RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Despite broadcast satellites and cell phones, the U.S. government continues to transmit that staple of Cold War spy movies — shortwave radio — from miles of transmission towers tucked away in a corner of rural North Carolina.
The last Voice of America shortwave transmission station in the United States spreads across 2,700 acres eastern North Carolina's flat coastal plain, ready in a crisis to blast news to the world's remote corners.
The taxpayer-funded transmission site near Greenville, named for legendary broadcaster and former director of VOA's parent agency Edward R. Murrow, reserves a domestic option for the government broadcaster that has overwhelmingly gone digital or sends its signals from overseas sites.
"The Greenville plant is so big, has such big transmitters and such a variety of antennas, that any event in the world VOA could turn on a transmitter and be broadcasting" to a big swath of the globe from Northern Europe across Africa to Latin America, said David Snyder, 66, Monroe, Ohio. He's a director of the National Voice of America Museum of Broadcasting in suburban Cincinnati and was the supervisor of a similar transmission sister site there that closed in 1994.
The U.S. government followed Germany and Japan into the early world of international communication during World War II. In Bethany, Ohio; Dixon, California, near Sacramento; and Delano, California, near Bakersfield, the government built powerful antenna fields to blast high-intensity electromagnetic waves into space, bouncing them off the ionosphere to rebound back to Earth thousands of miles away. The last of the stations opened in 1942 closed in 2007.
Studios were in Washington, D.C., and from there shows were relayed to the sites in Ohio, California and, starting in the early 1960s, two new transmission farms amid North Carolina forests and fields about 20 miles southeast of Greenville.
The 2,800-acre VOA transmission tract for Site A went silent a decade ago. North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission is expected to acquire it in the coming months.
The commission last month voted to accept a free land transfer from the National Park Service. A council of top elected state officials still must approve the transfer, possibly next month. More than $500,000 in state and federal funds will be used to tear down 160 steel towers and otherwise prepare it for a wildlife conservation zone.
The VOA's remaining Site B primarily broadcasts news, entertainment and highlights of Americana in English and Spanish to Cuba and Latin America, said Lesley Jackson, a spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The federal agency oversees all U.S. media aimed at an international audience. It employs 3,600 people at VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Cuba-directed Radio/TV Marti with an annual budget of $740 million.
VOA alco communicates via direct-to-home satellite, web streaming, mobile phones, social media and by buying broadcast time on more than 2,000 local radio and TV stations around the globe willing to carry its shows. VOA now broadcasts in 45 languages to an audience of about 170 million people per week in nearly 100 countries.
Shortwave radio transmissions are much less frequent, but still used in touchy regions in the world that lack reliable media. So the Broadcasting Board of Governors continues operating shortwave sites in Botswana, Germany, Kuwait, Northern Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the island of Sao Tome off the African coast, Jackson said.
Snyder said he hopes the agency keeps the VOA site in North Carolina on the air.
"If they shut down every shortwave plant in the country, then every transmitter that VOA has shortwave is basically under the control of foreign governments," Snyder said. "In my viewpoint, it's scary to turn the last one off."
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