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Spotlight on Broadcast Tower Climbers in New Documentary

"Vertical Freedom" takes viewers to new heights

NATE, in collaboration with Storybuilt Media, has created a feature-length documentary titled “Vertical Freedom,” which highlights the professional and personal lives of six communications infrastructure workers in the United States.

Throughout the film, these cellular and broadcast tower climbers share what compels and excites them about their line of work. Plus, how to overcome every-day danger in order to connect us all.

Ky Nguyen is just one of the climbers featured in the film. He has worked with RIO Steel and Tower out of Alvarado, Texas for the last 10 years.

After the Great Recession, Nguyen wanted to move away from his job in construction and — while he is skilled at his craft now — he was initially hired onto the tower communication service’s team with zero experience.

“I started as a climber and then just kept working my way up,” he said. “Then I became foreman and began project managing. I’m one of those types of guys where, if you want it done a certain way, you have to be with them, showing them, leading by example – so I’m climbing every day.”

Ky Nguyen makes the climb to tower top (screengrab via Vertical Freedom)

So, what does an average work day look like for Nguyen?

Nguyen said RIO does everything from general contracting and structural upgrades to antenna and line installations for both the broadcast and telecom industries. Nguyen personally specializes in those broadcast tower installments, which can sometimes bring his job site up to 2,000 feet above ground.

Often, his work requires heavy lifts, maneuvering materials that can weigh up to 12,000 pounds and clock in anywhere from 50 to 70 feet in height. Nguyen and his team lift such materials by placing a gin pole — a supported pole that uses a pulley and tackle — on top of the tower to hoist up broadcast gear like antennas.

“You climb it from ground up and you rig it with ropes, all the way to tower top,” said Nguyen, “and you use the ropes to pull through your steel cable rigging. And once you rig it with steel cables, you turn the tower into a crane by setting up a gin pole — which is essentially like a crane that is mounted to the tower.”

Ky Nguyen (screengrab via Vertical Freedom)

Despite the immensely heavy loads and high climbs, Nguyen said these broadcast tower installations are usually completed within a week by five-to-six-man teams. Finding and retaining the right people for a team, however, can be a full-time job.

“The turnover rate is pretty crazy because not everyone can do it,” said Nguyen. “It takes a special type of crazy, a certain type of person, to want to be up that high working and traveling on the road. You know, you sacrifice not being home.”

Nguyen said he and his team travel about 300 days of the year all across the states – including U.S. territories.

So, what characteristics does a person need to keep composure at such extreme heights? According to Nguyen, it takes both discipline of mind and courage.

“There’s always going to be the presence of fear, but that’s where courage comes in, and you just power through those things,” he said. “Also, [it takes] the willingness to learn and intestinal fortitude to push past exhaustion.”

The job also takes more than a little bit of strength, especially when completing a 2,000 foot climb up and down a tower in three hours time.

“You’ll have muscles hurting that you didn’t even know existed,” said Nguyen. “I’ve always been an athlete. But what I’ve learned is that none of that matters. Obviously, it helps, but you need to mentally prepare yourself.

“I think you almost have to be like an industrial athlete. Texas sports are huge, so I see it like that. We’re a team.”

Ky Nguyen and a member of his team make the climb to tower top (screengrab via Vertical Freedom)

Nguyen said the filming of Vertical Freedom was cool in the way he got to share his story and parts of his life with the audience, but also in how hands-on the production team was. A mix of drone and camera footage was captured on-site.

“The production crew story built some of the coolest men and women I’ve ever met,” he said. “And the director, Doug, was up there with us — 1,100 feet in the air with me on these towers getting the shot.”

[Related: “Exhibitor Preview: NATE at the NAB Show”]

While there is not yet an official release date set for Vertical Freedom, in February, members of NATE had the chance to see its premiere in Las Vegas. Nguyen said Storybuilt and NATE are pushing for a streaming platform to purchase the documentary before releasing it to the masses.

Nguyen is just one of 15,000 climbers nationwide, serving more than 329 million people in the U.S. He said this is a worker shortage that puts a big strain on the broadcast and telecom industries.

That’s why one of his hopes for Vertical Freedom is to educate others on the unexpected realm of jobs that are available.

“I really hope the public sees [Vertical Freedom] as ‘hey this is a really robust industry that can create a good career for a lot of people,’” said Nguyen. “I hope they see this job as more of a skilled trade versus these crazy adrenaline cowboys as we were seen as back in the day.

“I hope it gets out there and it brings new light to the industry, and it invites people to try and give it a shot to make a career out of it. And it’s a very, very rewarding career. It’s given me an amazing life.”

Watch the trailer for Vertical Freedom below.