Time Check: 100 Years Of Service For WWV

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On Tuesday, Oct. 1, an exclusive group of 100 people will be in attendance in Fort Collins, Colo., to celebrate the centennial of a radio station many individuals have never heard of. It offers no music, or spoken word programming. Yet, it is essential to broadcasting history.


In 1919, on that date, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) radio station WWV signed on the air doing pretty much what it does today.

It’s time was almost up. Now, it’s still telling time for Planet Earth.

Never heard of WWV?

It operates in the high frequency (HF) portion of the radio spectrum. The station radiates 10kw on 5 MHz, 10 MHz, and 15 MHz; and 2,500 watts on 2.5 MHz and 20 MHz.

Each frequency is broadcast from a separate transmitter, all situated on flat grassland in an area roughly 60 miles north of Denver.

Although each frequency carries the same information, multiple frequencies are used because the quality of HF reception depends on many factors such as location, time of year, time of day, the frequency being used, and atmospheric and ionospheric propagation conditions. The variety of frequencies makes it likely that at least one frequency will be usable at all times.

For audiophiles who turned to shortwave radio as a kid, WWV is most certainly a station one scanned up. It offers nothing but time checks, and its frequency information.

“WWV is not only one of the world’s oldest continuously operating radio stations, but also one of the oldest scientific and technical services provided by the United States government,” NIST notes.

An anniversary celebration open to anyone was publicized earlier this month; the 100 slots were quickly taken. At the event, cake eaters will enjoy talks about WWV’s history, with visit from those based at research labs in Gaithersburg, Md., and Boulder, Colo.

WWV’s history includes setting frequency standards for other radio operators, some of whom had no idea where they were on the dial when they first hit the airwaves in the early 1920s.

WWV nearly died, as part of a $6 million annual budget cut proposal. That didn’t happen.

The U.S. government licensed WWV one year before it gave KDKA-AM 1020 in Pittsburgh its license; KDKA is the longest continuously broadcasting station in the U.S.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, KCBS-AM 740 has largely broadcast without interruption since 1909. However, the station was founded as “KQW” by largely forgotten radio pioneer Charlie “Doc” Herrold, in San Jose. As such, radio historians tend to turn their eyes on KDKA.

On Tuesday, they can also look to Fort Collins in a salute to a medium that is entering its second century of existence.