AT THE TONE: A Little History of NIST Radio Stations WWV & WWVH
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ABOUT THE PROJECT
At The Tone is the first comprehensive audio survey of NIST Radio Stations WWV and WWVH: two legendary shortwave radio broadcasters whose primary purpose is the dissemination of scientifically precise time and frequency. Comprised of a 74-minute audio CD and a 32-page, full-color booklet, the set represents a huge cross-section of the stations' "life and times," including recordings of obsolete formats, original voices and identifications, special announcements, format changes, "leap seconds," and other aural oddities from 1958 to 2005. Presented by sound-artist and shortwave auteur Myke Weiskopf, At The Tone is alternately strange and mundane, monotonous and compelling, erudite and obscure. Recommended for fans of The Conet Project, The Ghost Orchid, and other radio-related ephemera.
TIME OUT OF JOINT: A PREFACE
Seventeen years ago, I founded a short-lived organization for shortwave radio enthusiasts called the International Time-Signal DXers Association (ITDXA). I dreamed up the concept for the group while on a family holiday. My father had just emergency-spliced an audio cable for the purpose of recording my unfathomably clear reception of the Ecuadorian radio station, HD2IOA, and as the tape rolled on monotonously for a good half-hour, I wondered silently if I was truly the most oddball obsessive of the international bands. HD2IOA, you see, is what's known as a time-signal station, a fixture of the shortwave radio bands whose sole purpose is to broadcast the official world time, second by second, minute by minute, in highly precise, cesium-calibrated intervals (give or take the effects of propagation). Time-signal stations were among the earliest radio broadcasters and remain in use in many countries (though ever fewer, as satellite-based alternatives proliferate). I had devoted the bulk of my studies to these stations, which I found hopelessly alluring in their mechanized, ultra-utilitarian wonder.
Returning from the islands, I decided to put the million-dollar question through the mimeograph: just how many other radio listeners like me were out there? The first issue of the resulting publication, The Tick-Tock Times, was born in the summer of 1991. Over the next two years, I'd put out another six issues of the TTT, each in a print run slightly larger than the last, eventually reaching over 200 independent members in six or seven countries. At the peak of the ITDXA's popularity, I was just fifteen years old.
Ensconced in my peculiar and precocious netherworld of obscure audio, I received a surprising amount of support for this strange little idea. It seemed that more people sat around listening to clocks on their radios than I had imagined. I was sure that none sat around recording clocks on their radios, though at least, not for the express purpose of listening back to them sometime in the future. Such recordings were certainly made incidentally - as a means to mark the time of a particular radio interception, for example - but I had bets on being the only person with a private stash of cassettes containing up to an hour's worth of this scintillating programming from different countries: Australia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Canada, China, Russia. Pip, pip, pip, pip, pip ... Coordinated Universal Time: Fifteen Hours, Thirty-Five Minutes ... Pip, pip, pip, pip, pip ...
As I was soon to discover, nothing is truly new under the sun, and the first person to prove this axiom to me was Lloyd Matthiesen. A member of the ITDXA, Lloyd phoned me one day to discuss a wealth of recordings of the American time-signal station, WWV (and its Hawaiian sister, WWVH), which he had been making since the early 1960s. I remember this phone call because I distinctively remember going sweaty-palmed with lust and disbelief. I watched the mailbox every day until that cassette arrived a crappy Memorex accompanied by a few sparse pages of commentary on dot-matrix paper. All told, Lloyd had left me with about an hour's worth of completely inexplicable treasure: short-lived station announcements, format changes, power outages, Morse-code miscalculations, and other bizarre sounds that hadn't existed in the strangest of my radiophonic dreams.
Being fifteen years old in the pre-Internet world, and in a town without a vast reserve of federal documents on experimental shortwave broadcasting, I didn't have the resources to do any kind of justice to this project. But I had the will to do something, and so the very first edition of At The Tone was produced on cassette in 1992 under the auspices of the ITDXA. It was an unkempt affair: tracks appeared out of chronological order; some were transcribed at the wrong speed; there was no editing to speak of; and the liner notes, while meticulously compiled from Lloyd's memory, were ultimately only a record of his memory. But it was done, sold in some extraordinarily tiny edition (ten copies?), and then forgotten at least as a matter of public release. I continued to listen to the tapes in private, marveling at the sheer fortune of hearing this crazy lost world of science-fiction time codes, stentorian bass voices, and drifting Morse interjections, to say nothing of the announcements themselves: Emergency power generators? UT2 corrections? What on Earth was a barium ion vehicle, and what took them so damn long to launch it?
These questions would remain unanswered for years until I decided to re-open the case of At The Tone: first in 1997 when I commissioned my record label, Obscure-Disk, with the charge of reissuing it on CD, then on through the years as I endlessly touched and abandoned the project in favor of other, more pressing matters, like graduating from college and pursuing my own subsequent music career. Each time I came back, it grew more ambitious: transferring to CD with speed-correction and editing; researching the station's history via dusty technical journals and microfilmed magazines; soliciting the station and its parent agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for technical and factual assistance. I received more audio and some terrific print materials from another long-time hobbyist, Joe Flaska, whose papers I inadvertently kidnapped for six years; borrowed a treasured book from NIST itself and had to be similarly hounded (again, by accident!) to return it; and stumbled into a goldmine of extremely early audio via the archives of the Voice of America, who had apparently produced a documentary on the station in 1958. But for every moment where good fortune and generosity caused a delay, there were many others where I succumbed to sheer entropy.
As I begin 2008 with a fresh start in Hollywood, I figured I had one last opportunity to dust this project off, starch its collar, and send it out into the world, woefully imperfect but, at the very least, out there. So, in honor of Lloyd and his decades of work which preceded my own, I present our little tribute to a station which will surely drone on far beyond our collective memory. At the tone: Two friends, 50 years, and 74 minutes... Bang.
1. WWV - Eastern Standard Time (1958) 2:20 PM EST (1:39)
Contributors: Matthew Deutch (WWV), Joseph Flaska, Peter Q. George, Wayne
Hanson (NIST), John Lowe (NIST), Lloyd Matthiesen, Dean Okayama (WWVH),
Fred McGehan (NIST), Michael Mideke, and Myke Weiskopf.