Posted by: calloftheandes | December 11, 2012

Where Have All the Towers Gone?

HCJB Global antenna site at Pifo (archive photo)

HCJB Global antenna site at Pifo (archive photo by Duane Birkey)

Around the world, a few technophiles might feel almost personally acquainted with the shortwave transmitters formerly at the HCJB Global site in Pifo, Ecuador.

With walk-in access to facilitate monitoring and maintenance, five mission-built transmitters sported “HC” as their brand. Four HC100 units sent out programming at 100,000 watts whereas the transmitting capacity of the lone HC500 on the transmitter floor in Pifo was five times as much. Challenges surfaced in keeping transmitters going at high altitude, but in the transmitters’ final years in Pifo, missionary engineers reported monthly averages near 100 percent with minimal downtime.

Designed and built by missionary engineers at the Indiana-based HCJB Global Technology Center, the HC100s became known as T6 (T for transmitter), T7, T8 and T9 with the HC500 being T3. Of these, none remain in Ecuador following the last shortwave radio programming that aired from Pifo in November 2009.

While broadcasts were still emanating from the “Voice of the Andes,” T9 was shipped to HCJB Global-Australia’s international broadcast facility in Kununurra in 2005. The last to leave Ecuador was T8, returning to its birthplace at the Technology Center, joining T6 and T7.

David Russell, who directs the Technology Center, said his staff is “currently in the process of implementing a design change to two HC100 shortwave transmitters that will enable them to broadcast in DRM (digital) mode.”

Display tag that identified T7 on the transmitter floor

Display tag that identified T7 on the transmitter floor

DRM stands for Digital Radio Mondiale, a consortium of broadcasters and manufacturers that shares its research discoveries on using digital radio. Mission engineers have been demonstrating the DRM standard to Ecuador’s telecommunications authorities as the South American country determines which broadcast standards to use.

Both HCJB Global-Australia and TWR-Guam requested the design change, having “conducted their own audience research and determined their own needs and strategy for the new broadcast technology,” Russell added.

Charlie Jacobson, who is working with his engineer father, Herb Jacobson, on the digital radio project at Elkhart, said T7 is one of the transmitters being refurbished, whereas T6 and T8 will probably be used for parts. T7 is scheduled to be shipped to HCJB Global-Australia’s international broadcast facility in 2013, nearly a decade after the Technology Center shipped the first HC100 to Kununurra.

Producers of Chattisgarhi and Kuruk programs singing together

Producers of Chattisgarhi and Kuruk programs singing together

From the Pifo site in late 2009, the last languages heard were German, Low German and Kulina, an indigenous language spoken in Brazil. Today HC100s are “belting their voices out into Southeast and South Central Asia from Kununurra,” according to Shelley Weeks, a technician scheduled to arrive with her engineer husband, Brent, at the HCJB Global-Australia World Office in Melbourne on Dec. 9. Staff members there have received mail from nearly 60 countries in response to the broadcasts from Kununurra in 20 languages.

Among these languages at least two—Bhojpuri and Chattisgarhi—were first committed to by the mission more than two decades ago. In 1985 HCJB Global and other international broadcasters began researching language groups, working together with the goal of making Christian broadcasts available in all of the world’s major languages.

Last July HCJB Global-Australia began broadcasting from its new international broadcast facility, with fantastic results, according to Christopher Kirubakaran, a radio partner in India. While visiting donor Kirubakaran wrote, “I’ve been listening to the broadcast here in Singapore—it’s just like listening to an FM station. The new antennas have made a huge difference.” On Sunday, April 21, 2013, the staff plans to officially dedicate the new broadcast facility.

The broadcast languages and letter count could both grow next year as an HC100 once used in Ecuador is put back into service at Kununurra some 10,000 miles away. In addition, antenna arrays that once graced the Andean skyline are going up “down under,” according to Steve Sutherland, a former Pifo engineer now serving in Kununurra.

Steve Sutherland, farthest from camera, in a shipping container as T7 was loaded at Pifo

Steve Sutherland, farthest from camera, in a shipping container as it was loaded at Pifo

Sutherland wrote in October of “spending 10 hours a day (going on a week now) as we are putting up the screen of the steerable antenna,” referring to a directional antenna with a major lobe that can be shifted in direction. He anticipates having it operational “after the wet season in 2013.”

The regular rains so saturate everything that “during the wet season we cannot drive anywhere that is off of a hard-packed road with any kind of vehicle. Actually, you even sink in some if you try to walk on the paddock,” Sutherland said.

Sutherland works with volunteers at the Australia site

Sutherland works with volunteers at the Australia site

Carl Smith, a consulting engineer and longtime mission friend, designed the steerable antenna for another international broadcaster, Voice of America. The design was modified at Pifo using an egg beater-shaped antenna in front of the screen.

After the mission’s forays into radio and television established HCJB Global on Ecuador’s media landscape, the steerable antenna, along with missionary Clarence Moore’s cubical quad antenna, placed mission engineers among those in the vanguard of international broadcast technologies worldwide.

As the former Pifo site is grazed, harvested or eyed by developers, some antenna tower sections were repurposed. They now serve at Ecuador’s first evangelical indigenous station, La Voz de AEIICH, high in the Andes at Colta in Chimborazo province. Missionary Hermann Schirmacher said that other tower sections are slated for use on an FM repeater at Lago Agrio in the jungle province of Sucumbíos.


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  3. My dad (Fred Woodburn) worked there at HCJB’s Pifo location back in the mid 1960s. I visited a few times, but can’t find it on the map. I guess the place is gone now, but could you please send me a Google maps link to the location of the Pifo station? It would mean a lot. Thanks.

    • Hello Chad, My family and I have visited the Pifo transmitter site many times. Yet, in driving that road these days, i find it easy to pass the site without even noticing. Following your request, I checked Google Earth and scrolled back and forth trying to find the HCJB site. I will keep doing this until I locate it on Google, mark it, then post the Internet url for you to follow the link. Thanks for your interest. -Ralph

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