Strange Story of DC's Lost AM Radio Station Still Transmitting Road Closures From 2013

Discussion in 'Amateur Radio News' started by W0PV, Mar 6, 2021.

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  1. W0PV

    W0PV Ham Member QRZ Page

    Tuning around the AM broadcast band, or any part of the spectrum, can turn up some odd and intriguing things as a radio amateur in the Washington DC area recently pointed out.

    73, John, WØPV

    The Strange Story of DC's Lost AM Radio Station Still Transmitting Inauguration Road Closures From 2013

    "Strong 'Fallout 3' vibes," says the radio amateur who discovered it.

    BY ROB STUMPF MARCH 4, 2021

    Not everyone pays the most attention to AM radio. To some, talk is talk and fuzzy signals are exactly that. Still, it'd be odd if the same broadcast looped continuously for eight years without anyone noticing—but it's not impossible.

    As it turns out, that very scenario took place up until this week in Washington D.C. where an AM radio station had been broadcasting the same traffic report since 2013, and nobody seems to know why.

    [​IMG]

    It was first pointed out on Twitter by Matt Blaze, @WB2SRI , security researcher and chair of computer science and law at Georgetown University. In certain parts of D.C., you could tune-in to 1650 kHz and be greeted by a looped recording. The message, which read off the call sign WQOQ613 and warned listeners to avoid the 14th Street bridges, had been repeating since at least Jan. 21, 2013—the day of former U.S. President Barack Obama's second inauguration. But that was more than eight years ago. Why in the world would this message still be broadcasting? And why could it only be picked up in certain parts of the city?

    To answer that question, I reached out to several individuals who work for the District of Columbia, including the technical contact registered with the FCC. Within an hour of sending off an email, my phone rang and Bill Curry, the chief of communications security at Homeland Security Emergency Management in Washington D.C., was on the other end.

    Bill was immediately interested in the rogue signal. He didn't seem rushed or bothered by the fact that the message was being broadcasted, but was instead curious that it managed to stay alive for so long without anyone knowing that it existed or complaining that it was out of date. See, Bill has been a radio enthusiast his entire life, even building homemade Ham (?) radios before he began working with RF professionally, so the thought that some unmanned station was looping a recorded message was...intriguing.

    While on the phone, Bill's brother flipped on his historic Zenith Trans-Oceanic radio and sure enough, the traffic report began to play. Couple his interest with the security and communications work he does with Fusion Centers and it was clear that he needed to know where the signal was being broadcast—if, for nothing else, to satisfy his curiosity.

    I get a weak signal at my receiver location, but here it is, FWIW. https://t.co/2w59d29Giv

    Don't forget to avoid the 14th Street Bridge.

    — matt blaze (@mattblaze) March 1, 2021
    After exchanging stories about adventures in our own siloed worlds of engineering, Bill had a theory that actually seemed quite plausible: someone just forgot to flip the off-switch. See, when it comes to radio communications in Washington D.C., many people live under the "if it isn't broken, don't fix it" philosophy—especially since erecting a new radio tower is an extremely complicated process within a certain radius of the nation's capital.

    According to Bill, the signal may have been originally transmitted on several temporary stations, all of which were thought to have been decommissioned some time ago. Some of these transmitters may have been affixed to telephone poles on the side of the highway, while others could've been stuffed into two-wheeled trailers to be towed wherever needed. The equipment in these trailers is often powered by solar panels so it can operate without an external power source. His bet was on the latter, that the case of the mystery radio signal may have just been sitting in a vacant parking lot getting power from the sun and transmitting the same traffic information day after day for eight years.

    Because the location of the transmitter wasn't documented, Bill needed to organize an effort to locate it. His team set off with a Radio Direction Finder (RDF), a device with a unidirectional antenna meant to help find the source of a radio signal, and began the hunt. And by the following afternoon, the signal finally stopped broadcasting across the D.C. airwaves.

    And after eight years of faithful service to 2013 inauguration day drivers, the station now appears to be off the air.

    — matt blaze (@mattblaze) March 3, 2021
    It's honestly kind of upsetting to know that it's gone—a little less electricity in the air. Just as quickly as it was found, the mystery signal simply fizzled out. Someone at Bill's directive must have found the transmitter and finally finished the job someone forgot to do eight years ago. We'd like to think of it as a service, considering the license expired later this year anyway (a decade after it was issued).

    Unfortunately, while the signal may be no more, we still don't know exactly where it was being transmitted from. Perhaps it was a trailer parked in a vacant lot, or maybe a station was stuffed inside of an old decommissioned building. The world may never know—but at least we won't forget about the eight years of a phantom government traffic report riding the airwaves of Washington D.C.
     

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    Last edited: Mar 6, 2021
    MM0JNL, VK5OHR, N5RXP and 16 others like this.
  2. KC1NKY

    KC1NKY Ham Member QRZ Page

    Very amusing. Can't wait to tell President Eisenhower about this....!
     
    W1AST, AD0YU, WE4E and 16 others like this.
  3. W0IS

    W0IS Ham Member QRZ Page

    I suspect it was a self-contained unit with transmitter, solar panel, and antenna. When they took it down, they put it in a yard with other old equipment, solar panel pointing up. It would have been interesting to hear any SWL reports. I suspect it might have disappeared at night.

    Actually, I just found this picture of the transmitter:

    [​IMG]
     
    WA2LXB, M1WML, W4NNF and 10 others like this.
  4. WW2BSA

    WW2BSA XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    Great story! While I would have hoped that the location and circumstances around the signal would have been revealed, there is something to be said for a good mystery story!
     
    KK4ZDS, M1WML, N0TZU and 3 others like this.
  5. KR3DX

    KR3DX Ham Member QRZ Page

    From the 1959 movie "On The Beach"
     
    2E0CIT, WZ7U, M1WML and 5 others like this.
  6. NI9Y

    NI9Y Ham Member QRZ Page

    Someone pull the shade please as Gregory Peck is still on the sub heading back to VK land.
     
    KJ7FIQ, M1WML, K0UO and 1 other person like this.
  7. N1IPU

    N1IPU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

     
    WZ7U, N0AMY and M1WML like this.
  8. KC1OCA

    KC1OCA XML Subscriber QRZ Page

    I suspect it has been broadcasting the same traffic report since 2013 since DC traffic hasn't improved since 2013...
     
    WA8MEA, KB7DO, K4PIH and 9 others like this.
  9. N7WR

    N7WR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    I have a similar, interesting story. Way back in the early 1980's I was the police chief in Coronado CA. One of our responsibilities was also Director of Emergency Preparedness. That coastal town was often impacted by coastal storms and other events which made it advantageous to have a ready means of communicating information to all of our residents and visitors. This was long before the time of "reverse 9-1-1" and other means of alerting people, automatically, by telephone calls.
    Another member of the department, like me, was a ham radio operator. We thought it advantageous to have an AM radio transmitter which we controlled and which we could use to broadcast recorded (loop to loop) messages. It needed to be able to have messages programmed remotely via telephone.

    Our research led us to what is known as the Travelers Information System, a low power AM station which could transmit on either the low or high end of the AM broadcast band. The TIS regulations at that time required that the "normal" use must be for road and traffic information and that the transmitter must be located on or within a very short distance of a state or federal highway. It just so happened that the police station was on the only state highway which passed through town. In discussions with the FCC they agreed that other types of information (of a non commercial nature) such as emergency broadcasts could be made on the system when necessary.

    We applied for a TIS license and were granted one. To the best of anyone's knowledge we were the first municipality in the country to receive such a license as all others were issued to state highway departments.

    We found a vendor for the transmitter we were licensed for (530AM). The FCC regulations limited the type and height of antennas which could be used. The vendor wanted (at that time) a huge amount of money to do the installation. We said we'd do it ourselves and the other ham and I did so, erecting the antenna on the flat roof of the PD with LOTS of radials. We had signs placed at the two entrances into the city advising people of the resource and we used it many, many times over the years for other than road/traffic information.

    I left that agency in 1991 and became Chief of another department in northern California where we installed a similar TIS station. However, especially during winter I could still hear the station in Coronado. It apparently was no longer used for its intended purpose and over 5 years after leaving Coronado I could still hear the same message being played that was recorded when I was still Chief. Eventually that station was taken out of service I would assume as by the time I retired and moved to Oregon I could no longer hear it.
     
    KA2CZU, MM0JNL, AD0YU and 8 others like this.
  10. W4ZGC

    W4ZGC Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    If anything, this proves how no one listens to AM radio. It took how many YEARS for this continuously broadcasted message to get picked up before anyone bothered to say anything? RIP AM, and FM will soon be not far behind. Can't say how many people I know who are now in their 30s and soon to be 40s that never listen to radio. And it isn't like there is a compelling reason to: it's either lunatic fringe talk radio, the God squad begging for money, the same 20 songs over and over followed by stop sets of annoying radio spots and DJs laughing at their own fart jokes, or moldy oldie stations with a play list of 50 top 40 songs that sucked when they first hit the charts. No wonder a signal could be on the air for almost a decade and no one care.
     
    MM0JNL, N7XXC, KK6HUY and 8 others like this.

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