Voice of America
THE LONG REACH OF SHORTWAVE
THE VOICE OF AMERICA BROADCAST federally produced radio programs to targeted nations around the world during World War Two. After the war, the programming continued, and expanded through the Cold War, using five powerful shortwave transmitting plants in the USA, boosted by relay stations overseas.
The technology of mass communication has, of course, radically evolved since the age of radio. Now VOA is just one of several federal media entities generating and distributing official content in dozens of languages across numerous platforms, including TV, web, and social media. Four of these five domestic shortwave plants, once the largest radio transmission facilities in the nation, have been abandoned in place, becoming monuments to the waning power of radio. One of them remains online, still pushing the Voice of America across the globe, where an estimated 250 million people listen in on shortwave radios.
Voice of America programming is produced in Washington DC, and the VOA is one of several entities operated as part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which includes Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, the Middle East Broadcast Network, and Radio y TV Martí (which produces programming specifically for Cuba). The agency employs 3,500 people, who work over a wide spectrum of media, including FM and AM radio, television, web, and social media platforms, distributed by radio, satellite, and internet around the world, in more than 50 languages. To do so, the agency operates 19 transmitting stations, in countries that include Kuwait, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Germany, Guam, Thailand, Tajikistan, South Korea, and the Philippines. Some of these overseas facilities have been enhanced by transmitters and parts that were salvaged from the four closed US transmission plants.
The former Bethany Relay Station
The Bethany Relay Station was the first dedicated VOA transmission station to be constructed, going online in 1944. It was located in Ohio, further inland from existing transmission facilities on the east coast that were vulnerable to ship and submarine attack. Bethany was initially powered by six 200,000-watt transmitters built and operated for the government by the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation, the Cincinnati-based company that operated a powerful AM radio station nearby. Using 24 rhombic antennas and two large curtain antennas, the plant broadcast several simultaneous transmissions to targeted regions overseas, including to relays in the Mediterranean that boosted the signal into the Soviet Union.
The facility closed in 1994, and most of its transmitters were shipped to other facilities abroad. The antennas were removed, and the square mile of land was converted into a park and a shopping center. The building has become a museum, focusing on the early days of the VOA, the Crosley Corporation, and local radio and television entertainment history.
The former Dixon Transmission Station
During World War Two, the Office of War Information ordered the rapid construction of two shortwave transmitters on the west coast, in addition to the one in Bethany, Ohio. NBC built and operated this one for the government in Dixon, California, west of Sacramento. It went online in late December 1944. After the war, the site was updated with more transmitters, and ultimately had ten in operation, each capable of transmitting programs simultaneously through dozens of antenna arrays. Transmissions were directed to the Pacific Rim, including Japan, Australia, and the Philippines.
The facility was mothballed in 1979, but broadcast Spanish programs intermittently until 1988, when it became the first of the five continental VOA transmission stations to close. The facility was declared surplus in the 1990s, and was sold at auction in 1998 for $160,000. Since then it has been used by private companies for aircraft communications, but is currently, apparently, inoperative. The Navy has maintained a large transmission facility next to it, broadcasting at very low frequencies to communicate with ships and submarines in the Pacific.
The former Delano Transmission Station
The Los Angeles division of the broadcasting company CBS built this transmitting facility for the Office of War Information (the precursor of Voice of America) in 1944, in the town of Delano, north of Bakersfield. It was nearly identical to the one built at the same time by NBC in Dixon, and like that one it directed its programs to the Pacific Rim and Asia.
Like Dixon, and the Bethany Station in Ohio, it was expanded with more and larger transmitters, exceeding a million watts of broadcasting power by the early 1950s. As with the other two, the federal government took direct control of the facility from private contractors in 1963, as the Cold War heated up. Unlike the other two, Delano was enhanced with television broadcasting capabilities, using satellite transmission dishes. Delano ceased operating in 2007, the last of the three World War Two-era VOA facilities to close.
As with Dixon, its antennas are still in place, though most of the transmitters have been removed and reused. One of them was recently acquired and moved to a broadcasting museum in Bloomfield, New York. The 800-acre site is still owned by the federal government, which is waiting to hear if the town of Delano’s proposal to build an airport at the site will be approved by the FAA. If it is, the towers will have to be removed, and the fate of the main building is unknown.
The former Greenville Transmission Station A
Just as there were two similar shortwave transmitters pushing VOA programming over the Pacific, there were two nearly identical transmitters doing the same over the Atlantic: Site A and Site B, 15 miles apart, near Greenville, North Carolina. They were both built in 1962, as the Cold War was raging through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and atomic testing reached its peak.
Site A was closed in 2007 and was eventually transferred to the state’s Wildlife Resources Commission, which operates most of the 2,700-acre site as a bird habitat, and hunting grounds. The commission had the antennas demolished and removed in 2016, but the transmitter building, behind a fence in the middle of the site, is unused and unmaintained. Most of its transmitters are still in place, though stripped of some useful spare parts. Vandalism and scavenging has just begun.
Transmission Station B
The transmitting station in Greenville, North Carolina, known as Site B, and also as the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station, has broadcast Voice of America programming globally via shortwave since 1963, and is the only federal facility in the USA that continues to do so.
It is the largest shortwave broadcast transmission facility in the country, with nine 500,000-watt transmitters and 39 antenna arrays, with masts as high as 450 feet, in a clearing that covers four square miles. A dozen federal employees keep the transmitters and antenna arrays functioning, often themselves manufacturing spare parts for the old equipment.
The facility typically uses at least three of its transmitters for Spanish programming aimed at Cuba. English language news and music is also broadcast from here to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, and by relays to former Eastern Bloc countries. ♦