Two shortwave radio transmission/antenna farms used by the U.S. Agency for Global Media in Saipan and Tinian were ripped apart by 180 mph winds in October. That’s when Category 5 Super Typhoon Yutu ravaged the Northern Mariana island group in the northwestern Pacific Ocean.
Deemed to be tied with Super Typhoon Mangkhut as “the strongest storm on Earth this year” by NASA’s Earth Observatory, Yutu levelled buildings and electrical infrastructure in this U.S. commonwealth. Power was still unavailable in many areas as of early December, and repairs are expected to take many months.
“Yutu’s eye passed between the two islands of Saipan and Tinian, so the super typhoon scored a direct hit on our two transmission sites,” said Terry Balazs, USAGM director of the Office of Technology, Services and Innovation. “The damage was very extensive at both sites, and, of course, on both of the islands.”
USAGM — until recently named the Broadcasting Board of Governors — uses the Saipan and Tinian sites to broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America multi-language radio programming into China and other Asian nations. Although RFA/VOA shortwave transmissions have been moved to other Pacific Ocean sites for the time being, none offer the range and reach of the Saipan/Tinian sites. Collectively, the two locations are known as the Robert E. Kamosa Transmitting Station or REKTS.
“Both stations were completely wiped out,” wrote William Martin, manager of the USAGM Philippines Transmitting Station, in a text message to long-time “World of Radio” broadcast host and DX Listening Digest editor Glenn Hauser that was shared with Radio World. “Antennas mangled, roofs partially torn off, fence lines flattened. Both sites will be off air a minimum six months, possibly up to a year.”
The extensive and extreme damage suffered at the two REKTS sites are breathtakingly portrayed in USAGM photos. So powerful were the winds that the concrete weight rings that hold down an antenna guy wire anchor were literally shaken to pieces.
Feed and power lines were knocked down everywhere; STL links toppled and curtain-array shortwave antennas (consisting of transmission wire webs strung between support towers) were tangled and torn like unravelling knitted sweaters.
“Every operating curtain-array antenna has been damaged, in a way that they cannot be used,” said Balazs. “The towers are still there, but the curtains and elements have been severely damaged and, in many cases, torn off. So there’s no way in the short term that we’re going to be able to restore broadcasting. We need to send an expert there to assess which antennas can be repaired, and which ones have to be replaced.”
Meanwhile, satellite dishes that downlinked RFA and VOA were either fragmented like china plates dropped on a stone floor or simply “blown away,” he said. “They’re just gone.”
In contrast, the main buildings at both sites “are pretty much intact,” Balazs told Radio World. “The shortwave transmitters inside the building are intact, but some of them have water damage. We have dried them up, but you never know if they’re going to be completely functional until you fire them up again.”
REKTS does have local power, thanks to its own generators, but the main electrical grid that normally feeds the two sites is still offline at this writing.
REKTS staff have been doing whatever repairs are necessary to the two sites’ buildings, plus removing fences knocked down by Yutu’s 180 mph winds and debris blown onto their properties. “Debris from anywhere in the islands seem to have ended up on our sites,” said Balazs.
But repairing the massive curtain arrays in a timely manner is beyond their capacity; they just don’t have enough people or equipment to do the job without substantial outside help.
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
The destruction of REKTS’ shortwave transmitting capability comes at a time when the USAGM has been backing away from shortwave radio broadcasting in general. The big reason is money. For example, the cost of powering the three 100 kW Continental 418E transmitters at the Saipan site alone is astronomical compared to streaming content online. For similar reasons, governments around the globe have either cut back their international radio services — the BBC World Service having ceased shortwave broadcasts to North America — or eliminated them entirely.
“USAGM has made no secret of its desire to shift its investment from shortwave to newer, more fashionable technologies,” said Kim Andrew Elliott, retired VOA audience research analyst and producer of “Shortwave Radiogram,” which broadcasts text and images via analog shortwave stations WRMI in Florida and Space Line in Bulgaria.
“As such, it might be tempted to take this opportunity to close the Northern Mariana shortwave stations, or at least Saipan, the smaller of the two. Still, if the towers at Saipan are still standing and the transmitters still operational, and given the rising potential for crises in East Asia further squeezing the internet, it would be a good idea to keep both stations on the air,” Elliott said.
This view is echoed by Glenn Hauser, another of the world’s most knowledgeable shortwave authorities. Asked if he expect the USAGM to repair these sites given that the agency has publicly discussed closing down REKTS in 2019, Hauser replied, “I doubt it, as the trend has already been away from shortwave toward webcasting.”
Asked if REKTS was slated for shutdown before Yutu’s onslaught, USAGM’s Balazs replied, “We haven’t made a decision on that.”
Given the uncertain future of the REKTS sites -- whose assets are collectively valued at $7.6 million in the USAGM’s FY 2018 Performance and Accountability Report -- he thinks the most sensible way to handle the repair process would be on an antenna-by-antenna basis, rather than as one big, expensive project.
“When we get the first one fixed, we could use it to resume broadcasting because more than likely the transmitters will be easier to repair,” said Balazs. “As to how far do we would go with the restoration process? Again, that hasn’t been decided yet.”
During Balazs’s 35 years of service, the USAGM and its predecessors “have never faced a station disaster quite like this before,” he said. “We’ve lost antennas and power due to storms over the years, but we’ve never lost the complete capability of a transmission site before. This is really unprecedented.”
REKTS IN AN INCREASINGLY CENSORED WORLD
Before being knocked off-air by Super Typhoon Yutu, REKTS’ Saipan and Tinian shortwave farms played a central role in the USAGM’s radio broadcasts to Asia.
“The HFCC [High Frequency Coordination Conference, the international co-operative group that coordinates shortwave frequency allocations among nations] had 38 daily transmissions registered for Tinian, with eight transmitters; and 10 for Saipan with three transmitters, planned for the B-18 season which began a few days after the typhoon,” said “World of Radio” host Glenn Hauser. These were mostly Radio Free Asia broadcasts to the region from Tinian in Burmese, Tibetan, Mandarin, Korean, Khmer, Uighur, Cantonese. Saipan in Mandarin, Lao and Korean; plus some limited VOA transmissions.
“Tinian was the primary site for RFA to China, although China was already also reached from the west via transmitters in Kuwait — already being upgraded for increased capacity — and Germany,” he added.
To counter Chinese jamming of RFA broadcasts, the REKTS sites transmitted on numerous frequencies at once. Losing REKTS has substantially reduced the number of available frequencies, “so RFA to China has taken a major hit,” said Hauser. But “listeners still have a chance to hear it, if they can get past the jamming.”
Losing REKTS could seriously undercut the USAGM’s ability to reach Asian audiences with an American perspective, said Kim Andrew Elliott.
“To the extent they ever have been, Asian audiences are mostly out of the habit of tuning in shortwave radio broadcasts. They are watching TV and accessing the internet,” Elliott said. “But in most Asian target countries for VOA and RFA, domestic terrestrial relays of its television broadcasts are not allowed. And most television viewers do not have access to the satellites that carry VOA and RFA content.
“As for the internet, China and other countries in the region are finding more and more ways to block internet content. They are also going after circumvention technologies and VPNs. Even savvy internet users in Asia might run out of ways to work around these efforts.”
For this reason, shortwave should remain a component of USAGM’s delivery to Asia, Elliott said. “The direct audiences will not be large, but a few thousand technology enthusiasts can receive content from abroad via shortwave, then pass it on to larger audiences through domestic channels. The VOA Radiogram and Shortwave Radiogram projects have shown that text and images can be transmitted on shortwave, with no special additional equipment needed by broadcasters and requiring only the addition of free software for the audience.”