Vagabond Able; The story of the USCGC Courier

The VOA and shortwave broadcasting story is interesting from an engineering perspective. Over several decades, the US government spend many millions of dollars building out transmitter sites both overseas and in the continental US to transmit information behind the iron curtain. The Coast Guard Cutter Courier WAGR-410 was a converted cargo ship fitted out with an RCA 150 KW Medium Wave transmitter on 1259 kHz and two Collins 207B1 35KW shortwave transmitters in the cargo hold.

President Truman standing in front of an RCA BT-150, 150 KW AM transmitter on board USCGC Courier, 1952.

The ship had various wire aerials, including the Medium Wave antenna supported by a barrage balloon.

From September of 1952 until 1964, The Courier was anchored primarily off of Rhodes, Greece broadcasting programs into the Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. This arrangement made it difficult to jam, although expensive to support and maintain.

Coast Guard guys, operating a Collins 207B1 Shortwave Transmitter

It was, however, just one of the methods of broadcasting used.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, VOA, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty built extensive sites in Bilbus Germany, RARET in Portugal, Tangiers, Tinang in the Philippines, Morocco, Udon Thailand, Greenville Site A and B in North Carolina, Dixon and Delano California, Bethany Ohio, etc. Many of these sites supported multiple curtain arrays, rhombic antennas used to receive programming, generators, living facilities, etc. In other words, no expense was spared.

In Rhodes, Greece; eventually the transmitting equipment from the CGC Courier was transferred ashore as a VOA relay site. The Courier then returned home.

Transmitter control operator position, USCGC Courier

The point of the story; a lot of time, effort, and money went into broadcasting information to the Soviet Union and its satellite states over the period of four decades. From what I am told (by people who lived through that time period), the payoff really occurred in 1986, when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident happened. State-run Soviet radio and television were broadcasting Swan Lake, while RFE/RL had useful information including where the worst of the radiation was spreading, the wind direction, and how to protect humans from radiological hazards. For many average Soviet citizens, this was the tipping point and the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable from that point forward.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of these sites were shut down and the facilities were torn down because the cold war was over. Shortwave broadcasting was seen as expensive and unnecessary. Unfortunately, many warning signs were missed along the way and the present occupant in the Kremlin has wild dreams of a New Russian Empire. To revive shortwave in the 2020s would require another monumental and sustained effort starting with getting good receivers into the right hands. Shortwave broadcasts could become an alternative information source, especially if the Russia-Ukraine war becomes a protracted draw. However, it is not simply a matter of turning a few transmitters on and scheduling some Russian language programming.

Could the Russian state propaganda machine be engaged and defeated; yes. Will it be quick and easy; no. Is it worth it; yes. The real problem is apathy. The Russians have been subjected to terrible governance since pretty much the beginning of their existence. How to overcome that apathy and the corresponding sense of helpless victimhood of the Russians themselves is the question.

Regarding Vagabond-Able, after the USCGC Courier returned to the US, it was used as a training ship until 1972, when it was decommissioned.

USCGC Courer WATR-410/NFKW

From the not too distant past…

And when such things were important:

Important Memo

While cleaning out a closet at home, I found a 3.5-inch disk with some interesting memos. When I left WGY in the spring of 1996, I made a backup copy of all the items in my documents folder. I figure it was an intelligent thing to do since I was still working for the same company in the role of Director of Engineering.

In those days, management wanted a precise accounting of all off-the-air incidents. The studio was staffed with a board operator who monitored the air signal at all times. Anytime the carrier dropped, there would be a note in the transmitter log. Those 5 second interruptions are likely due to thunderstorms. Lightning would strike somewhere nearby inducing an EMP on the tower. The venerable MW-50B would kill the PDM for a brief period as protection from VSWR. If I were at the transmitter site, the insulators in the guy wires would start crackling anytime a storm was within 10 miles of the site.

The helium balloon incident involved one of those metallic helium party balloons which escaped and ended up tangled in the 240-ohm open wire transmission line. This caused multiple VSWR trips for both the main and backup transmitters. I remember pulling up to the site and having a bit of a chuckle. By the time I got there, the balloon had mostly been burned into oblivion by the RF and the station was back on the air.

Another interesting item is our standard reception report form letter:

WGY reception report letter; name and address redacted because of the internet

These were printed out on WGY letterhead and mailed. I sent out several of them every week. I think the furthest away was Cape Town, South Africa.

Automation Systems

Radio Automation Systems are nothing new under the sun. As Marconi tapped out his famous S, he was likely thinking “We should get a machine to do this…”

Broadcast stations have been installing different types of automation since the mid 1950’s and early 1960’s.  It was touted as a way to free up announcers so they could do more important things.

While cleaning out an old studio/transmitter building and getting things ready for demolition, I found a stash of old product brochures for various automation systems from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  It looks like the previous owner used to go to the NAB every year.  How many radio guys got their start on the overnight shift changing out reels?  I know a few.

Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965
Gates automation system brochure, circa 1965

The Gates Radio Corporation had a fairly standard reel to reel system in three different configurations.  These systems were pretty pricey in their day.  According to the 1966 price list:

  • The Automate 244 cost $7,275.00 ($58,837.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 484 cost $12,210.00 ($102,946.00 in 2020)
  • The Automate 1007 cost $17,150.00 ($138,799.00 in 2020)

Those are for stereo systems, mono systems cost about $500.00 less.  Each one of those systems ran one station.

Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel
Gates Automate 244 events thumb wheel

The larger the system, the more events it could trigger.  I have never run into one of these in the wild.

Long form satellite shows began to surface in the early 1980’s. Things like all news formats and overnight talk shows.  I have had nightmares were everyone walks around saying “This is Larry King, you’re on…” while UFO’s fly overhead and next door neighbor, Jim Hightower, buries PCB’s in his back yard not more than 200 feet from his house.

Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system
Broadcast Electronics Control 16 radio automation system

Broadcast Electronics had the Control 16 system in the 1980’s that ran off of a very basic computer system that could handle 3,000 events with the standard RAM configuration and up to 9,999 events with additional RAM.  This was ideal for multiple program sources; music on reel machines, satellite syndicated talk or music formats, etc.  No longer were these machines simply running the overnights.

Schaffer 901 radio automation system
Schafer 90x radio automation system

Schafer is perhaps the most know analog tape automation, at least to me.  I know of several of these systems that were in operation through the mid 1990’s.  By this time, long form satellite music formats had become the rage.  However, there were still a few stations using reel to reel music services.

I particularly like this flyer from IGM:

IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971
IGM (International Good Music) brochure, circa 1971

By the mid 1990’s, these tired old dinosaurs where being removed.  Still, the mechanics of the operation were a thing to behold.  It was nice because you could hear the relays snap shut after decoding a 25/35 Hz tone or one of the Mutual Radio be-doops.  The cart-o-matic would chug through the break until the liner fired and then back to the bird.  If there were any issues, one simply needed to stand there and watch which part of the machine malfunctioned.

Schaffer logging system
Schafer logging system

Computer based systems like Computer Concepts DCS, Arrakis Digilink and Audio Vault came along, which got rid of the analog tape.  Instead they stored audio on hard drives.  Those early systems hard drive space was a premium, so usually at least 3:1 compression was needed to fit all the commercials onto the drive space available.

My first brush with Audio Vault was in 1994 at WGY in Schenectady, NY.   It was a pretty good system if you could understand the .ini files.  As the BE tech support guys used to say “You can program it to turn the coffee pot on if you wanted to.”

Nowadays, what used to be a studio location is more akin to a content distribution node.  This rack combines music and commercials stored locally on hard drives with out of town voice tracks and serves as the program source for eleven radio stations.

Radio Automation, 2020 style
Radio Automation, 2020 style

It works remarkably well, as long as the windows operating system stays functional.

Gone and apparently forgotten

Can a 50,000 watt AM station disappear from the airwaves and no one notice?

The answer is yes, if you live in the Albany, NY area.  WDCD, 1540 KHz, (formerly WPTR) has surrendered its license to the FCC last Friday, September 28, 2018.  Seventy years on the air and quite the legacy as a Top-40 station in the 60’s and 70’s.

Unfortunately, the station had fallen on hard times the last few years, being silent twice for long stretches of time.  In the end, I suppose it was simply time to pull the plug.

This was my first CE gig in the early 1990’s.  What I remember was, I had a lot of fun working there.

So long and thanks for the memories.