This is the full-length version of an article that appeared in briefer form in the print edition of Radio World.
The Voice of America’s Delano shortwave transmitting station is difficult to ignore. Even though it’s set back nearly two miles from California’s Route 99, the massive metal antenna structures rising from the almond groves and citrus orchards can’t help but command the attention of motorists. The sheer size of the installation makes it appear intriguingly close to the highway, yet few motorists ever stop to investigate. After the sun sets, the station begs attention with the bluish-white pulsing of strobe lights and red beacons, too numerous to even begin counting from a moving car.
If locals in the nearby town of Delano are asked about the steel appurtenances and the lights, most answer that it’s some sort of government facility. Perhaps there’s a little secrecy involved — some kind of a big radio station maybe, or something to do with radar, or a cold war left-over.
Should an extra-curious motorist decide to exit the main highway and meander along the series of right-angled section-line byways leading to 11015 Melcher Road, he or she can’t help but be impressed by the bulk of the buff-colored building and the acres of antennas spreading out around it. Most would-be visitors get no closer than the station’s mail box. The operation is fenced and gated, with special permission needed to enter.
Few of those living in Delano have ever been past that gate, and as with most government facilities, there’s something of a mystery about what goes on inside the compound, which occupies almost a square mile of the San Joaquin Valley.
(click thumbnail)Exterior of the Delano transmitting station as it appeared in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Photo courtesy Jack QuinnThe main structure was large at its inception and has grown over the years, standing now at some 26,000 square feet. Close by are a cluster of smaller outbuildings interspersed with large satellite dishes. Stretching far behind these masonry structures are the acres and acres of large antennas — immense Sterba curtain arrays and the more conventional rhombics, all connected to the building by a switching bay and open wire feeders.
No one in Delano takes much notice of the station. It’s been there, just west of the downtown area, longer than most people can remember. The buildings and antennas are like the highways and railroad tracks that punctuate and define Delano — they’re just there and they’ve always been there.
In the fall of 2007, the ebb and flow of daily patterns around the station changed rather abruptly.
For the first time in nearly 63 years, the station is now strangely quiet. Save for an occasional lizard or cotton tail, the parking lot is vacant. There’s no roar from massive cooling blowers, no amplified voices in the control room booming in from Washington, no “dawn patrol” antenna and feeder inspections, no morning runs into town for coffee, rolls or breakfast burritos by station employees. There will be no more invisible thunderbolts generated by the station to slam into the ionosphere and rain down on the other side of the world. Instead of the megawatts they were designed for, the heavy feeders connecting the facility to the Southern California Edison grid now only carry a small trickle of electricity — just enough to keep the lights on.
After 23,000 days of continuous transmissions, the station is empty and silent. This past July, its management authority, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, made the decision to shut it down permanently at the end of October.
Among the VOA’s international broadcasting assets, Delano is unique. It’s the last of three such stations hastily constructed under extreme wartime restrictions and shortages for the express purpose of providing permanent shortwave broadcasting capability for the Office of War Information, the VOA’s precursor organization.
Before the gigantic transmitters are removed for service elsewhere, or the tons and tons of steel antennas are hauled away as just so much scrap metal, it seems appropriate to pay tribute to the station’s architects and the generations of those worked there by offering up a little history and a few facts about the facility.
For starters the Delano Transmitting Station wasn’t even supposed to be located there. It was built under the watchful eye of an engineer who had earlier been occupied by building bigger and bigger radio transmitters for a quack medical doctor. Even though it was constructed for government purposes, a private entity, CBS (the Columbia Broadcasting System at the time) was solely responsible for building the station and keeping it running, even down to obtaining call signs that were representative of that network.
During its first year of operation, the Delano station unknowingly found its way into the midst of the super-secret project to build the world’s first atomic bomb.
The stated purpose of Delano was for transmitting wartime news from America to the Pacific Ocean nations during World War II. Afterwards, it lived on, performing a similar mission for the duration of the Cold War and beyond.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
(click thumbnail)The original wartime building was expanded in the mid-1960s to accommodate three Collins 250 kW transmitters. This photo shows the construction in progress. The station’s guard tower is visible. It was a mandate at all three OWI transmitting stations as part of wartime security that existed during their early years.To get a better grasp on Delano’s unique history, we have to go back to the first days after America’s entry into the Second World War.
At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government had no international broadcasting facilities, or any real interest in reaching out to the world by radio. It had been reasoned that this was something best left to the commercial broadcasting entities. In sharp contrast were the scores of HF transmitters that Hitler and Hirohito had been keeping busy, spreading their version of the facts to anyone within reach of a shortwave set.
Pearl Harbor changed the U.S. perspective on many fronts, and in early 1942 the international broadcasting imbalance began to change with the establishment of the Office of War Information (OWI) and construction of the first radio studios expressly for government use.
To get the message out, these studios were linked by AT&T Long Lines to shortwave transmitters owned by the likes of General Electric, Westinghouse, RCA, Crosley and virtually anyone else with an HF transmitter and a commercial shortwave broadcasting license.
However, the founding fathers of this first generation of U.S. international broadcasting knew that this was not good enough. Permanent transmitting facilities would have to be constructed solely for the government’s purpose, and there would have to be more powerful transmitters than those that could be rented or leased.
R.J. Rockwell, director of broadcasting engineering for the Crosley Corporation, recalled the meeting that spearheaded that effort.
“In a drastic effort to remedy the situation, the Board of War Communications called a council of war in Washington. All interested parties were invited — international licensees, equipment manufacturers, representatives of the Federal Communications Commission, Office of War Information, Office of Inter-American Affairs (CIAA), the Department of State, and others — to determine how soon existing facilities could be augmented and new facilities added, and what powers could be attained. As a result of this and subsequent meetings, it was decided that, within one year, a total of 32 transmitters could be in operation and at the disposal of OWI and CIAA.”
ENGINEERING FOR THE GOAT GLAND MAN
(click thumbnail)Jimmy Russell, in the foreground, and J.T. Burgess perform shift duty in the Delano control room circa early 1960s.The organization searched for an engineering presence to head up this massive and very demanding effort — someone who understood high power transmitters and radio broadcasting. That quest ended with the eventual appointment of one James Oliver Weldon to the position of the OWI’s Chief of Communication Facilities Bureau.
Weldon’s credentials were unique, as at that time there were only a handful of engineers with experience in high power transmitters and antennas, and most of these were fully occupied with critical wartime jobs and defense-related research.
Weldon’s knowledge of high power operations, however, had not come from such conventional and orthodox directions as say, the 500 kW WLW station in Cincinnati or RCA’s vast Long Island international communications facility.
Weldon was 33 years old then and had been plucked from his work at the Federal Telephone and Radio Corporation in designing several 50 kW New York City stations. Just a few years before, Weldon’s small consulting firm located in Del Rio, Texas had been kept busy catering to the demands of the notorious Doctor John Romulus Brinkley — aka “The Goat Gland Man,” (or more simply “Doctor”) — for a progressively louder and more potent radio station.
In a world before Viagra, Brinkley catered to the victims of impotence, offering male rejuvenation through the surgical implantation of testicular tissue taken from a particular breed of goat.
At a time when many in this country were facing starvation due to the Great Depression, this unique type of quackery made Brinkley a multimillionaire. His success in locating new patients was greatly enhanced by the power of radio.
Weldon first consulted for Brinkley in connection with the Doctor’s first radio enterprise, a 1 kW station located in Milford, Kan. However Brinkley’s rather questionable medical practices and battles with authorities eventually resulted in the loss of this station license and prompted a relocation of the Doctor’s clinic southward to Del Rio. While exhausting his appeals, Brinkley had been busy cutting a deal with high Mexican officials, and secured permission to construct a new radio transmitter just across the Rio Grande, and out of the reach of the U.S. government. Weldon made the move to Texas too and was tasked with putting the new station on the air, and eventually expanding its power to more than 500,000 watts. Brinkley’s XER/XERA became known as “The Sunshine Station Between The Nations” and Weldon made radio engineering history by constructing the first-ever high-power Doherty amplifier and installing an early “flattop” directional antenna to focus the Doctor’s RF away from Mexico and into the heartland of America.
What the Doctor did with his station did not really concern Weldon. He loved radio engineering and was a workaholic of the first order, choosing to build stations over listening to them. The experience gained in constructing the giant transmitter in northern Mexico was to prove invaluable in Weldon’s new position with the OWI.
Once he made the move to Washington, Weldon’s first priority was in creating the needed permanent transmission facilities for the United States government. CBS, NBC and the Crosley Corporation all agreed to take part in this mission, with their respective engineering departments constructing and operating stations to OWI specifications. The government would run interference as necessary to ensure that any roadblocks to the project were removed and that the necessary equipment would be made available during this period of wartime shortages. As part of the arrangement, Crosley would continue to operate that company’s existing shortwave station which was co-located with WLW transmitter plant in Mason, Ohio until a new free-standing facility could be built in nearby Bethany. NBC/RCA would assume the task of building a shortwave plant in northern California, and CBS would construct a sister station near Los Angeles.
AN EASY PROJECT?
For the CBS engineering unit in Los Angles, on first appearance, the construction of an OWI shortwave station seemed to be an easy project — possibly no more than the purchasing some additional real estate near their existing KNX transmitter, putting up a few rhombic antennas per Weldon’s specifications, along with a building to house some government-provided transmitters, and then staffing the operation with some members of IBEW Local 40. That would be it. After some preliminary east coast meetings in early October of 1943, the project went into high gear.
Lester Bowman, who was based at the CBS Columbia Square operation in Hollywood, drew the card to spearhead the effort to locate property and build the southern California shortwave station. He had been with the CBS for some time, and in 1943 wore the title of Western Division Engineer. Bowman was remembered by his associates as a hard driving and successful manager. He would eventually head up all of CBS’s west coast radio and television engineering operations.
During the east coast kickoff meetings, it was established that CBS would work in liaison with the Defense Plant Corporation (DPC), which had been charted by Congress in 1938 in anticipation of the America’s entry into war, and served as front end organization for expansion of military-related production. When the war began, it became the DPC’s job to facilitate the construction of facilities that were deemed to be in “the public interest.”
Bowman and representatives from DPC got the ball rolling on by contacting an L.A. real estate firm specializing in commercial property.
It was not long, however, before the CBS engineering personnel found out that their part of the OWI transmitting station project might not be quite so easy as first imagined.
For starters, Weldon had laid down some very specific criteria for the stations:
- they were to be sited at least three miles from the coast
- there must be no mountain peaks exceeding three degrees above the horizon within line-of-site from the transmitter location
- the real estate parcel for each had to be one mile long in the east-to-west direction and one-half mile in the north-south dimension
- the site would have to accommodate 150-foot high antenna masts (later changed to 170 feet)
- cost for land acquisition could not exceed $400 per acre
50 CYCLE POWER
Not mentioned in Weldon’s criteria was additional factor in the location of the station — availability of electrical power, and as the southern California OWI team soon realized, not all power is created equal. In anticipation of the construction of the California station, a priority order had been placed for three RCA 50 kW transmitters and a behemoth Federal Telephone and Radio Corporation 200 kW machine (it required one of the RCAs as a dedicated driver stage), and a not inconsequential amount of electricity would be needed for their operation. A concern that was not so obvious was the frequency of the available power source.
It may come as a surprise, but for a time the entire Los Angeles area was supplied with 50 cycle (Hz) power. Although a move to put the region on 60 Hz power started in the 1930s, pockets of 50 Hz distribution existed for many years thereafter. (It’s reported that as late as 1949, the power being supplied to Mt. Wilson was 50 cycle and early television transmitter installations there depended on rotary converters for 60 cycle power.)
As the original plans were to locate the southern California OWI shortwave station within the confines of Los Angeles, transmitters had been ordered with 60 cycle power supplies. While 50 cycle power supply components could be retrofitted, wartime shortages would likely have slowed things considerably.
THE OIL BOOM
Another factor put several other prospective sites off limits. This was a direct result of the wartime demand for petroleum products. To supply the needed fuel supplies for the military, drilling rigs and oil wells were springing up all over southern California. By late 1943, property that had at one time been considered worthless in terms of development was now selling and leasing at a premium.
MOVING OUT OF L.A.
As a station site within the environs of Los Angeles seemed more and more of impossibility, Bowman and his team extended their search to include neighboring Orange County. This area was basically farm country then, with little commercial development and a population of less than 150,000. Some potential sites were identified, but before they could be claimed, objections to the planned 170-foot antenna masts were voiced. Even in a region as wide open and sparsely populated as Orange County, military aviation training fields were popping up like weeds.
By the time 1943 drew to a close, Bowman’s group had investigated more than 40 sites, with each being rejected for one reason or another.
A LETTER FROM THE UNION
The coming of the new year brought little joy and encouragement for the CBS group. Their project was really no further along than it had been in October. Compounding Bowman’s worries was an early January letter from the business manager of the IBEW local representing CBS Columbia Square technicians. As the OWI project shortwave project was not swathed in a lot of wartime secrecy, the union was aware of it and of the ever widening search for a transmitter site. The letter to Bowman warned of some rather dire consequences if the station were to be built outside of greater Los Angeles.
“From its inception, such a project would be cursed by the shortage of skilled labor. Not long ago contractors who had undertaken jobs in these areas (remote from Los Angeles) were offering $2.20 per hour for building and construction tradesman, with a guarantee of all the overtime that they could work. They had much difficulty in manning the jobs.
“Once the construction had been completed you would be faced with an even more difficult problem when you attempted to secure engineering personnel. As you know, almost the entire Pacific Coast area is classified by the WNC as a Number One Shortage Area, with broadcast technicians considered a craft in which a critical shortage exists.”
The letter went on to warn Bowman that radio stations in the more remote parts of California were experiencing extreme difficulties in attracting and keeping qualified personnel and:
“…that no man, trained in radio, will desert the metropolitan areas where work can always be had in one of the many war industries, to bury himself in some such out-of-the-way place.”
Undaunted, Bowman continued his search for a place to build the new station.
DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!
As ground for the CBS OWI transmitter plant was scheduled to have been broken no later than the fall of 1943, concern arose in the network’s New York headquarters that someone might be called to task over the amount of time that was passing without tangible results. This prompted a letter from CBS’s director of radio engineering, William Lodge, instructing Bowman to create a document for the record, should there ever be any questions about the efforts to get the facility constructed.
Bowman complied, producing a five-page single spaced typewritten letter to Lodge. It described all of trials and tribulations befalling Bowman in his search for a suitable piece of real estate. This document, 60-odd years later, makes it much easier to follow the initial twists and turns on the road to getting the Delano station built.
THE SEARCH EXPANDS AGAIN
With any hope of locating the station within commuting distance of Los Angeles gone, Bowman’s search moved out further and further. He even investigated — without success — Mojave Desert acreage near Barstow for a site that met Weldon’s criteria. However this didn’t pan out either.
After the Mojave trip, proximity to the greater Los Angeles area didn’t seem to matter anymore, so the exploration team decided to travel north. Land some distance from Bakersfield was examined, but rejected as too mountainous. Areas closer to that city had already been staked out for oil prospecting.
By now Bowman’s team was more than 100 miles from downtown L.A., so what difference could another 25 or 30 miles make?
They continued north past the small towns of Cawelo and McFarland, finally stopping with a surveyor in the small town of Delano on January 27.
The next day, C. R. Jacobs, a CBS staffer working with Bowman, fired off a terse telegram to CBS management in New York.
“SPENT THURSDAY JANUARY 27 IN BAKERSFIELD AREA FOUND PROPERTY APPROXIMATELY FIVE MILES WEST OF DELANO IN VICINITY OF SECTION 13 TOWNSHIP 25 SOUTH RANGE 24 EAST KERN COUNTY WHICH CAN BE HAD AT $50 PER ACRE OR LESS STOP APPROXIMATELY 145 MILES FROM HOLLYWOOD OFFICE STOP DELANO POPULATION 5000 STOP NO OBSTRUCTIONS 360 DEGREES STOP WIRE REACTIONS TODAY SURE INCLUDING WELDONS APPROVAL. AM STARTING ACQUISITION AND WILL ADVISE WITHIN A FEW DAYS IF ANY COMPLICATIONS SHOULD ARISE STOP NBC STARTED CONSTRUCTION JANUARY 27 STOP BEST REGARDS.”
C R JACOBS
(The NBC reference is to the parallel project being staged by that network — the construction of the OWI’s Northern California shortwave at Dixon.)
Initially, the presence of an emergency landing field some five miles away from the proposed Delano site created strong opposition from the Army and the CAA (Civil Aeronautics Administration). However, Bowman’s mind was made up that Delano was going to be the home to the CBS shortwave station.
A special meeting to resolve differences was set up on Feb. 15. Weldon had been briefed on the Army and CAA opposition, and he prepared a telegram to be read at the meeting. It described the necessity for constructing the overdue station and also played on patriotic sympathies.
“THE OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION AND THE COORDINATOR OF INTERAMERICAN AFFAIRS AND THE ARMED FORCED RADIO SERVICE OF THE ARMY ARE CRITICALLY IN NEED OF ADDITIONAL HIGH POWERED BROADCAST TRANSMITTERS ON THE PACIFIC COAST FOR CONDUCTION (sic) PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE MILITARY EFFORT IN THE PACIFIC AND IN THE CASE OF THE ARMED FORCES RADIO SERVICE FOR BROADCASTING PROGRAMS TO THE AMERICAN TROOPS SCATTERED OVER THAT AREA.… THE WAR EFFORT IS DEFINITELY CRIPPLED BY THE FACT THAT SUCH FACILITIES ARE NOT IN OPERATION AT THE PRESENT TIME….I HOPE THAT THE COMMITTEE WILL CONSIDER THIS PROJECT AS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE WAR EFFORT AND GIVE DUE CONSIDERATION TO THE NECESSITY OF PROMPT APPROVAL”
J O WELDON CHIEF COMMUNICATION FACILITIIES
BUREAU OFFICE OF WAR INFORMATION
(click thumbnail)This photo from the late 1940s shows workers preparing to pour the concrete tower base for the first of the postwar ‘curtain’ antennas to be installed. Photo courtesy Jack QuinnAfter the reading of the telegram, all opposition was dropped and Delano was given a green light.
In what seems nothing less than miraculous today, ground was first broken on the station project in May of 1944, and by that November, the first transmitter was delivering current to a 170-foot-high rhombic.
Not long after Delano went on the air, Jack Quinn, a CBS engineer who had previously worked at General Electric’s KGEI shortwave station near San Francisco, was assigned to Delano in the capacity of engineering supervisor. He remembered the area then as more or less the end of the earth.
“There were no farms, no nothing, just arid desert — miles and miles of white alkali soil,” he recalled. “It was really worthless real estate. Maybe $60 an acre. Of course that was before the irrigation canals were built, bringing water from Northern California.”
(click thumbnail)Initial steel work begins on one of the early curtain antenna support towers. Photo is from the late 1940s. Photo courtesy Jack QuinnBadlands or not Delano became the first of the three OWI stations to go on the air, beating NBC’s efforts at Dixon and those of Crosley at Bethany, Ohio.
Anticipating the day when the station would start operations, CBS, some months before had requested FCC call signs that reflected the network’s operating presence. These were KCBA, KCBF and KCBR.
DELANO AND THE BOMB
For reasons unknown today, the use of harmonic filtering in large transmitter output stages 60 or 70 years ago was not commonplace. Quinn, who would remain with the Delano station until 1952, recalled that the early transmitters there were not so equipped.
“The Federal and the RCA transmitters didn’t have filters; they just weren’t used then.”
(click thumbnail)Construction progresses on one of the large towers in the late 1940s to support the station’s first ‘curtain’ antenna. (Such towers are necessary as the bottom end of a curtain has to be a minimum 0.5 wavelength above ground. Typically they are installed with the lower elements at 0.7 wavelength or more above ground level.) Photo courtesy Jack QuinnIn less than a year, this absence of harmonic energy trapping was to create problems in the most secret project of the war — the Manhattan Project’s testing of the world’s first atomic bomb at a secret New Mexico desert site, nearly 1,000 miles east of Delano.
That test, conducted in the predawn hours of July 16, 1945, relied on HF radio for communications between various observation posts. This radio communication system had been checked out and was functioning well as the minutes and seconds leading up to mankind’s first nuclear blast ticked off. However, at a most inappropriate time (and completely unknown to the station’s operators) Delano butted in.
As recorded in one account of the atomic test:
“The final countdown began at 5:10 a.m. with a crashing rendition of the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Just as (Kenneth) Bainbridge (a Manhattan Project scientist) gave the signal to Sam Allison (another Manhattan Project scientist and the countdown announcer) in the control center, radio station KCBA in Delano, California, crossed wave lengths with the Trinity frequency. The station, operated by the Office of War Information, was opening its morning Voice of America broadcast to Latin America. The National Anthem provided stirring accompaniment for Allison as intoned the announcement: ‘It is now zero minus twenty minutes.’”
(click thumbnail)The Delano control room as it appeared in the early 1950s. The wartime transmitters are still in use. Photo courtesy Jack QuinnFollowing the sign-on at Delano, the OWI had scheduled musical programming.
“The Voice of America program now punctuated Allison’s countdown with rapturous background music. Ken Greisen, lying next to I.I. Rabi (both bomb scientists) listened dreamily to the waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. The violins seemed to rise in crescendo with Allison’s excited blurts.”
NO VSWR WORRIES
The Federal transmitter at Delano also lacked other niceties taken for granted today. One of these was VSWR indication and a circuit for shutdown should there be a problem in this area.
Large stations with multiple antennas and transmission lines rely on frequent inspections to catch little problems before they can mushroom. Delano was no exception. At Delano, early in the day, before the valley sun beat down too fiercely, an operator would venture outside to make a routine examination of the various antenna elements and feeders.
(click thumbnail)Lester Bowman is in the middle of this photograph taken in 1952 at the newly-completed CBS Television City in Los Angeles. In the foreground is Richard O’Brien, CBS senior project manager, and to the rear of Bowman is Robert Moore, CBS project engineer. Photo by Ezra Stroller, courtesy Richard O’BrienOn one such occasion, the technician spotted a downed transmission line that had apparently failed during the nighttime operating schedule. There had been no alarms in the control room and it was business as usual. However instead of launching words and music from Washington to the world, the Federal 200 kilowatter spent the hours dumping its RF energy directly into the ground. When the downed feeder was being lifted back to its normal position, a large mass of glass was found, the result of the intense heat generated in the transmitter load that the desert sand provided.
Quinn remembers another heating effect provided by the Federal.
“The transmitter was just plain brute force, with unshielded open wire balanced 600 ohm lines,” Quinn recollected. “The tank circuit consisted of two huge parallel three- or four-inch diameter water-cooled tuned lines approximately 15-feet long, with one having a variable shorting bar for tuning. There was a copper hairpin output loop which coupled directly to the transmission line and it went out the window to the switching bay. As a demonstration of how open this arrangement was, when there was arcing, I would go in alongside this output lines — maybe six-feet away — and have the operators close the interlocked glass door and turn the transmitter on. Almost immediately you could feel both feet heating up. Then the heat would slowly creep up your legs. When it almost reached the groin area you’d flag the operator to shut it down. After power was removed your legs were still hot to the touch for some minutes, before they cooled down to normal!”
(Later transmitters installed at Delano did concern themselves with VSWR and included measuring devices. For those of us who have spent our careers with slightly more modest transmitters and operating powers, it’s instructive to run the numbers for reflected power on a good day from one of Delano’s 250,000 Watt transmitters.
Assuming a reasonable VSWR of 1:5, or 4 percent reflected power, this is about a 0.18 dB loss, or only some 10,000 Watts arriving back at the transmitter!)
(click thumbnail)James O. Weldon is shown with one of the massive Western Electric 320A triodes used in the 500,000 kW Doherty transmitter that he constructed for Dr. J. R. Brinkley in Villa Acuña, Mexico. Photo courtesy Jack Quinn
A ‘SLIGHTLY ILLEGAL’ HAM RIG
Historically, many radio engineers and technicians were licensed as radio amateurs before beginning their professional careers. Such was the case with many of the operators at Delano.
Most of the ham fraternity is content with loading their rigs, generally limited to a few hundred watts, into dipoles, beams or sloppers. However, when there was time for idle talk among hams at Delano it often turned speculative. Just what kind of signal might they deliver to their brethren on the other side of the planet, if only they had a transmitter the likes of the Federal and an antenna with 20 dB or so of gain like the station’s giant co-linear curtain array?
One day, the temptation for experimentation proved too strong.
Quinn remembers that occasion well.
“I’ll never forget connecting one of those curtains to the 200 KW transmitter, and connecting the station RCA AR88 receiver to another and calling CQ just once,” said Quinn. “This was at noon and there was absolutely no propagation to Japan at my home station until 5 p.m. There must have been a thousand JA’s calling back with S-9+ signals. Amazing what a good antenna and lots of power will do.”
Eventually more modern and better behaved transmitters replaced the start-up Federal and RCAs. The first upgrade, saw two massive “walk-in” General Electric 100 kW machines were installed in wings located to the north and south of the control room.
During the 1960s, three much more modern 250 kW transmitters manufactured by Collins were added to the HF arsenal. This expansion necessitated “blowing out” the front of the building and creating another wing to accommodate this additional 750 kW of HF capacity.
The GEs, along with the Federal and the RCAs were eventually displaced by four much more compact and efficient Brown Boveri 250 kilowatt units.
A PLACE CALLED PIXLEY
During the same decade in which the building was modified for the Collins “autotune” transmitters, Delano received funding and a mandate to expand operations to another campus. This was located some 20 miles away, near the tiny town of Pixley.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis prompted the government to take another look at emergency preparedness and one of the areas examined was connectivity between Washington and Delano. Since its inception, Delano had been linked to VOA studios by AT&T Long Lines copper. Even though the communications giant had its own emergency preparedness plans, it was thought that U.S. VOA stations should have a work-around if, for some reason, AT&T couldn’t deliver. Communications satellites were in their infancy then, so the only logical backup linkage was by HF radio. For Delano, the funding provided for the purchase of an isolated tract of land near Pixley. There, a large HF receiving station was constructed. It included numerous rhombic antennas and racks full of Racal “digitally-tuned” shortwave receivers. The Pixley facility was linked to Delano with a single-hop microwave system. Fortunately, the operation never had to be used during the remaining years of The Cold War.
(click thumbnail)The exterior of the Delano transmitting station as it appeared in the early 1990s. Visible on the left are additional ‘curtain’ antennas that were installed to supplement the earlier antennas. Between the old and new ‘curtains’ is the satellite antenna farm used to receive radio and television programming from Washington and to retransmit it to Pacific Ocean Region satellites.
HF BROADCASTING BEGINS TO FADE
In moving with the times, the VOA linked its relay stations via satellite and Delano, in addition to serving as an HF transmitting facility, became a gateway to the Pacific Ocean Region satellites.
This was expanded in the early 1990s by the addition of video capacity in order to push television programming from the Worldnet side of the VOA’s parent organization, the United States Information Agency. This involved not only the installation of additional high power amplifiers and video exciters, but also standards conversion equipment needed to turn the 525-line NTSC programming produced in Washington into 625-line PAL required by most of the Pacific Rim countries.
For a time too, the Delano facility was also used to increase the reach of the BBC’s worldwide shortwave broadcasting. In a sort of “trade-out” arrangement, BBC programming targeted to the Pacific was transmitted by Delano and, in turn, the BBC transmitted VOA programming to Europe from its HF broadcasting facility in Woofferton, England.
However, times change.
Both the “Beeb” and the VOA have deemphasized program placement via HF radio, relying more and more on retransmission by existing AM and FM broadcasters in countries they wish to reach. The Internet has also come into its own as a conduit for international “broadcasting.”
In 1979, the Dixon facility was the first of these pioneer OWI/VOA stations to be silenced. It was initially placed in mothball status, coming back to life for a five year stint in 1983. It was completely decommissioned some years later.
The Bethany, Ohio station was next to go, transmitting its last VOA programming in late 1994.
The clock finally ran out for Delano on the evening of Saturday, October 27 at 8:30 local time. (Measured from the UTC reference, that was 3:30 a.m. the following day — October 28).
There was no special observance or program to honor the station’s nearly 63 years of continuous broadcasting to the world. The final transmission, done at 5,890 mHz, was nothing out of the ordinary — just a scheduled program in the Thai language.
Special thanks are due the following individuals who assisted in researching and preparing this article:
- Crawford, Bill and Fowler, Gene; Border Radio, Austin, Texas; Limelight Editions, 1990.
- Lamont, Lansing; Day of Trinity, New York; Atheneum, 1965.
- Quinn, Jack; recollection of early VOA operations, personal correspondence to the author, Aug. 31, 2007.
- Rockwell, R.J.; “OWI 200-kw H-F Transmitters at Bethany, Ohio;” Communications magazine, Nov. and Dec. 1944.
- Weldon, J.O.; A 500,000 Watt High Efficiency Broadcast Transmitter, unpublished manuscript, circa 1939-1940.
- Wulff, Fred; A Brief Technical History of the VOA Network; The Old Timer’s Bulletin (Antique Wireless Association publication), vol. 36, no. 4; Nov., 1995.
- Broadcasting Yearbook - 1947
- “Powerful Delano Shortwave Broadcast Carries Nation’s Propaganda Punches;” The Bakersfield Californian, June 15, 1949, p. 24.
- “From The Hearts Of America To The Hearts Of The World – a booming voice speaks up for freedom;” Delano Record: Magazine News of Delano; April 22, 1958.
- Correspondence and memoranda from Columbia Broadcasting System radio station files.