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What Closing A Government Radio Station Would Mean For Your Clocks


Shortwave listeners might recognize this signature ID.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: National Institute of Standards and Technology time - this is radio station WWV, Fort Collins, Colo.

SIMON: WWV is the oldest continuously operating radio station in the United States. It's been on the air since 1920. It's signal provides a frequency standard for receivers. The time stamp is regulated by an atomic clock. But a 2019 budget proposal for NIST would close WWV, WWVH in Hawaii and WWVB, which syncs up the time for about 50 million radio-controlled clocks, wristwatches and appliances. Thomas Witherspoon wrote about this on his shortwave listener website, SWLing.com He joins us from the studios of the CBC in Quebec City - that's a lot of alphabet soup to get through in this intro. Thanks for being with us, Mr. Witherspoon.

THOMAS WITHERSPOON: Oh, thank you very much. It's my pleasure.

SIMON: So what would the effect of the closing of WWV be?

WITHERSPOON: Well, these little WWVB receivers are embedded in lots of devices that look for accurate timing - clocks, watches, weather stations, even irrigation systems. So if the WWVB signal goes away, these devices will have to be changed manually. They're not going to update themselves.

SIMON: Isn't that all taken care of on the Internet these days? I mean, we set the time according to what we see on our iPhones. I venture most Americans do.

WITHERSPOON: Yeah, a lot of them do. But a lot of people think that devices are actually connecting to the Internet to get their time signal. But I've got an alarm clock next to my bed, for example. The little embedded receiver, they don't require a lot of resources. This kind of runs in the background and doesn't need the internet - doesn't need anything else. They kind of hum along.

SIMON: Now, one of our producers spoke with the president of La Crosse Technology. They make a lot of these radio-controlled clocks that are found in schools and factory floors and homes. He says that he thinks Congress would never approve this cut because there are so many millions of devices. Does that reassure you?

WITHERSPOON: That's nice to hear someone in industry saying that. But right now as the budget sits, it does cut out all of the WWV time stations. So if it goes through as proposed right now, it will be cut in 2019.

SIMON: I think I know the answer because I used to listen to shortwave and haven't in years. It's all on the web now. What's the state of that as a hobby these days?

WITHERSPOON: That's a really good question. So I am absolutely in love with the shortwaves. I'm an amateur radio operator, so I actually communicate over the shortwaves. I've been listening to shortwave radio since I was 8 years old. In fact, one of the very first things I heard on shortwave radio was WWV, when my father would set his watch manually to it from a little console radio in our living room.

The state of shortwave radio right now - a lot of the large international broadcasters are dropping out of the scene. It's expensive to run shortwave radio stations. But there are surprisingly a lot of stations that are still out there that you can hear. The BBC World Service still broadcasts on shortwave - the Voice of America. You know, one of the reasons I love it so much is someone could be in a country under a repressive regime and listen to a shortwave radio, and there's no way the powers that be could actually track them.

SIMON: Are you just being nostalgic about WWV.

WITHERSPOON: (Laughter) I'm a nostalgic guy. So I'm always nostalgic about WWV. But I use them all the time. I mean, the thing is they're sort of the heartbeat of shortwave radio. When something goes wrong, you check the WWV to see if you're picking up their signal. And you know then everything's OK. So you know, maritime operators, military operators, amateur radio operators, we all listen to and use WWV stations regularly.

SIMON: Thomas Witherspoon, from the radio blog SWLing.com, thanks so much for being with us.

WITHERSPOON: Thank you very much, Scott. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.