VOA Greenville – Fifty Years of Shortwave to the World

Written by on August 16, 2010 in Antenna Turns, History, On Sites & Towers - 19 Comments
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Tranquility Base, here. The Eagle has landed. The Voice of America had the world’s largest audience ever when it reported in 46 languages man landing on the Moon. It earned trust when it reported on Watergate and the anti-Vietnam protests. In 1968, Czechs battled Soviet tanks in the streets. When Soviet troops forced a Czech dissident broadcaster to sign off, he told his audience to listen to the VOA. Czech broadcasting was never trusted again.

The phrase Voice of America (VOA) has always stood for a strong, powerful American broadcasting entity.  The United States government intended the Voice of America to provide hope to people around the world and to counteract the propaganda espoused by America’s enemies in war conflicts. In the mid 1990s the federal government began closing or consolidating some large VOA broadcasting facilities. The federal government would like to close VOA site B in Greenville, NC. I hope they choose not to for several reasons.

Recently, I toured VOA Site B and observed first hand both the magnitude of the transmitting equipment and the value its broadcasting can add to the international community. The day I arrived at VOA-B, the hundreds of acres of tall expansive antennas made you feel you were entering another planet. The father of wireless, Guglielmo Marconi, would be proud to see such a place full of great engineering and information for the world. Many wire antennas meshed together to form a tall wide curtain were supported by tall 300 feet towers. Each tower is fed by elevated transmission line (1 inch conducting pipes) 15 feet off the ground. Once inside the transmitting facility, the same degree of largeness is apparent by several “truck size” transmitters.

Open wire transmission lines to a multitude of antennas.

Open wire transmission lines to a multitude of antennas.

VOA B operates in the so called shortwave frequency band where signals radiated by the antenna reflect off the earth’s ionosphere and reach their destination hundreds or thousands of miles away – cell phones do not come close to that range! The VOA may be old by some standards but it is new to those who cherish the iron clad tube technology and massive antennas as well as those who rely on shortwave for critical and sometimes life-saving information. Let us not forget, telephone, cell towers and the related internet infrastructure is vulnerable during emergencies and disasters and the VOA’s former cold war technology is always reliable. Like an old 57 Chevy or 66 Mustang, VOA and shortwave may be antiquated but to some it is new and a look back into passion and handcraft, a breath of fresh air for those who grew up on old time radio.  There are very few electrical engineers who understand how to operate and maintain a large shortwave station like the VOA and keeping the station active is part of the educational process.

Similar to the radio announcer inside a control room, were the many knobs and switches present that allow selection of the various transmitters to broadcast news and information to an estimated 125 million people. VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to a worldwide audience, the specific country receives the signal from a specific antenna, one of many at the facility.

Inside the compound, “RF,” or radio-frequency transmitters lined the walls making up a room the size of a basketball court. Two 1950’s vintage Continental 500 KW transmitters, four 250 kilowatt shortwave transmitters and lower power units of various ages and makes; plus a dozen or more directional shortwave antennas sent programming, ultimately in many languages, skipping off the ionosphere to overcome the earth’s curvature to precisely pinpointed target areas abroad. As we peered into several transmitter rooms, the phrase “real radios glow in the dark” was mindful of large vacuum tubes with glowing filaments.

250 KW transmitter warming up

250 KW transmitter warming up

Outside, at the end of the transmitter building the transmitters feed elevated rows of parallel conductors that seem to extend out into the hundreds of acres to the neverland of wires and poles.  Rest assured when a specific antenna is selected, there is an announcement to the facility and in the outside “switch matrix room”, and hydraulic shafts move conductors from one transmission line to another.

VOA Site B transmitter hall, offices, and switch complex (to right).

VOA Site B transmitter hall, offices, and switch complex (to right).

Transmission line switch, the antenna nerve center

Transmission line switch, the antenna nerve center

Arrays of “curtain antennas,” strung among gigantic steel support towers, were built at VOA site B sometime around 1960. These arrays are oriented at different angles facing South America and Europe and parts of Africa. Before, the automation of the switch matrix, crews had to hustle outside in all types of weather and flip a series of handles by hand in order to change the antenna. Switches would freeze so solidly in the dead of winter that engineers had to attach lit propane torches to poles, reach up and melt the ice in order to throw them. Sudden shifts in frequency came often, too, to outfox Soviet engineers who were adroit at jamming shortwave signals.

VOA Site B from the Google view – 2 miles across!

VOA Site B from the Google view – 2 miles across!

Shortwave radio remains by far the most effective means of reaching audiences around the world, particularly in the developing countries. It is far from an outdated technology, as is sometimes alleged. Case in point is earthquake-stricken Haiti, the poorest and most underdeveloped country in the Americas. When the Haiti earthquake struck, the VOA broadcast messages in French Creole from Greenville Site B allowing desperate people to hear words of encouragement. Many people had no other means of communications.

What the original engineers and planners did at VOA B was to use the inventions that evolved from Marconi and create state-of-the-art technology that enabled professional media people to tell the truth about this great country. It’s a story they believed in – still believe in – and one that resonates with the people. The Voice of America is alive and well today. We hope the VOA Site B will stay on air for many years to come.

And, a footnote to the story:

The original Greenville VOA complex consisted of Sites “A”, “B”, and “C” which formed a triangle around Greenville. The “Edward R. Murrow” receiver and administrative Site C was decommissioned some 10 years ago and is now utilized by East Carolina University for archeology and other programs.  Site A is a twin to Site B and remains intact, but little used, about 30 miles north of site B. All three sites were once connected by a major microwave link that extended to Washington, D.C. for programming and administrative traffic.

LBA Technology provides support to the Greenville VOA in the restoration of now unobtainable transmitter spare parts to keep the old systems transmitting. Read more about LBA Technology capabilities here.

19 Comments on "VOA Greenville – Fifty Years of Shortwave to the World"

  1. Alan Kirschner August 17, 2010 at 12:04 pm · Reply

    Thank you for the memories. I visited the VOA sites in 1970 while attending ECU.

    Alan

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  2. Rick Neuman August 19, 2010 at 9:37 am · Reply

    Nice article.
    I had a chance to visit the Ohio VOA facility before decommissioning several years ago, it was an incredible place. Referencing the pics [above] at Greenville NC, the venues appear to be similar.
    Glad the North Carolina location is still around! A real piece of history!

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  3. LBA August 19, 2010 at 10:45 am · Reply

    Unfortunately Rick, the 28,000-acre Voice of America Site B facility in Greenville, NC is on the verge of being shut down. The Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees all government-funded, civilian international broadcasting organizations, proposed closing VOA Site B as part of the government spending cutbacks. The broadcasting board says it wants to focus on upgrading its satellite, digital and other broadcasting technologies, and closing the Greenville VOA site would save about $3.1 million.

    VOA Site B is THE LAST shortwave site operating in the United States.

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  4. Bob August 25, 2010 at 9:32 pm · Reply

    Broadcasting Board of Governors wants to spend its money (OUR money) on broadcasting to the Internet. There they compete with maybe 50,000 other “Internet radio” broadcasters. On shortwave, they were among the top 2 or 3 leaders, the Big Stations. Seems foolish.

    Losing the last shortwave facility in the U.S. puts all other broadcasts in the hands of foreign countries who can turn it all off.

    Another outrage: I have heard that they plan to give VOA and other United States broadcasting over to a BRITISH company for transmission. That’s like hiring Canadians and Mexicans to guard the White House! Again, foolish!

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  5. Alan Kirschner August 26, 2010 at 9:13 am · Reply

    Foolish indeed to go internet. How many targeted people in poor areas have internet while for years many have had shortwave radios.

    Give away jobs while the at home engineers starve.

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  6. Adriane Collins August 27, 2010 at 11:01 am · Reply

    If BBG gives U.S. broadcasting over to any foreign company, I’m sure that this will be one of the tipping point kind of events. Someone must go to prison.

    News reports said that cute Fox News lady former Bush representative Dana Perino was appointed to BBG. If that is true, as an American, how can she possibly support something this anti-American? When I was in the military, we had to fly on “American carriers” because of some law. Never mind if Air France or Swissair was cheaper and more convenient and faster, we had to protect United or American and give them the money because it came from American taxpayers. Why the h— does that rationale not apply to broadcasting? I hope the few readers of this blog contact their senators and congressmen and Fox News and demand that this foolishness be investigated!

    Alan Kirschner is right. Much of the world does NOT have super-internet. Many countries barely have electric. No matter what, in the years past people were able to beg or buy or make radios to listen to VOA. Try making a computer from table scraps and see how easy that is. If BBG is trying to broadcast only to the top 1/100th of a percent of each country, Internet is cool. Installing a direct line to each of those few houses would be cheaper, though.

    Just ignore the 99+ percent of the populations, the people with the ideals and the sticks and pitchforks and muskets. What a stupid way to do things!

    Seriously: Please send an email or phone message to your congressmen and senators and ask that they look into this and find the real reason for such an idiotic idea. It seems to me that some individual must have a promise of a high level job or a bag of money. This really stinks!

    Calming down a little, yes, I am pissed. Few people know it, but we had aircraft protecting Washington in the days after the 9/11 sneak attack and they were listening to the VOICE OF AMERICA ON SHORTWAVE, not internet. And I’m sure those signals came from a station operated by Americans.

    Anyone who studies communications in the military knows about EMP. If that happens, internet will disappear. Our international links are very vulnerable. So that’s how we choose to speak to the world? If stupidity is not a prison offense, it should be.

    Please please contact your congressional rep.
    There is a limit to what Americans can stand.

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  7. Rajdeep Das August 29, 2010 at 7:02 am · Reply

    Thank you so much for this informative article.

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  8. HowardMBurgers September 28, 2010 at 12:06 pm · Reply

    Unfortunately apart from a few hobbyists, SW listening around the world continues to shrink. As with Medium Wave, it was only a matter of time before some of the original electronic media sources fall silent.

    Greenville has served its purpose well for many years. Time to move on and concentrate where the listeners actually are.

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  9. Adriane Collins October 23, 2010 at 5:49 pm · Reply

    HowardMBurgers, I guess you’ve never been to Asia. I’ve just done a tour there and can tell you that people who earn $700 per year just don’t flock to the big-box store to grab a satellite system or a computer with high-speed Internet. They can, however, buy radios that include shortwave, for about $5. SW listening around the U.S. and Europe continues to shrink.

    Remember Africa? They build wind-up radios there for people who don’t live near enough to a store to be able to buy batteries. Want to wind up a satellite TV receiver? Or a computer?

    Each country still has a group of people who are so incredibly intelligent that they can comprehend news stories that don’t have a blonde announcer or cartoons. Some can even absorb more than 140 characters at once!

    In Asia, China continues to EXPAND its shortwave capabilities. A number of other nations are doing the same there. It’s the only way to cover Nepal’s remote areas, for instance. India has all sorts of technology but they also maintain shortwave.

    Whenever there’s something better, listeners and viewers will probably ignore shortwave. But there’s NOT always something better. Satellites and undersea cables fail (and can be targeted.) Local radio and TV stations can be shut down by governments or wanna-bes.

    Concentrating on “where the listeners actually are” makes sense, especially for a commercial station. Broadcasting to the world is mandated by the VOA Charter, though, which is United States law.

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  10. tonycrake March 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm · Reply

    VOA has always been broadcast by foreigners! I used to work for the BBC (like in England Ok ? ) in the 60′s on Short Wave TX. MOST of what we pumped out WAS VOA !!!

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  11. Bill Hoisington July 28, 2011 at 7:21 pm · Reply

    I was one of the 13 Engineers in the late 80s to train in Greenville Site A before spreading around the world. Sorry to learn that everything is gone. Spent many, many hours training and would have finished my career in Greenville if I had been given the chance. What a waist of money to shut down all of those new high power transmittes purchased in the 80s. We just don’t seem to learn anything in this country.

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  12. David Kaye November 20, 2011 at 3:51 am · Reply

    Shortwave is horse & buggy technology. Nobody listens to shortwave anymore. Streaming on the Internet means that local stations can take the feed and broadcast locally to their communities. This is what the BBC now does across America.

    Every major SW broadcaster: BBC, Radio Netherlands, Radio Canada, Radio Australia, RAI, Deutche Welle — all of them have either severely cut back or totally eliminated shortwave broadcasting. It’s just not economical in today’s world, especially when nobody is listening.

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  13. Doug Swoboda January 8, 2012 at 9:15 pm · Reply

    My Name is Doug Swoboda. My dad Maximillian A Swoboda was 1 of the original 8 families that moved to Greenville in 1959 to build the VOA project. He passed away in 1991 but I have many articles and memorabilia on these projects. He worked at Site C and even-though I was only 7 thru 13 years old at the time I remember going to work with him in the summer and on weekends to oversee the progress on the construction and installation of equipment. Some of the original families were Fred Blackburn. Walter Gray.Ben Jones. The Kondrackies Dee & Marge Sencindivers and Carr Moore. This was as I remember about a 27 million dollar project at the time and was a state of the are facility. It is sad to see the phasing out of these 3 sites due to more modern technology and lack of Government funding. We left Greenville and were transferred to Washington D.C. where at the studios in the HEW building he oversaw and designed the equipment for the master control center affectionately called The Bubble.

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  14. Doug Swoboda January 8, 2012 at 9:18 pm · Reply

    @Bill Hoisington – Ben: Read my post on the VOA website below.Did you know my dad?

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  15. Bill Hoisington January 26, 2012 at 7:30 pm · Reply

    No, I didn’t remember your Dad.
    When did your dad
    work forVOA? I spent most of my
    time at site A. Was shipped out
    to Belize and after 48 hours
    decided living out of the country
    was not for me.

    Bill Hoisington
    4706 Young Rd
    Crestview FL 32539

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  16. Sheldon March 14, 2013 at 5:10 am · Reply

    Doug,

    Some of the names I remember, some of the folks I knew. John Kondracki and Carr Moore were at Greenville when I got there in early 1979.

    I had had some communications with David Sencindiver, as he and Charlie Brown at the AP office in Raleigh knew each other. Blackburn, Jones and Gray, I did not know.

    I was TDY to Greenville, when C Site was shut down and one of the last things I did was to shut down the DC power supply for the large audio console in the pit at C Site. I spent many a shift running that console.

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    • Doug Swoboda April 1, 2013 at 8:28 pm · Reply

      Sheldon: We were in Grenville from 1959-1965. During the initial set up and construction of the VOA project. I remember the downtown office across from the court house meeting with Tom Rivers for architectural design. Nello -Teer in Kinston doing much of the excavation and rigging of the curtain antennas. I was young then but the equipment was impressive. It appears there isn’t much left of what was such a grand project is there? I often think of driving back to see what it looks like now. David Sencindiver was Dee’s son. He also had 2 daughters Debbie & Margaret. Hid wife Marge was my kindergarten teacher at St Raphael s school. Is there some type of museum in Grenville to the VOA. Fred Blackburn was the director the Site C. I remember him as the big cheese there. I saw an obituary for Carr Moore about a year or so ago. I think he was 91 when he passed away. Ben Jones also passed away there in 1963 or so, It is funny you powered those consoles down. Max helped design a lot of that equipment and oversaw their installation in the early 1960s

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