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

Disinformation and Shortwave radio

I came across an interesting article on the Engineering and Technology website:

How to defeat disinformation with short-wave radio

The takeaway is this:

“When you’re in an environment where infrastructure has been damaged, where transmission towers have been destroyed or where the power supply to the transmission equipment isn’t reliable and robust, such as some parts of Ukraine, then you end up with a fallback to older equipment, such as battery-powered radios,”

Griffiths, Sarah. “How to Defeat Disinformation with Short-Wave Radio.” RSS, The Institute of Engineering and Technology, 9 Nov. 2022, https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2022/11/how-to-defeat-disinformation-with-short-wave-radio/.

That applies not only to war zones but also to natural disasters or other situations where widespread disruptions occur in communications or power distribution networks.

The article focuses mainly on the BBC’s efforts to get information to Ukrainians who may be listening on shortwave radios in occupation zones. That is an effective use of shortwave radio, to be sure. One problem with this idea; if there are no regularly used shortwave frequencies in the affected areas, who will have access to a shortwave radio? There may be a few receivers around in any given community, but the vast majority of people will not have access to them. The idea that a broadcast service can be neglected for years if not decades, then be quickly dusted off and put into use is simply not realistic. This applies to AM and FM radio as well.

Attention K-mart shoppers…

During the impending doom that is/was Hurricane/tropical storm Henri, I decided to bust out the old Kenwood R-2000. This venerable radio has been in my collection since 1989, when first purchased at the AFEES on Andersen AFB, Guam. Over many a year, it has given me lots of great service. However, last time I tried it a few years ago, the frequency tuning was all haywire and it seemed to be inoperative. I set it aside, as I always seem to have something important to work on. Not so much today.

As I discovered, there were two problems; first being a dead lithium battery and the second being the dirty pots on the VCO stepper, which are common failure modes for these units. I unsoldered the lithium battery and ordered a new one (CR 2032 with leads). The VCO stepper issue was corrected with a few slight turns of a small screw driver. There are a couple of Youtube videos on this procedure. Truth be told, the entire unit needs an alignment, which I will do once the replacement battery arrives. The service manual is available from several sources on line and it gives very good directions on how to perform an alignment.

Tuning around the Shortwave bands, I heard the normal things; some hams sending CW, some good some bad. A few messages from the Air Force Global HF network. On the broadcast side of things, Brother Stair seems to have multiplied… Then I came across an interesting signal on 9395 KHz. KMRT was broadcasting the K-Mart shopping sound track from the 70’s – 90’s, interspersed with spoof adds for “Plummet Mall.” As the story goes, these cassette tapes were saved from the rubbish bin by a store manager in 1992. Now, they are being broadcast for everyone’s enjoyment on the short waves. I can say, I felt like I was pushing that shopping cart down the very narrow isles looking for a pair of Adidas.

This is via WRMI, Okeechobee, Florida.

This was a lot of fun.

I will finish the alignment/repairs of the Kenwood R-2000 and put it back in service in the upstairs equipment rack. Enough of these software driven dongles, it is nice to just listen to the radio without having to boot up a computer.

Commercial Radio Networks changing Satellites

Lockheed Martin A2100 series satellite
Lockheed Martin A2100 series satellite

Westwood One, Premiere, Skyview Networks, et al. will be changing their satellite from AMC-8 at 139° W to AMC-18/SES-11 at 105° W longitude.  More from AMC8transition.com. There are several considerations for this move:

  • Dish design and two degree compliance
  • Obstacle clearance
  • Transponder frequencies
  • Timing

Two degree compliance is going to be an issue for many stations.  Those old 2.4 and 2.8 meter mesh dishes are going to have issues with 105º West because that is a very crowed part of the sky.  From New York, it looks something like this:

Satellite Longitude Inclination Azimuth Elevation Distance
TELSTAR 12 (ORION 2) 109.21° W 0.491° 227.46° 31.09° 38596.91 km
TELSTAR 12 (ORION 2) 109.21° W 0.491° 227.46° 31.09° 38596.91 km
MSAT M1 107.72° W 7.430° 231.14° 38.16° 38011.55 km
ANIK G1 107.33° W 0.013° 225.25° 31.96° 38518.62 km
ANIK F1 107.31° W 0.020° 225.22° 31.95° 38513.76 km
ANIK F1R 107.28° W 0.052° 225.22° 32.02° 38510.37 km
ECHOSTAR 17 107.11° W 0.019° 225.01° 32.08° 38503.29 km
AMC-15 105.07° W 0.025° 222.76° 33.28° 38400.67 km
AMC-18 104.96° W 0.027° 222.64° 33.34° 38400.16 km
GOES 14 104.66° W 0.198° 222.21° 33.38° 38394.57 km
AMSC 1 103.44° W 9.810° 228.37° 43.31° 37616.42 km
SES-3 103.01° W 0.041° 220.41° 34.42° 38307.12 km
SPACEWAY 1 102.90° W 0.032° 220.25° 34.43° 38299.87 km
DIRECTV 10 102.82° W 0.017° 220.17° 34.51° 38292.86 km
DIRECTV 12 102.78° W 0.035° 220.12° 34.50° 38292.93 km
DIRECTV 15 102.71° W 0.009° 220.05° 34.56° 38290.50 km
SKYTERRA 1 101.30° W 3.488° 219.07° 36.33° 38131.32 km
DIRECTV 4S 101.19° W 0.011° 218.24° 35.35° 38228.26 km
DIRECTV 9S 101.15° W 0.014° 218.18° 35.36° 38228.57 km
SES-1 101.00° W 0.016° 218.02° 35.45° 38217.56 km
DIRECTV 8 100.87° W 0.036° 217.88° 35.54° 38211.02 km

Generally speaking, dishes need to be 3.7 meters (12.14 feet) or larger to meet the two degree compliance specification.  For many, this means replacing the current dish.  This is especially true for those old 10 foot aluminium mesh dishes that were very popular in the 90’s because of the TVRO satellite craze.

If the existing dish is acceptable, then the next issue may be obstacle clearance.  Generally speaking the 105 degree west slot (south of Denver) will be easier to see that the 139 degree west slot (south of Honolulu) for much of the United States.  Still, there may be trees, buildings, hills, etc in the way.  Site surveys can be made using online tools (dishpointer.com) or smart phone apps (dishalign (iOS) or dishaligner (Android)).  I have found that I need to stand in front of the dish to get the best idea of any obstacles.  While you are there, spray all the dish holding hardware with a penetrating oil like WD-40, Rostoff or something similar.  Most of these dishes have not moved since they were installed, many years or decades ago.

Transponder frequencies will not be the same, so when the dish is aligned to the new satellite, those frequencies will need to be changed.  The network satellite provider will furnish this information when it becomes available.  This generally requires navigating around various menu trees in the satellite receiver.  Most are fairly intuitive, but it never hurts to be prepared.

The window of opportunity is from February 1, 2017 (first day of AMC-18) until June 30, 2017 (last day of AMC-8).  Of course, in the northern parts of the country, it may not be possible to install a new dish in the middle of winter.  It may also be very difficult to align an existing dish depending on how bad the winter is.  Therefore, the planning process should begin now.   A quick site evaluation should include the following:

Network Satellite Receive Location Evaluation

Satellite:

Satellite Location:

Dish is 2°compliant? (Y/N)

Distance to receiver location:

Dish Latitude:

Dish Longitude:

Dish Azimuth (T):

Dish Azimuth (M)

Dish Height AGL:

Dish Elevation:

Observed Obstacles:

(permanent or removable? Owned or not owned?)

Comments:

A .pdf version is available here. Based on that information, a decision can be made on whether or not to keep the old dish or install a new one.  We service about 25 studio locations and I am already aware of three in need of dish replacement and two that have obstructive trees which will need to be cut.  This work cannot start too soon.