On the night of August 31, 1983, Bill Whitacre was given an urgent task: A South Korean commercial airplane had been shot down by the Soviet Union over the Sea of Japan, and VOA needed to inform its audience about the breaking news.The downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 is considered one of the tensest moments of the Cold War – all 269 passengers and crew aboard were killed, including Lawrence McDonald, a sitting member of the U.S. Congress. As a frequency manager for Voice of America, Whitacre needed to ensure that VOA’s English and Korean broadcasting wouldn’t be disrupted by jamming – a form of censorship that disrupts the free flow of information by deliberately transmitting noise interference.
“We stayed up most of the night to broadcast it in Korean and English,” Whitacre remembered. “It was one of the most exciting and memorable moments of my career.”
Whitacre, who today serves as monitoring chief for the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB), has been fighting against jamming for more than 30 years. “What has remained constant is jamming,” Whitacre said noting that although the Cold War has since ended, there are still many countries that try to jam our broadcasts.
One technique to combat jamming, Whitacre explained, is to put the programming on multiple frequencies as it is “more difficult for a country to block everything.”IBB’s monitoring division operates a network of 75 remote monitoring systems (RMSs) around the world to determine the reception quality for shortwave, medium wave and FM transmissions. Often placed on the rooftop of an embassy or private residence, each RMS consists of an antenna, a radio, and a computer connected to the Internet, with a rating system ranging from one to five to determine signal strength, degradation, and overall merit. For example, a rating of five indicates the best possible shortwave reception, while a rating of one means no transmission can be heard.
IBB also works to employ a wide range of media to get our message heard, specifically transmitting audio through satellite radio, which can be harder to jam.
From radio to satellite to the Internet, for Whitacre, the mission remains the same. “It’s all about delivering the best information with the best likelihood of reaching the audience.”
By Jenn Beard & Yimou Lee