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 of Russian demonization from seemingly every quarter being aimed at Russian people and businesses 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 firsthand, 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 the 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 meantime, 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, the 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; the first being a dead lithium battery and the second was 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 screwdriver. 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 online 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 soundtrack from the 70s-90s, interspersed with spoof ads 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 to 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 are 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 do 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 antenna switching matrices are also original. A few brief statistics about this site:
Land area is 2,715 acres (1099 hectares).
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.
The 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 are meticulously labeled and tracked. The floors are waxed and spotless, there is no dust on the horizontal surfaces, the workshop is clean, tools are put away, grass and weeds are cut, etc. All of these little details did not go unnoticed and indicated 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 microcontrollers 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 PCBs. The plate transformers are in the back, basically pole transformers, one for each phase. Primary voltages are 4,180 volts, and 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 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 setup 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 ductwork), then runs all the way to the back of the building. Each antenna transmission line comes 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 antenna’s phase relationship to each other can be changed to adjust the takeoff 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, and 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.
I was talking to a friend from Russia about history, my job, and various other things that are going on in my life. I received this reply, which I thought was interesting on a number of levels:
I’m glad we are on the same page about the era of the ‘cold war’. We were interested in your life even more than you in ours. We had almost no sources of information except for ‘The morning star’ which is a newspaper of the Communist party of Great Britain. The Voice of America and the Liberty (or Freedom, I have no clue because for us it was ‘RADIO SVOBODA’) were extremely hard to tune on. All foreign broadcasts were jammed. So to listen to the station you should maximize the volume up to the limit which was dangerous. Soviet houses are not at all soundproof and your neighbors could easily rat on you. Since that time I’d been dreaming of a small radio with could receive a clear signal from abroad. Of course we have the Internet broadcasting now but they often use old recording instead of live air and the signal depends on your data carrier. You should be online, you should have an app and unlimited data on your contract, your phone should be charged all the time. Too many conditions. Unfortunately a lot of foreign sites are banned here and the trend is to make this number bigger and bigger.
I find that perspective interesting. We take for granted our ability to listen to information and listen to different points of view, even those we don’t agree with. There are still trouble spots in the world and some people are not as fortunate. It is very easy to block internet traffic and there are several countries that currently block access to some or all of the internet, for the safety of their citizens, no doubt. Ideas are dangerous.
In the last ten to fifteen years, many large government shortwave broadcasters have reduced or eliminated their programming favoring an internet distribution model. This is a mistake. It is very difficult to successfully jam terrestrial radio broadcasts. Shortwave Facilities are expensive to develop and maintain, there is no doubt about that. However, as the Chief Engineer from Radio Australia (ABC) once told me “HF will get through when nothing else will.” Ironically, ABC has eliminated its HF service on January 31, 2017.
It seems to me that a sort of “Shortwave Lite” version of broadcasting might be the answer. Use more efficient transmitters with lower power levels closer in to the target areas. Such transmitters could be coupled to rotatable log periodic antennas to target several listening areas with one system, thus greatly reducing the number of towers and land required. Solid-state transmitters with a power of 10-50 KW are much, much more efficient than their tube-type brethren.
DRM30 (Digital Radio Mondiale) has not gained widespread use in the MF and HF bands. Like its HD Radio counterpart, the lack of receivers seems to be one of the adoption issues. As of 2017, there are only four DRM30-capable receivers for sale not counting software plug-ins for various SDRs. That is a shame because my experience with DRM30 reception has been pretty good. I have used a WinRadio G303i with DRM plug-in, which set me back $40.00 for the license key (hint for those nice folks at the DRM consortium; licensing fees tend to quash widespread interest and adoption).
Finally, I have advocated before and still advocate for some type of domestic shortwave service. Right now, I am listening to CFRX Toronto on 6070 KHz. That station has a transmitter power output of 1 KW into a 117-degree tower (approximately 50 feet tall) using a modified Armstrong X1000B AM transmitter netting a 15-32 µV received signal strength some 300 miles away. That is a listenable signal, especially if there is no other source of information available. The average approximate coverage area for that station is 280,000 square miles (725,000 square kilometers). That is a fairly low overhead operation for a fairly large coverage area. Perhaps existing licensed shortwave broadcasters should be allowed to operate such facilities in domestic service.
The point is before we pull the plug on the last shortwave transmitter, we should carefully consider what we are giving up.