The Delano station as it existed in the early 1990s. The large satellite dishes provided sharp contrast to the acres and acres of “curtains” and other HF antennas. Delano, the last remaining Voice of America WWII-era shortwave transmitting stations, was officially closed down due to budget cuts in September 2007 by its operating authority, the International Board of Broadcasting, a major support element of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. I authored an article then about Delano’s closing (“Last of VOA’s Wartime Transmitting Stations Goes Dark,” see radioworld.com, keyword wartime) and offered a bit of history about the station, which was constructed and operated for the government by the Columbia Broadcasting System. It had gone on the air in late 1944 under the direction of the Office of War Information, which later became the VOA.
A recent posting to the Radio World website asked: “So, as of 2013, what is to become of this site?” Having spent several months of my life at the Southern California transmitting station — called a “relay” station then — I was curious myself and started making calls.
At the time of publication of my initial article in 2008, it was believed that the Delano transmitting station might be placed in “mothball” status and could possibly reopen. (Dixon, a sister station in northern California, was closed in 1979 and reactivated in 1983. It operated for another five years before permanent closure and dismantling.)
Some proponents hoped that if it were not reactivated, Delano could be made into a museum to show future generations what high-power shortwave broadcasting was like.
When the Delano plant closed, it was operating with four ASEA Brown Boveri 250 kW transmitters, but also depended upon 1960s-vintage Collins 250 kW units as well. All of the really “old stuff” — the original WWII-vintage Federal 200 kW transmitter and a couple of late 1940s GE 200 kW rigs — had been removed years before the 2007 closing; but the core building — including its wartime guard tower — had seen little change and provided a good idea of what HF high-power broadcasting was all about.
However, toward the end of 2013 I found that neither scenario was going to be played out.
I contacted David Evans, a supervisory property management officer with the IBB, and learned that the Delano facility had been turned over to the General Services Administration for disposal.
Here’s the way GSA listed the parcel:
PROPERTY DESCRIPTION: The site consists of 800 acres located in the City of Delano, Kern County, Calif., about 35 miles north of Bakersfield, and 75 miles south of Fresno. The property is composed of one parcel that is approximately one square mile (640 acres) and three adjacent parcels measuring approximately 160 acres. There are 12 buildings and structures on site, including a transmitting building, warehouse and pump station. The total square footage for all of the 12 buildings and structures is 32,433 square feet. The site also contains numerous satellite receivers, transmitters and antennas. The main transmitting building and all of the associated buildings are located on the larger parcel.
Closeup from a GSA website, January 2014, under “Real Property Utilization and Disposal.” Evans informed me that early on, the U.S. Marine Corps had expressed interest in acquiring the Delano compound for use as a training facility. He stated that the Corps had inspected the facility in September 2012 and initiated the acquisition process by submitting an interim use agreement until the facility could be acquired.
Marine Corps interest waned; after that, GSA was legally obligated to offer up the property to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for possible use as shelter for the homeless. However, as of early December 2013, HUD had made no move to acquire it. My check in mid-January with the San Francisco GSA office, which has jurisdiction over the property, revealed that the window was still open for interested parties to acquire it for homeless shelter purposes. If there were no takers by mid-February, the property would be offered for sale to the public. However, one last check with GSA shortly before publication revealed that the invitation to organizations that might wish to use the Delano facility to house the homeless had been extended until late April.
So Delano could still wind up as a homeless center, but if that doesn’t happen by the deadline it will be placed on the GSA auction bock for sale to the highest bidder and could eventually be developed into housing, offices, warehouse facilities, or any number of other purposes, including farming. (The Delano plant is in the heart of California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley farmland, with a number of almond and citrus groves nearby.)
But it seems likely that the 70-year-old facility will never again be used for broadcasting purposes.
Delano’s permanent closing and dissolution reflect a general global downsizing in shortwave broadcasting since the ending of the Cold War.
Upon learning of the disposition of the Delano transmitting station, George Woodard, who was vice president of engineering at Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty for 10 years and IBB director of engineering between 1997 and 2000, offered these words:
“I have to admit that some of the international broadcasting functionality is being replaced by other media, so shortwave is not as important as it used to be,” said Woodard. “But we should have kept Delano as a backup facility. I feel that it’s important to keep both Delano and the IBB’s Greenville, N.C., transmitting stations, as they’re located on the country’s coasts and both are on U.S. property; Greenville is especially important because of its coverage into Africa and the Caribbean.”
The government’s Greenville “Site B” HF transmitting station is still operational and was featured in an April 2011 Radio World article, “48 Years Old and Still a Flamethrower” (see radioworld.com, keyword flamethrower). However, its sister facility “Site A” was shut down several years earlier and remains in “mothball” status. The IBB’s Bethany, Ohio, shortwave transmitting plant was permanently closed in 1994.
Woodard also offered his thoughts on continuing cutbacks and elimination of services by many of the world’s shortwave broadcasters who cite declining listenership: “I feel like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. They close the stations and then ‘discover’ that nobody is listening.”
According to Evans, IBB transmitting stations are still operating in Kuwait, Sri Lanka, Germany, Botswana, São Tomé, Tinian and Saipan in the Mariana Islands, Bangkok and Udorn, Thailand, and in Tinang and Poro, Philippines. The Poro site could go dark in 2014.
Shortly after the 2007 Delano station closure, Mike Dorrough, manufacturer of audio level meters and a broadcast historian and archivist, launched a campaign to save the facility, offering a plan to turn it into a broadcasting museum.
“It’s just tragic,” said Dorrough. “I know that times change, but I really feel bad about it. If I could have afforded it, I would have bought the Delano facility and preserved it. We’re just selling this country inch by inch.”
Information on the Delano property is available from GSA at https://resourcecenter.secure.force.com/pbs/SurplusNotices.
James O’Neal is technology editor for our sister publication TV Technology; he writes in Radio World about broadcast history and technical pioneers.