I read with interest the Radio World Article: Why reviving Shortwave is a non-starter. The main premise of the article is that reviving Shortwave broadcasting to Russia is just wishful thinking. Since I am still in contact with persons in Russia, I figured I would attempt to ask them what they thought about it (without putting them at risk, of course).
The short answer; the opinion by Daniel Robinson and Keith Perron is correct. Shortwave is a non-starter in Russia. I asked a series of questions of my Russian friends and received the following answers:
Question: Do Russians own AM/FM radios?
Answer: Yes, especially those with cars. Most listening to analog AM or FM radio is done in cars and sometimes at work wearing headphones.
Question: How about Shortwave or Longwave sets?
Answer: Amateur radio operators and some hobbyists may own these radios, but not the general population.
Question: Are there any left over shortwave sets from Soviet times/the cold war period?
Answer: Not likely, and if there are, they probably don’t work. Soviet equipment was not high quality.
Question: What about listening to the radio at home?
Answer: Not very many people do this. Most people watch TV while at home or stream movies.
Question: Where do most people get their news?
Answer: The state media TV services (Russia-1 or Channel-1). A few people may stream news from overseas, although this is getting harder and harder to do. Anyone who does this will likely use a VPN.
Question: How many people can find, download, install and configure a VPN?
Answer: Mostly young people will do this, but it is getting harder to find VPN apps. They are getting removed from on line sources and people are afraid to install them on their mobile devices in case they have interactions with the police. Approximately 10% might be using a VPN.
Question: Could Russia disconnect the internet completely from the rest of the world?
Answer: Yes, but it would be difficult. The internet in Russia was not designed to do this the same way as say North Korea or the Great Firewall of China. There are many physical connections out of the country and not everything is well documented. It is much more likely that they will block, censor and track users rather than completely disconnect.
Question: Are there any sources of outside information available in Russia right now?
Answer: For those that are searching for it, yes but likely not for much longer.
Question: If Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty where available on AM/FM or Shortwave, would people listen to it?
Answer: No one cares. Unlike during Soviet times, no one really cares about western news or opinion. Things changed in 2014 with the first set of western sanctions. The cultural ministry (Roskomnadzor) began blocking access to internet sites they deemed detrimental. There were few independent media voices left. With the 2016 US election and anti-Russia investigations, most Russians believe that the west is turned against them. The news, as presented on Russia-1 is believed as truth.
As a radio professional, I believe in the medium including HF broadcasting. The point of my Russian friends; even if the programs were directly receivable via radio (of any type), most Russian people would ignore them. It is not a technical matter of getting programming to them. It is more a perception problem, brought on by years of propaganda and negative press from the west. If shortwave had been reinstated in 2007 when the first signs of censorship began to appear in Russia, things might be different. Instead, no one seemed to notice or care.
HF broadcasting, like all radio services, can be effective when nothing else works. Much of the VOA’s HF service is targeted to Africa and Cuba, two places that do not have a high percentage of internet users. It is very expensive to build and operate. To revive HF, it will need to get smaller and less expensive. DRM (Digital Radio Mondial) shows promise in this regard, but there is a dearth of available receivers (a quick search on Amazon nets zero usable results). Instead of trying to burn holes through the ionosphere with giant 500 KW AM modulated transmitters coupled to huge antennas with +20 dB gain or more, smaller digitally modulated transmitters with simpler antennas could net the same or better results. If these systems were placed closer to the intended target audience, so much the better.
Clearly, the world has changed. It is time to re-examine (and perhaps update) some of this old technology for 21st century use. Whatever happens, there are no short, quick, or easy answers. It took decades of time and a momentous effort to bring western ideas to the communist block. This was all undone in a few years by budget cuts.
I’ve made no secret here over the years, I have many friends and acquaintances in various parts of Russia. It is a fascinating culture with great art, literature and music. I am watching with growing concern, the level or Russian demonization from seemingly every quarter being aimed at Russian people and business here. It seems that a great number of people have lost perspective. It also shows the power of propaganda. Theirs and ours.
To be sure, watching the situation unfold in Ukraine on social media is disconcerting. No one in their right mind can look at those images and say “Oh, that is normal.” It is greatly disturbing. It is also war. All wars are like this and have been like this since the beginning of time. The images of dead civilians, bombed out cities, mass graves and so on are broadcast to the world on social media in almost real time. That is the difference this time.
This situation in Ukraine is complicated. It is a war of gas and ambition. There are many questions, good questions which can be asked; Why is NATO a concern? Why does Putin feel threatened by the EU? What is the Azov regiment? What did the natural gas fields discovered in 2010 have to do with the 2014 overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych? How much corruption is there with the Zelenskyy government? How did the US know that there was to be an invasion? What, if any, does the Bo Biden/Berisma thing have to do with this?
I mentioned in a previous post about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty shortwave broadcasts during the cold war. I am heartened to see that there is a private effort to use the facilities of WRMI to broadcast information to that area of the world. The VOA has stated that they are not making plans to make broadcasts via shortwave because few people in that part of the world have shortwave receivers. I know first hand, that is not true. There are many shortwave sets still in existence and there are people who remember how to hook them up. As Russia becomes more isolated from the world, those shortwave sets are going to get dusted off and put into service.
Currently, WRMI is transmitting Russian language broadcasts on 7730 KHz from 0200-0500 UTC and 9370 KHz from 1900-2000 UTC. They have funding to buy broadcast time into summer months. They are also leasing time on 1395 KHz medium wave, which I think is the public broadcaster in Armenia:
On the downside, shortwave transmission facilities are expensive to build and run. Unlike internet distribution, there is no way to measure audience engagement or gather audience data. On the upside, it is very difficult to effectively jam HF signals across large areas. It is also very expensive and it would take a fair amount of time to rebuild the old soviet jamming networks. In the mean time, people will be looking for good sources of information about a number of topics.
The one thing that I do know, Putin is the aggressor and he cannot be allowed to win.
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.
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.
I took a brief vacation last week along the coast of North Carolina. It was relaxing and fun to be sure. I was also aware of and slightly curious about the Voice Of America shortwave site, a slight distance inland in Grimesland, NC. Thus, I made arrangements visit the facility on my way home. Chief Engineer, Macon Dail, was gracious enough to give us the guided tour. The facility is an engineering marvel. The scale and complexity is enormous. The entire facility is scrupulously maintained. Many of the transmitters and other equipment have been upgraded to make them more functional. I tried to take meaningful pictures, but in many cases, they simply do not to justice.
Officially known as the Edward R Murrow Transmitting Station of the International Broadcasting Bureau, VOA Site B was constructed in 1961. Six of the eight shortwave transmitters are original to the construction of the building. The other two (BBC SK55 and AEG S4005) were added in 1986. All of the dipole curtain arrays, rhombics, transmission line and the antenna switching matrix are also original. A few brief statistics about this site:
Land area is 2,715 acres (1099 hectare).
Over twenty six miles (forty two kilometers) of 300 ohm open transmission line rated at 500 KW.
Two of the dipole curtain arrays can slew azimuth and take off angle.
Three Continental Electronics 420A 500 KW Doherty modulated transmitters.
Three General Electric 4BT250A1 250 KW high level plate modulated transmitters.
One Brown Boveri Company (BBC) SK55C3 500 KW PSM transmitter.
One AEG Telefunken S4005 500 KW PDM transmitter.
Antenna switch matrix connects any of the eight transmitters to any of the thirty six antennas
While we were there, both of the newer transmitters were on the air, running at 250 KW. The GE transmitters are used as needed and the Continentals are rarely used due to age, difficulty to tune, change frequencies and gross power inefficiency.
The station staff has, out of necessity, fabricated some very cool upgrades to the transmitters and facility. The first of which is the alarm annunciator, which is based on a Star Trek (Original Series) sound scheme. Once or twice I heard the bridge general alarm go off, followed by a female voice stating the problem: “GB8, OFF AIR.”
The GE 250 KW transmitters have been retrofitted with a computer controlled auto tune system for frequency changes. The antenna switch matrix controller has been replaced by a PLC based system. As the transmitters are so old, many of the transmitter specific parts need to be machined or fabricated locally. The rest of the transmitter parts are stocked in a large parts storage room, all of which is meticulously labeled and tracked. The floors are waxed and spotless, there is no dust on the horizontal surfaces, the work shop is clean, tools are put away, grass and weeds are cut, etc. All of these little details did not go unnoticed and indicate great pride by the staff in the facility itself.
The heart of the facility is the control room which consists of four rows of equipment racks and a central operating position elevated above floor level. Arranged around that are the eight shortwave transmitters in two long transmitter galleries.
From this point, the operator can view all of the transmitters in the two transmitter galleries.
Around the control operator are arranged a series of computer monitors showing various station function status.
The equipment is installed into the equipment racks by type; one rack contains the frequency generators for each transmitter, the next contains first stage power amplifiers, the next contains audio processors and modulation monitors, etc.
The audio comes from the VOA studios in Washington DC via satellite. There are Comrex Access links as a backup and the Gentner EFT-1000s are used as a backup to the backup. Prior to 1995, an eight hop microwave system covering the 300 mile (483 KM) distance was used.
The station staff has created a computer controlled tuning system for the GE transmitters. Each transmitter can change frequency several times a day, during each frequency change, all of the transmitter stages need to be retuned. When done by hand, this can take several minutes to accomplish. The computer system uses follow pots and micro controllers to set the tuning elements to specific values. They can be touched up by hand if needed. A frequency change can usually be done in less than one minute.
The 2nd IPA and PA input tuning work the same way. The copper sleeve slides up and down over the coil to change resonant frequency. The vapor cooled tube sits inside the tub at the top, anode facing down. These tuning sections are a mechanical nightmare according to Macon. One of the reasons why VOA site A was closed down was due to the frequent frequency changes at that site causing excessive wear and tear on the old GE transmitters. This particular transmitter was being repaired; the staff was rebuilding a tuning network bypass capacitor assembly
The GE transmitter transformers still contain PCB’s. The plate transformers are in the back, basically pole transformers, one for each phase. Primary voltages is 4,180 volts, secondary rectified voltages are 12 KVDC (PA plate supply) and 15 KVDC (modulator plate supply).
While we were there, the newer transmitters were in operation transmitting Spanish language programming to the Cuba on 13,605 KHz and 11,930 KHz. Currently, the Greenville site is broadcasting mostly Spanish language programming with some English, French and Bambara language programming for Africa.
A fact that does not escape the notice of the staff.
The three Continental 420A transmitters (GB-1, GB-2 and GB-3) are essentially a pair of 250 KW amplifiers combined. As these are Doherty power amplifiers, frequency changes are very difficult to effect. These transmitters spend most of their time in backup service.
The antenna matrix building is very impressive. Routing eight 250 or 500 KW transmitters to 36 different antennas takes a bit of doing. Mechanizing that set up is no mean feat. The pictures I took of the antenna matrix building do not show the size and complexity of the system.
For that, we need a satellite photo:
Basically, the transmitter building is in the lower left hand side of the picture. The transmission line go over to the antenna matrix building (looks like rectangular duct work), then run all the way to the back of the building. Each antenna transmission line come into the building and runs to the other side. Pneumatic arms then couple the transmitter line to the antenna line. This is all controlled by a custom made PLC and controlled by the operator from the main operating desk.
Some of these lines are very long but have low loss due to the air dielectric. The most used antennas are the dipole curtain arrays.
These consist of a series of broadband dipole antennas arranged side by side and stacked three or four high. behind those antennas is a reflector screen. There are two curtain arrays that are slewable. The dipole antennas phase relationship to each other can be changed to adjust the take off angle and azimuth, thus giving optimum coverage to the targeted area.
In this picture, the dipole antennas are to the right. Behind them is the reflector screen, behind that is the antenna feed system. Each antenna feed goes through the reflector screen to the center of the dipole antenna.
Each array requires four towers to support it.
The entire antenna field is viewable from an observation platform on the main building
The entire facility is very impressive. The truth is, I could have spent several more hours there, but I know that people have jobs to do and I felt that I had taken up enough time. We often forget in this country that not everyone in the world has access to the internet. Shortwave broadcasting has a long reach and is not subject to government controlled firewalls or other forms of electronic censorship. Currently, the Greenville site is broadcasting mostly Spanish language programming with some English language programming for Africa. There are many areas in the world that are in political tension right now, some startlingly close to home. Places like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela have been in the news lately. I do not see a time when these long reach broadcasting services will not be needed. Becoming a welcome source of good information for those affected people is good for brand USA. It would be money well spent to invest in a couple of new Continental 419H (still made in the USA) DRM capable transmitters for this facility. While the old GE and Continental units are great, the time may come when they are really needed but unavailable due to being down for repair.
Special thanks to Macon Dail for his time, knowledge and patience.