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Saturday, Mar 29 2014 06:00 PM

Second act nears for historic Delano radio site

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    By Theo Douglas/The Californian

    A high fence guards the Voice of America facility in Delano.

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    By Theo Douglas/ The Californian

    Voice of America facility in Delano.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    David Hutchison, former engineer at the Voice of America in Delano, in his room that houses his amateur radio equipment in north Bakersfield.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    A linear amplifier that boosts the signal from David Hutchison's home radio system.

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

More than six years after its historic shortwave radio broadcasts went off the air, the obscure yet visible buildings, antennas, and satellite dishes that comprise the Delano Transmitting Station still aren't booked for a second act.

For nearly 63 years, this flat land was home to one of the first transmitting stations around the world that broadcast official Voice of America news, sports and cultural programs internationally.

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The rise of the Internet, FM radio and satellite TV silenced it in the fall of 2007 and its useable equipment was shipped elsewhere.

In the near future, however, all or part of this 800-acre site southwest of Garces Highway and Melcher Road -- including 12 structures as well as satellite receivers, transmitters and antennas -- could go to a nonprofit or a state or local agency like the city of Delano.

For those who worked there and those who heard its broadcasts, though, its place in history is assured.

WARTIME BEGINNINGS

VOA, which dates to 1942, was established by charter and law as an objective news source independent of government influence.

Its political necessity became tragically clear when America entered World War II and the government realized the nation had no official way to broadcast internationally.

As German and Japanese radio broadcasts reached and demoralized Allied troops with their news and propaganda, the U.S. realized it needed international shortwave radio transmitters fast.

"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," James E. O'Neal, technology editor for TV Technology, wrote in a 2008 piece for Radio World magazine. "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."

HF stands for high frequency -- a reference to the radio frequencies at which shortwave broadcasts are sent.

These frequencies bounce off the Earth's ionosphere, one of its atmospheric layers -- and because of this, they travel far enough to be tuned in across the world.

POSTWAR PURPOSE

The war was almost over when Delano went live in late 1944, and early VOA news broadcasts made elsewhere of Allied defeats had been replaced by news of victories.

As the world dealt with communism, the Cold War, the '60s social upheaval, and the '70s oil embargoes, Delano became a crucial point of origin to disseminate American news to the world.

"I think it was a very important bit of foundation for what later became the VOA and its spreading of signals, telling America's story to the world to counter a lot of the lies that came first out of the Nazi regime and later the communists in the 1950s," O'Neal said in an interview.

Former Delano technician David L. Hutchison, a Bakersfield resident, agreed.

"Many nations like the Arab nations and Russia, they don't get all the news and it's kept from them," Hutchison said. "That was Voice of America's main thing ... to broadcast the news as it was happening. We didn't hold anything back."

Delano was geographically blessed, situated in flat land, which increased the range of its transmissions, and in an area that made it particularly well-suited to reach Asia and South America.

Land prices around the time the facility was originally built, reportedly of $50 and less per acre, didn't hurt either.

Mark Filipek, director of the operations and station division for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the VOA, said the Delano transmitters' location made them vital to its news operation for many years.

"In the case of Delano, which used to broadcast to Central and South America, it's really more a situation where the VOA today is providing news from the U.S.," Filipek said. "The VOA has developed its market niche as a U.S. news bureau. That way, we have these relationships with local broadcasters and we'll provide U.S. news that's relevant to the audience."

CULTURAL RELEVANCE

VOA, which now broadcasts in 45 languages and has a $731 million taxpayer-funded, congressionally approved budget, has always managed to convey a sense of American culture, too.

Forty-year network legend Willis Conover Jr.'s "VOA Jazz Hour" is still considered of huge cultural significance today. Interviews he did with jazz musicians in the 1950s were added in 2010 to the National Recording Registry as historically significant recordings.

Longtime Delano listener Fred Marrs, 67, remembers tuning in to hear decidedly more rural sounds.

"They had great country music," said Marrs, now of Terra Bella, who remembered tuning in late at night as a youth.

"That's absolutely an important part of VOA broadcasting -- music, culture, sports broadcasting," said BBG spokeswoman Tish King. "You don't attract an audience unless you have programming they're interested in."

Delano City Manager Maribel Reyna said the station and its four spidery towers visible from Highway 99 had great significance to the city.

"I can only speak for the time I've been here, but I think for the city it was really a source of pride. Just the name, it being the Voice of America and it originating from Delano, it was something I think the community felt 'Look, this is us, this is here,'" Reyna said. "And I would think Kern County (felt the same) as well."

DELANO TRANSMITTERS' DEMISE

But platforms, not programming, are the primary way news networks connect with their audiences.

As audiences in central and South America began accessing their news through other forms of radio, satellite TV and the Internet, and as the world turned its eyes and resources to the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks, Delano saw its influence wane.

"It's really about the technology the audience uses. Because audiences in central and South America moved away from shortwave to FM and TV, that's where we need to put our resources," King said. "Choices need to be made. We can't be all things to all people."

Bakersfield resident Wallace Freeman, who was station manager from 1980 to 1983, agreed but also emphasized the high cost of high frequency broadcasts.

"Shortwave radio has been replaced almost exclusively with the Internet. Plus the cost of operating the equipment was getting almost outrageous," said Freeman, who transferred to Delano from Rhodes, Greece. "By the time I left Delano, I was signing monthly bills in the area of $100,000."

After the transmitting station closed, useable equipment was shipped elsewhere and its buildings sat idle.

DELANO'S NEXT ACT

Recently, however, the property -- one parcel of about 640 acres and three parcels of about 160 acres -- was turned over to the Government Services Adminstration, the federal government's landlord.

After screening the Delano site to figure out if federal agencies could, or would, use it -- they weren't interested -- the GSA reached out to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to find out if HUD thought the property was suitable for homeless use.

HUD said yes, and the GSA advertised the Delano site Dec. 16 to public bodies and eligible nonprofit organizations that assist the homeless.

These groups had until Valentine's Day to indicate their interest, and have until April 28 to submit an application to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

One such group has indicated it is interested, but an HHS representative declined to discuss the process and said agency policy is to not provide information about pending applications.

Public agencies like the city of Delano have until April 28 to indicate their interest in the property -- although GSA Regional Public Affairs Officer Traci R. Madison said the application from the homeless group would take precedence.

If HHS rejects the homeless group's application, public agencies would have the next chance to express interest in it.

Madison declined to say how much the land would be worth, but indicated the four parcels could be released or sold separately.

A nonprofit could receive a parcel or parcels for no cost, Madison said via email, but HHS would have to determine whether a city or local government could get the property at not cost.

Reyna, the Delano city manager, said the city inquired about purchasing the property several years ago and was told it was not available -- but is still interested.

"If you have it all as one chunk, just think of what that is, whether it's commercial or rooftops," Reyna said. "It's just huge, and I would think, again, you would want to carefully think of how that would be planned out, so that whatever is going to be there would complement whatever the city has."

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