Commentary: The radio stations you’ve never heard or maybe never even heard of
By Jim Schuh
The stations are WWV and sister stations WWVB and WWVH. They have an unusual format – they don’t play music or feature talks shows. They don’t broadcast ads, news or traffic reports. There are no personality announcers. You won’t find them on your familiar AM or FM dial. You need a shortwave radio to pick up their signals, which are available on five frequencies.
So what do the WWV stations do? They broadcast the time – very precisely, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year (366 in leap years) along with other technical information.
I bring this up because they may go off the air for good next year. The agency overseeing the stations proposes eliminating $6.3 million from its federal allocation and shutting the stations down. That agency is the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and says it “…will eliminate efforts that have been replaced by newer technologies, measurement science work that lies outside of NIST’s core mission space, and programs that can no longer be supported due to facility deterioration.” In other words, in the case of the WWV stations, the agency says we don’t need them any longer because global positioning satellites (GPS) now carry out their functions and do so more precisely.
On the other side is the argument that our GPS systems are susceptible to cyber warfare, which could cause serious problems – especially with the nation’s electric power grid – while WWV’s radio signals couldn’t be hacked. Proponents of maintaining the stations note they synchronize time for about 50-million radio-controlled clocks, wristwatches and appliances (including radios) and add they’re a great back-up system. The American Radio Relay League, an organization of ham operators, wants to see the stations maintained, calling their broadcasts “an essential resource to the worldwide communications industry.”
A little history – WWV went on their air in 1920 and helped the Agriculture Department disseminate market news to farm agencies. Three years later, the government began using the stations to broadcast standard frequency signals.
Today, among NIST’s many responsibilities is determining the length of a second. Since radio signals are determined by time (cycles per second), NIST makes sure your car and home radio dials match the frequency of broadcast signals they receive. The agency uses an atomic clock with Cesium-133 atoms that oscillate almost nine-point-two billion times per second to determine the basic unit of time. NIST says its time accuracy is beyond a single cycle in a trillion. WWV says it maintains correct time to within 0.0001 milliseconds of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC).
WWV and WWVH do more than broadcast time. They also disseminate standard time intervals, standard frequencies, UT1 time corrections which are derived by astronomers who monitor the speed of the Earth’s rotation, a binary coded decimal (BCD) time code, geophysical alerts and marine storm warnings.” Likewise, WWVB broadcasts technical information.
I first learned of the operations as a youngster when I was tuning up and down a medium wave band on a big GE radio and came across the station. I was fascinated with what I heard – 60 “tock-tock-tocks” per minute with a tone at the beginning of the next minute. I also noticed a brief break in the “tock-tock-tock’s” rhythm at the 30-second mark. About ten seconds before the next minute was to arrive, a male voice announced, “National Bureau of Standards WWV – at the tone, ___ hours and ___ minutes.” I set my watch to the precise time and then went around the house doing the same to all the clocks.
(If you want to listen to the stations, tune your shortwave radio to 2.5, 5, 10, 15 or 20 megahertz (MHz). Because of the properties of shortwave signals, you may receive some frequencies better at different times of day.)
Now, GPS satellites circling the globe include atomic clocks which send time and frequency information from space. You may not have realized that your cellphone and “atomic wristwatch” get their time from a satellite signal sent from orbit.
Even though some may consider NIST’s WWV stations redundant or even obsolete, Congress has heretofore provided funding to maintain their operations. As of this writing, Congress was considering the federal budget and we don’t yet know if members will approve the money necessary to keep the stations operating.
A sidebar: You may know that in the United States, the government assigns radio station call letters starting with “W” to stations east of the Mississippi River and those west of it with “K.” There are exceptions that go back before the government started assigning call letters, such as KFIZ in Fond du lac or KDKA in Pittsburgh or WDAF in Kansas City.
WWV first went on the air in Washington, D.C. When the government moved it to Ft. Collins, Colorado in 1966, the call letters followed the station. And when the government established sister station WWVH in Hawaii, it added the “H” to the call signs.
By the way, the call letters WWV don’t have any significance. As with many early stations, the feds assigned random letters to identify them.