VOA to end HF broadcasting

Several places have reported that The Voice of America will sunset it’s shortwave broadcasts in the not too distant future. Boing Boing reported yesterday, based on a paper titled “Broadcast Board of Governors 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan and BBG Technology Update – 2009” received via FOIA last January.

The 2009 study notes that the weekly audience for radio is 101.9 million listeners, TV is 81.5 million and the Internet 2.4 million weekly listeners.  I don’t know how much that has changed in the last two years, but I’d imagine some shift towards the internet has taken place in light of recent shortwave transmitter site closings.

There are several interesting aspects of this report, notably the disparity between what is termed “Classic Engineering” and “Classic IT” fields.  This is the concept that radio engineers toil on RF and transmitters, while the IT guys work with computers.

As the dependence on shortwave continues to wane and the distribution focus shifts to third party operations, satellite and other direct-to-consumer methodologies, the skill sets of some engineering personnel become less and less relevant to the agency.

This issue is further compounded by the relatively difficult transition from a traditional RF, antenna, transmitter design, and maintenance knowledge base to the technologies involved in digital satellite and IP-based networking systems.

Perhaps that is how it is done in government circles, but I have found in private sector, most radio engineers know at least the computer automation systems that run the stations.  Of course, everyone has preferences and we tend to gravitate toward things we like to do, especially in a field as diverse as broadcast engineering.  When I was in the military, somebody posted the “Eleven Rules of Success.”  The only one that I can remember now is this: “Pick the thing that you hate and become proficient at it.”

In order to stay relevant, broadcast engineers have to keep up with the technology while remaining proficient with RF and audio skills.  Computers and automation programs are not terribly hard to understand, but each one is different and operates differently.  Most, if not all automation companies offer some type of training, which is fine.  Nothing can beat hands on installation and trouble shooting for learning the important details, however.

The report also mentions that morale is an issue for several reasons.  First, it is noted that:

Despite several recent high profile station closings, the organization continues to employ shortwave as the most important transmission mechanism to many of the target areas around the globe. Often surge activities are enabled byvadditional shortwave transmissions that end up as an integral part of the ongoing schedule. Effectively, this diminution of transmission resources accompanied by no reduction or even an increase of reliance on this transmission methodology creates overburdened schedules and often the deployment of less than optimal assets for transmission into target areas.

This additional operational burden likely extends to other disciplines within the agency where programming staff must expend substantial additional effort to produce or adapt content for a multiplicity of transmission methods.

In essence, the decision process for station closing does not appear to follow an overt decision and stated plan to reduce shortwave usage.

That is known as the “more with less” paradox.  In the private sector, more with less has been going great guns since the first loosening of the FCC’s ownership rules in 1994.  For those that are used to working in optimum conditions, anything less is a shock to the system.

The issue of low morale is palpable and often present in conversations that address historical perspectives on a particular station closing, transfer of technologies around the network and any other such topics. Precipitated by the long periods of employment that are relatively standard in the Engineering area and perfectly understandable, this grieving process is a natural consequence of the pride involved in creating a state-of-the-art technical facility only to see it being dissected piece by piece as technology continues its relentless creative destruction.

An interesting statement and it shines a light on several things heretofore unsaid in broadcast engineering.  We love our transmitters, as strange as that may seem.  We love our towers and antennas.  Parting with something that has become an integral part of our working environment is difficult to say the least.  Watching something be signed off for the last time and then hauled to the scrap heap is very disheartening, especially if there is no replacement.

On the IT side, things are not so good either.  The main concern is the infrastructure of the IT backbone.  Several deficiencies are noted in the cabling and router; the cabling is in serious disarray and there is only one router for the facility.  There is also other problems noted with personnel and lack of project management experience and/or IT department goals.

Overall, moving into new media fields makes sense.  There are, however, many places where new media is unknown or at best, mostly unavailable.  Moving content delivery from over the air broadcast to IP based distribution may be far less expensive to operate, that is true.  It is also far more susceptible to being disrupted by accident or design.  In those areas where the internet is spotty, shortwave radios are abundant and relied upon.  If the VOA is not on the air, then some other station will be.

I will listen to the shortwave broadcast, but not the web stream

Here’s a secret to all those broadcasters that think streaming on line is the answer to all the worlds problems: It isn’t all that.  I used to like listening to Radio Netherlands (Radio Nederland) on the shortwave.  They have some excellent programs like The state We’re In.  One problem, the only way to get it these days here in the US is via webstream.

The same for many other world broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, HCJB, et. al.  Most of these former big shortwave broadcasters have greatly reduced their operating hours or left the air waves all together.

Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia
Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia

Streaming content on the world wide web is not broadcasting, nor can the quality and reliability be compared.  Web streaming is far less reliable and offers lower quality than does HF broadcasting.  The former broadcasters which have abandoned the airwaves to the likes of Radio China International will say otherwise, but that is their spin on the situation.  Of course, using and maintaining high powered broadcast transmitters is expensive, especially for governments that are faced with tough financial decisions.

First and foremost, streaming requires that I use my computer as a radio while I am trying to do other things on it.  I bit of background on my computer; I have a 8 year old Dell Inspiron 5150 that I purchased when I was working on my degree.  When I got it, I asked our IT department guys what was the best course for buying a new computer.  Their answer was to get the best, fastest processor available because everything else can be replaced/upgraded.  I did just that, with a 3.06 GHz intel mobile P4.  I have replaced the hard drive with a 200 GB unit and upgraded the RAM to 2.2 GB.  The keys have most of the letters worn off, it has very distinctive wear marks on the case where I place my hands, etc.  It has lived up to my expectations for serviceability and then some.

Even so, it does have it’s limitations.  Listening to streaming audio of watching streaming video is not one of it’s strong points, especially when engaged in other tasks.  Often, when listening to streaming, there are drop outs and other interruptions and the audio just doesn’t sound great coming from the computer speakers.  Even external speakers leave something to be desired, quality wise.  Something about the digitized sliced and diced bit reduced stream that I find annoying and worse yet, fatiguing.

We live out in the sticks.  Our local phone company, in spite of being the largest dial tone provider in the nation, has some reliability issues when it comes to their DSL service.  Several times, the DSL goes out for not apparent reason, returning several hours or days later without comment from the TELCO.  If you call in outage, they always act like they never heard of the problem.

Listening to my shortwave receivers offers better reliability and quality than streamed audio.  I know I am not alone in this regard as several others have made the same comments.  Listening to shortwave is listening to real radio, listening to tinny thin audio over a computer or smart phone is crap.

There is an ever dwindling selection of English shortwave broadcasters listenable in North America.  Nature, as is said, abhors a vacuum.  Therefore, in come the religious broadcasters, false prophets, anti government crack pots, hucksters, other governments with money like China and Russia, pirates and others to fill the void.  That is all well and good I suppose, but I do miss that day that I could get BBC news at the top of the hour on 15400 KHz.

Radio Before Broadcasting

Before anyone ever though to click a mouse and play the latest Ke$ha “song,” or spin Stairway to Heaven for the millionth time, radio was used for a different purpose.  Early radio was developed to transmit messages between ship and shore or between continents.  Radio apparatus consisted of spark gap transmitters, which were very simple devices only suitable for sending Morse code.  Some did experiment with voice modulation methods, but the quality was poor.  It was not until Lee Deforest developed the vacuum tube that the state of the electronics art was capable of transmitting voice and music.

ATT developed AM (amplitude modulation) for point to point long distance service over high frequency radio circuit.  This is how early inter continental long distance phone service was first established.  In fact, up until the early 1970’s much of the long distance telephone traffic was routed via high frequency stations like WOO, WOM and KMI to Europe and Asia.  It was this development that allowed Ham Radio operators to begin transmitting music and other programming to their neighbors and the idea of broadcasting was born.

The Coastal Radio stations that for years transmitted and received messages from ships and sea, transmitted navigation warnings, weather broadcasts, news and responded to distress calls have all but faded away.  The operators of those stations often become nostalgic with the memory of sitting in a small room late at night straining to hear what might be faint SOS call under all the other chirping CW notes.  Successfully “working” a distress call is considered the pinnacle of a shore operator’s career.  High Frequency Continuous Wave (HF CW)(Continuous Wave is the technical description of Morse code modulation) has several distinct advantages for distress work.  A small signal can travel long distances and still be well received.  The average life boat CW transmitter had 5 watt output and often they could be heard across an ocean, 1,000 miles away.

I put together a few lists of these Coastal (ship to shore) radio stations.  The first are commercial public stations, these were responsible for sending message traffic to and from ships at sea.  They often had other purposes like transmitting signals point to point or High Seas Telephone service.  High Seas Telephone is just the way it sounds, persons on board a vessel at sea could place a telephone call.  It was hugely expensive and was replaced by INMARSAT, which is only moderately expensive.

Call Sign Location Owner Services Notes
KFS Palo Alto, CA Federal Telegraph/ITT Coastal Sold to globe wireless, ceased operation 7/12/1999
KPH, KET (point to point) Pt. Reyes, CA RCA/MCI Coastal, point to point Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 7/1/1997
KLB Seattle, WA ShipComm, LLC Coastal In service
KMI Dixon, CA ATT Coastal, High seas phone service Ceased operation 10/8/1999
KSM Pt. Reyes, CA MRHS Coastal In service
WBL Buffalo, NY RCA Coastal (Great Lakes) Ceased operation 1984
WNU Slidell, LA Coastal Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 7/12/1999
WLC Rogers City, MI United States Steel Coastal (Great Lakes) Ceased operation 1997
WCC Chathem, MA RCA/MCI Coastal Sold to globe wireless ceased operation 1997
WLO Mobile, AL ShipComm, LLC Coastal, (oil rigs) In service
WOO, WDT (point to point) Toms River/Ocean Gate, NJ ATT Coastal, High Seas and point to point Ceased operation 10/8/1999
WOM Pennsuco, FL ATT Coastal, high seas phone service Ceased operation 10/8/1999
WSC Tuckerton, NJ RCA/MCI Coastal Ceased operation 1978
WSL Brentwood, Sayville, Southhampton, Amagansett, NY Federal Telegraph/ITT Coastal, point to point Ceased operation 1984

This is by no means an inclusive list as at one time there were hundreds of these stations licensed to the US.  There were many inland stations on the Great Lakes and rivers.  These are the most common ones that I’ve heard, heard of and or seen personally.

KPH

Most people mark the end of commercial Morse Code as July 13, 1999.  There is, however, one station, KSM, which still is open as a public coastal station.  That station is a part of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, which operates from the former KPH facilities in Pt. Reyes, California.  KPH suspended operations in July, 1997 while other station continued on for the next two years.

Rectifiers from PW-15 transmitter, courtesy of MRHS
Mercury Vapor Rectifiers from PW-15 transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

Press Wireless was a company used by newspapers to transmit articles and pictures. They developed their own transmitters and operated point to point sites in Hicksville, NY and San Francisco, CA. A few of their transmitters survive today at KPH.

RCA H series HF transmitter, courtesy of MRHS
RCA H series HF transmitter, courtesy of MRHS

The 1950s H and K RCA HF transmitters were built to last. The carrier power is 10 KW and can be used for CW, SSB, and RTTY.

KPH is the best preserved Coastal Station, when the facility closed down in 1997, the US Park Service took ownership and left it mostly untouched.  In 2004 volunteers and former station employees began to restore the equipment to operation.  Eventually, these efforts led to the licensure of KSM, the only operating commercial CW station in the US.  KSM uses restored donated equipment from KPH and KFS.  Restoration work continues and if I lived closer, I’d volunteer my services.  MRHS also operates amateur radio station K6KPH.

WOO

Other facilities survive in parts, the former WOO is home to the  Tesla Radio Foundation and Museum.  Anyone that knows anything about radio will recognize Tesla as one of the founding fathers, perhaps much more so than Marconi, who often gets more credit than is due.  During it’s day, this was a huge facility, connecting North America with Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.  Point to Point service included programming relays for the VOA, Long Distance phone service and so on.

WOO transmitter floor, courtesy of Tesla Foundation
WOO transmitter floor, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

ATT seemed to use the same design for their HF sites, the buildings at KMI, WOO and WOM all look alike, right down to the brown/yellow tile floors.

WOO transmitter, courtesy of Tesla Foundation
WOO (PW-15 ?) transmitter, courtesy of Tesla Foundation

Again, this facility was restored through the hard work of Radio Amateurs.  Unfortunately, unlike KPH, the old CW transmitters where scavenged for parts and none where restorable.

WOO antenna switching matrix
WOO antenna switching matrix

All of the transmitters were routed to this antenna switching matrix.  As you can plainly see, there were many, many antennas at this facility.  There were also several types, rhombics, verticals, inverted cones, etc.  They were (some still are) located in a tidal swamp.  From this matrix, with a few exceptions, the transmission lines were routed through BALUNs which then fed open wire transmission lines.

WOO Ocean Gate Radio transmission lines
WOO Ocean Gate Radio transmission lines

These lines went to various antenna fields pointed at Europe, South America, Asia and Africa.

WCC

The former WCC receiver site is now home to the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center and has the amateur radio call sign WA1WCC.  This is a museum that is open to public.  The town of Chatham, with donations from Qualcomm and Verizon, has endeavoured rehabilitate the old receiver site and operations building.  They have spent a fair sum of money on replacing plumbing, fixing the driveway and other necessary work to turn the site into a historical attraction and provide a center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) on Cape Cod.

WCC transmitting antenna, South Chatham, MA courtesy MHRS
WCC transmitting antenna, South Chatham, MA courtesy MHRS

We used to go to the public beach right next to this radio tower.  It looks like a Milliken tower similar to WICC ‘s towers in Bridgeport. I believe the transmitter site in South Chatham was bulldozed and turned into a wild life refuge.

WLO and KLB are in service with HF voice and SITOR, PACTOR and AMTOR modes but not CW.  These stations are operated by ShipCom, LLC.

Coast Guard Maritime Radio

The US Coast Guard operated a network of Coastal Radio stations as well.  These where to communicate with Coast Guard vessels and aircraft but also interfaced with civilian shipping.  They stretched up and down the east and west coasts, covered Alaska, Hawaii and territories like Puerto Rico and Guam.  They ceased CW operations in 1995 and are remotely operated by the two surviving stations, NMC at Pt. Reyes and NMN in Portsmouth, VA.

Call Sign Location Services CW close date Disposition
NMA Miami, FL Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN Portsmouth, VA
NMC Pt. Reyes, CA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 In service GMDSS
NMF Boston, MA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN, Portsmouth, VA
NMG New Orleans, LA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMN, Portsmouth, VA
NMO Honolulu, HI Limited Coastal, Military, Point to Point 1/4/1995 Remoted to NMC, Pt. Reyes, CA
NMQ Long Beach, CA Limited Coastal, Military 1980 Closed
NMN Portsmouth, VA Limited Coastal, Military 1/4/1995 In service GMDSS
NMP Chicago, IL Limited Coastal, Military 1975 Closed
NMR San Juan, PR Limited Coastal, Military 1986 Closed
NOJ Kodiak, AK Coastal, Military, Point to point 1/4/1995 In service, GMDSS
NRT Yokota, JP Point to point N/A Closed 1992
NRV Barrigada, GU Coastal, Military, Point to point 1993 Remoted to NMO in 1992, then to NMC in 1995

This is by no means a complete list, there are several more stations that existed but were closed by the mid 1970’s.

GMDSS is the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, an automated system consisting of satellites and HF radio that replaced the use of manned listening watches on ship and shore.  A few years ago, the Coast Guard explored eliminating HF services all together, however the public outcry was loud and vigorous, thus they didn’t carry through with the plan.  Even so, the voice weather and navigation broadcasts are computer generated simulated human voices, which are not a good as the real thing, in this former operator’s humble opinion.

Unlike their civilian counterparts, most of these stations where disposed of without ceremony when they were turned off.  Some former Coast Guard Radio Stations were sold off for land, others which were part of existing bases, were dismantled.  The only exception to this is the remnant of NMY (New York) on fire island, now administered by the National Parks Service.

There are a fair number of former Coast Guard radio operators with fond memories of working at these places and the satisfaction of a job well done.

If you are interested in history, check out those sites and or pay them a visit if in the neighborhood.  You may learn something you didn’t know before.

Continental Shortwave Transmitters

I started my radio career working in HF radio, albeit somewhat different than broadcasting.   I enjoy the long distance aspect of HF communications and there is something about the high power shortwave (HF) rigs that interest me. This is a video of a Continental 418E HF transmitter. The carrier power is 100 KW capable of 100% modulation, when means peak output power is 400 KW. This particular model has a solid state modulator, which is in the cage where the guy is walking around. From the video, it would appear they had several blown fuses in the modulator section. The fuses protect the individual IGBTs in the modulator.

This is an older transmitter that is getting upgraded to a 418F. The heavy cable is the connection between the solid state modulator and the RF final section. Depending on modulations levels, it carries around 33 KV.

From the Continental Electronics website that details the SSM unit:

The modulator consists of 48 series connected modules which are switched on or off to provide the high voltage DC and the superimposed high level audio voltage. The switching is accomplished with Insulated Gate Bipolar Transistors (IGBT). A low pass filter follows the series connected modules which removes the switching signals and allows the DC and audio signals to pass to the RF amplifier. Because each of the modules is either in full conduction with very low loss, or turned off, again with very low loss, the overall modulator efficiency is in excess of 97%.

A full description of the SSM is on the Continental Electronics SSM website. It is an interesting read, including the description of the 12 phase transformer setup.

Finally, a video of the VOA transmitter site in Greenville, NC.

This is part 4 of 5, if one wanted to, one could click through to Youtube and watch the rest of them. The VOA stuff is, as the transmitter engineer notes, 1950’s technology. No solid state modulators in these rigs. Those are some old transmitters, still in service and likely to remain that way until the VOA closes that site down, some point in the future.

Like their FM counterparts, Continental HF transmitters are the gold standard when it comes to high power tube transmitters. Sadly, they no longer make transmitters for Standard Broadcast (AM MW).