Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Perhaps you’ve seen the videos that have been making their way around the ol’ series of tubes for the last few weeks – the dramatic felling of nearly 50 towers that once held up the antennas for the Voice of America near Greenville, North Carolina?
Here’s the good news: while that site (“Site A”) near Washington, N.C. is now in the history books, its mirror image is alive and well about 20 miles away. For the last couple of decades, Site B, south of Greenville, has been VOA’s only active site out of what was once a three-site complex. And as we discovered on a visit in early March, what a site it is!
The Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station, as it’s now known, entered service in the early 1960s, at a point where the VOA was building the first domestic transmitter sites of its own to replace aging facilities it had taken over from commercial operators during World War II. The basic layout inside here has remained unchanged: a two-story glass-enclosed control room includes racks of audio processing and the links (now satellite, formerly microwave) that bring in programming from VOA’s Washington headquarters. Two long rows of transmitters flank the control room, and at its center is a raised console area, where we see the improvements and upgrades VOA has built here in recent years.
There’s a wide variety of transmitters to be seen here: on one side of the control room sit the GE transmitters that came here from the old GE site in Schenectady, N.Y. These units are constantly being tweaked and upgraded and now boast modern control and monitoring capability that the GE builders couldn’t have imagined back in the 1950s.
Some of the newest transmitters sit at the back on this side – modern Brown-Boveri units that came to this site as recently as the 1990s.
There’s mammoth power-handling capacity at the back of the building, including a recently upgraded service entrance and transformers for many of these transmitters. (The power bill here still tops $700,000 a year.)
On the other side of the control room, it’s all Continental, with a recent paint job that now has the control panels and the glassed-in transmitters sporting a festive bright blue color.
Each transmitter’s power amplifiers and transformers sit in the room behind the glass, looking out at the control consoles and the control room beyond. There’s a 50 kW transmitter at the end of this row, too, that’s been used for DRM experimentation in recent years.
(Compare this layout, by the way, to the very similar configuration Family Stations put in at what’s now WRMI in Florida; clearly the 1970s engineers at Family drew lots of inspiration from VOA.)
You can’t just call up BSW or Broadcasters General Store to get replacement parts for these huge beasts, and so this site has a massive stock of replacement parts and a climate-controlled room just for storing tubes, as well as a machine shop and a garage for maintaining the vehicles that work around this huge site.
Out back, antenna switching happens in a separate 75-by-150 foot building behind the main transmitter building. Waveguides from each transmitter feed into a massive overhead matrix where pneumatically-controlled switches send each signal out to the antenna array.
Pictures don’t do this array justice; it sweeps from the north side of the building around to the east and then the south, where curtain and rhombic antennas can aim anywhere from northern Europe around to Africa and South America.
There are more than 40 antennas available for use here, with towers up to 300 feet tall on more than 2700 acres of land. While this site is 30 or so miles inland from the coast, its signals have a clean line of takeoff to the Atlantic and beyond, though most of the service from this site now aims exclusively southward toward Cuba.
One of the best vantage points to see what’s happening here is up in the observation tower that crowns the main building, and we trudge up six flights of stairs to take in the view.
In the picture below at left, you can see some of the switching setup at the back of the building; below right, we see evidence of a bomb shelter that we forgot to ask about during our tour.
Speaking of tours, while the road leading into the site has some threatening “no trespassing” signs, in recent years the VOA and its government parent, the International Broadcasting Board, have encouraged visits here to spread the word about the work VOA still does over shortwave.
So if you find yourself vacationing, say, in the Outer Banks, make the detour and check out this last remaining VOA transmitter site on the U.S. mainland.
(We’ll have more North Carolina pictures in a few months to go along with this special pre-NAB preview and our midweek Extra showcasing the Wheatstone factory nearby. And don’t forget – our big Vegas Radio Kickoff Party happens this Sunday night at the MGM Grand. If you’re attending the NAB Show, we hope you’ll join us!)
Thanks to VOA’s Macon Dail and Wheatstone’s Mike Erickson and team for the tours!
The Fybush Media podcast is back – for real! Listen to our latest episode right here!
Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re (finally!) back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
Find “Top of the Tower” on all your favorite podcast platforms or right here at fybush.com – and check out our Season 1 Archives, too!
And don’t miss a big batch of North Carolina IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Warsaw, Indiana