight work to help support his family. He caught on with a radio and TV shop that installed antennas. (Ladders, heights, roofs. Nice fit.)
In 1982, the company brass offered to sell Baughman the antenna end of the business, and he took it. Since he retired from the Santa Clara County Fire Department in 1991, installing has been his full-time gig — much to the delight of his customers. (Baughman doesn’t like to say how old he is, but do the math: He retired nearly 20 years ago after a roughly 30-year career.)
“He instantly told me what I needed and told me how to do it myself, if I wanted to, which is great,” says Vern Ladd, a resident of the Willow Glen neighborhood who called Baughman when he lost the signals for some broadcast stations. “He tells me what kind of antenna he goes with here in the valley and where to get them, and to watch Fry’s because they’re on sale.”
He didn’t charge Ladd. And Ladd says he came away with more than some advice on how to get KRON-TV back in his life. He thought about Baughman and his approach to business.
“I think he’s the classic story of somebody who has enough,” Ladd says. He’s not like Silicon Valley celebrities, the CEOs who have more money than they know what to do with and all they know to do is go get some more. “He feels proud that he did a good job, and he doesn’t need any more stuff.”
It’s a lesson the rest of the valley might want to have on its radar. Or one for which it should at least keep its antenna out.
Mike Cassidy is a columnist with the San Jose Mercury News.