From NAB: "WBT studio waited for bombs to fall"


At NAB last week, RBR had dinner with Mark Washburn, TV/Radio Writer for the Charlotte Observer, at a dinner hosted by NAB’s Dennis Wharton. He told us about a tour he took, and subsequent story he wrote on Charlotte’s heritage News-Talker WBT-AM a few years ago. A very interesting story, which he allowed us to share:
"WBT studio waited for bombs to fall: Bunker is a relic of nation’s nuclear terror" The voice of doom was supposed to speak from here. A little-known relic of Cold War hysteria survives beneath the transmitter for WBT-AM on Nations Ford Road: a bunkerlike radio studio from which would come the last word on preparing for nuclear attack and the first word for dealing with the aftermath – if anyone were out there to hear it.
[more of the story here]

"Thirteen Days," the movie released last week that chronicles the Cuban
missile crisis, brings back to the national consciousness the atomic fears
of the 1950s and ’60s.

When the world seemed on the brink of Armageddon, the government went
digging. It excavated a vast cavern under a Colorado mountain for the
military command, dug secret chambers beneath a West Virginia resort to hold
Congress and built burrows beneath many of the nation’s most powerful radio
stations, such as WBT.

"It wasn’t publicized, but there was a bunker and it was stocked," said Doug
Mayes, 79, longtime broadcaster for WBT and WBTV (Channel 3). "Somebody was going to try to live there. Somebody was going to try to keep the station on
the air."

At a time when hydrogen bombs were exploding in the atmosphere in routine
arms tests, Mayes pondered the possibility of covering a nuclear holocaust.
"I thought about it and decided all I could do was describe what was
happening and tell it like it was."

Still stocked with Civil Defense survival crackers and giant air filters,
WBT’s bomb shelter is a monument to dread. It contains a 1960s radio studio
– still hooked up to the transmitter and capable of broadcasting – that has
never been used.

Oversize turntables and tape machines, electronic dinosaurs in a digital
age, sit ready to work. Turn power on and old vacuum tubes beneath their
steel skins glow purposefully.

The government spared little expense in outfitting WBT, chosen by the
Defense Civil Preparedness Agency for its 50,000-watt voice and because
Charlotte didn’t seem a town high on the target list. The shelter was built
in the months after the missile crisis.

"When you look at it now, we just laugh," said Jerry Dowd, chief engineer
for WBT-AM (1110). "This was the last line of defense, a last-ditch hope of

At the height of the Cold War, the threat of annihilation was very real,
said Tom Ditt, 52, who coordinates the Emergency Alert System for the N.C.
Division of Emergency Management in Raleigh.

"Our parents had just come out of World War II. They had seen Hiroshima and

"You have to think of all of this in the context of 1962. I remember Nikita
Krushchev saying, `We will bury you.’ "

Broadcasters were enlisted by the government as a channel to inform and
alert the public. The Emergency Broadcast System was developed in the late
1960s, and now a digital system links broadcasters in what is called the
Emergency Alert System. Best known for weather alerts, the system has the
capability to carry emergency presidential addresses instantly.

The government still maintains a network of hardened shelters with modern
equipment in 33 radio stations across the United States, just in case. The
nearest stations to Charlotte are WQDR-FM in Raleigh and WCOS-AM in

Sixteen feet beneath WBT’s 1930s transmitter building on Nations Ford Road,
the bunker studio is the size of a living room. It’s not open to the public,
but the bunker’s air vents can be seen from the road.
Among original government-issue survival gear is a 7-gallon water barrel, a
wool blanket and a "sanitation kit" that includes a crude chemical potty.
There’s still a quart of old iodine, purple as communion wine, to be
consumed to ward off thyroid cancer. The government even sent paper cups.
"Everything’s here but the Geiger counter and the radiation suit," said
Dowd. The suit, intended for the luckless soul whose duty it would be to
poke outside the bunker and monitor radiation, disappeared years ago.
With understatement, a manual left in the bunker says: "The radiological
monitor will perform his duties under a variety of conditions."
Dusty grit covers everything. Old record albums, many of them intended to
entertain the survivors of war, line the walls. Atop one stack, a
particularly useful album: Pat Boone, "The Lord’s Prayer."
The wall clock is stuck at noon – or midnight, take your choice. The
windowless room gives no cue whether it is day or night. At the console, old
earphones lie cast aside, their cloth-covered cord marking them as a relic
of another era.

"An emergency generator was installed to provide power," said Bob White,
former WBT chief engineer. "It’s still there and still works fine. I
maintained that for many years."
A fuel tank for the generator was buried and transmitter wiring was
protected against an electromagnetic pulse that would accompany a nuclear

"The idea was to tell people where you could find fresh water, basic
services, if a truck was coming in with food," said White. "It was a pretty
grim time."
There were weapons in the bunker to defend it, but they’re long gone, he

Time has transformed the bunker and the sub-basement next to it into the
station’s junk heap, or treasure house, depending on your tastes. The rooms
contain decades of recordings, some back to the 1920s, when WBT became one
of the first commercial stations in the nation.

In the gloom of the chamber repose classic sounds like Louis Armstrong’s 78
rpm jazz record released in April 1927. Among the album’s selections:

Reach Mark Washburn at (704) 358-5007 or e-mail [email protected].