Voice of America – The Long Reach of Shortwave

VOA Sticker © Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection

‘Voice of America’ exhibition is a fascinating look at early shortwave radio

By David Pagel
Los Angeles Times
July 2019

Long before cell towers started sprouting up everywhere, the federal government commissioned telecommunication companies to build five massive fields of shortwave radio antennae. The structures, which reached up to 450 feet, were located in out-of-the-way places in California, Ohio and North Carolina. Each was designed to bounce radio waves off the ionosphere, allowing federally produced programming to be transmitted all over the globe.

The Delano Transmission Station, one of five massive fields of shortwave radio antennae built by the federal government. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)
VOA Sticker © Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection

The U.S.’ international radio broadcaster Voice of America was born during World War II. It expanded during the Cold War. As technology advanced, its programs were carried via television and digital platforms. Today it is part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, providing news and information in 50 languages to a weekly audience of 275 million.

Its early years are traced in a fascinating exhibition at the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City. “Voice of America: The Long Reach of Shortwave” takes visitors back to the predigital world, before our political leaders began tweeting their innermost sentiments and policy decisions. Back then, international audiences were addressed more formally, via carefully scripted programming.

VOA Shortwave sign-on from the 1970s © Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection

Rather than focusing on content — and the charged, often contentious relationship between information and propaganda — the exhibition examines the infrastructure of shortwave radio transmissions. Of course, that structure comes with assumptions about the role of government — and a free press — in a democracy. As is the case with exhibitions at CLUI, visitors are not told what to think, feel or believe about such important subjects; we are free to come to our own conclusions.

A detail of the still-operating Transmission Station B at the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, N.C. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

The antennae are the stars of the show. They appear in photographs, in videos and on touch-screen monitors. Arranged in grids, arcs and asymmetrical arrays, they resemble high-tech fishing nets, impossibly spindly bridges, supersized spirit catchers and otherworldly telephone poles. Sculpturally impressive, they make Land Art look fussy, precious and small.

The still-operating Transmission Station B at the Edward R. Murrow Transmitting Station in Greenville, N.C. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

All but one of the five transmission stations have been abandoned. The most haunting component of the exhibition is a three-minute video documenting the destruction of the antennae. In sequence after sequence, little puffs of smoke appear before the towering antennae yield to the tug of gravity and topple to the earth in seemingly slow motion. Some crash into others, causing them to fall like skyscraper dominoes. It’s a sad ballet that marks the end of an era.

Transmission Station A, no longer in service, at the Murrow site in Greenville, N.C. (Center for Land Use Interpretation)

A pair of touch-screen slideshows is also bittersweet. It takes visitors on a virtual tour of Transmission Station B (the only one still functioning) and Transmission Station A (its twin). Both are near Greenville, N.C. To see the up-and-running station alongside its vandalized, disused doppelganger is to glimpse a living world next to a dying one.

Both are ours.


On View
‘Voice of America: The Long Reach of Shortwave’
Where: The Center for Land Use Interpretation, 9331 Venice Blvd., L.A.
When: Fridays-Sundays
Info: clui.org


VOA QSL Card from 1972 © Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection

Original article by David Pagel on the Los Angeles Times website published in July 2019.

Material from the orginal article remains © Los Angeles Times and is for your personal use only.

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