VOA Greenville – Fifty Years of Shortwave to the World
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.