Long-Running U.S. Federal Radio Stations, Beloved by Hams, in Danger of Shutdown

Several public radio stations that have broadcast the time of day continuously for nearly 100 years are on the chopping block

Photo of NIST radio station WWVB. The transmitters are in the building. In the background are WWVB's four north towers supporting the antenna in the center.
Photo: NIST
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Starting in May 1920, the U.S. federal WWV radio stations have broadcast the official time without fail. For ham radio operators, hearing the friendly “National Institute of Standards and Technology Time!” announcement is a comforting old refrain. For others, it’s a service they’ve never heard of—yet in the background, it’s what keeps the clocks and appliances in their daily lives automatically ticking along on time.

But after 98 years, this constant companion could soon go off the air. The proposed 2019 U.S. presidential budget calls for a 34 percent cut in NIST funding; in response, the institute compiled a budget-use plan that would eliminate the WWV stations.

At first blush it might sound like the natural end to a quaint public service from a bygone era. Do we really need radio-broadcast time signals in an era of Internet-connected devices and GPS?

Many would argue: Yes, we really do. More than 50 million devices in the United States—including wall clocks, wristwatches, and industrial appliances—keep time through the signal from NIST’s WWVB station, operating from a site near Fort Collins, Colo., where it reads the time directly from an atomic clock. These radio-equipped clocks are permanently tuned to WWVB’s low-frequency, 60-kilohertz signal.

“WWVB is the pacemaker for the world around us, even if we don’t realize it,” says Thomas Witherspoon, editor of shortwave radio news site The SWLing Post. “It’s why factory workers and schools don’t need to drag out the stepladder every time we switch between daylight and standard time. Without WWVB, these devices won’t magically update themselves.”

Those household devices and industrial clocks generally don’t have Internet capability, Witherspoon points out, so without WWVB “we’d likely be getting on ladders twice a year to manually have our clocks spring forward and fall back.”

What’s more, the nonradio alternatives just aren’t reliable, says John Lowe, station manager for WWVB and its sister high-frequency stations WWV, also in Fort Collins, and WWVH out of Kauai.

Internet connections aren’t available everywhere. And “GPS does not penetrate into buildings, which is an obvious problem,” Lowe says. “Plus, it’s vulnerable, as it’s prone to jamming as well as spoofing.”

The WWV stations are more than perfect timekeepers, too. The stations emit a frequency that can be used by military personnel, mariners, ham radio operators, or anyone else to calibrate devices. Their operators also broadcast information like space weather alerts, GPS satellite health reports, and marine storm warnings.

But, at least as written in the NIST budget plan, these airwaves are slated to go silent. So is Lowe worried about his job? “I am not,” he says flatly.

Lowe points out that it’s only the presidential budget proposal that suggests cuts to NIST; the House and Senate proposals both leave the agency’s budget intact. Plus, the WWV stations have survived similar presidential proposals before, he adds.

Still, the stations’ listeners are taking the potential loss seriously. Fans have circulated multiple Whitehouse.gov petitions, while outlets like Witherspoon’s SWLing Post are using their platforms to encourage supporters to contact their local representatives. Congress has until 1 October to finalize the budget for fiscal year 2019, at which point the fate of these stations will become clear.  

“As a one-way broadcast, typically it’s very difficult to ascertain our user base,” Lowe notes. “But when events like this come up, we get a lot of feedback. It’s a silver lining: We’ve received a lot of positive support, and it shows us this is still a highly valued service.”

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