You will not find the name Central Intelligence Agency
(CIA) mentioned anywhere in this WWII
era story reporting on the activities of the
Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service
(FBIS), but it was then and is now
a branch of the CIA. Per the
CIA website "For nearly 70 years, the Foreign Broadcast Information
Service (FBIS) monitored the world's
airwaves and other news outlets, transcribing and translating selected
contents into English and in the process creating a multi-million
page historical archive of the global news media." Equally surprising
is that the British Broadcasting Service (BBC)
has a similar activity known as the Summary of World Broadcasts
Together, their operators attempted to monitor every radio transmission
made worldwide in order to provide intelligence for the war effort.
As with so many forms of technology during the war years, intelligence
gathering capability grew rapidly and significantly. Listening to
'chatter' amongst military personnel, underground resistance members,
government offices, citizens citing sighted activity, media field
staff reporting to their offices, and other broadcast sources was
a major source of planning data. A big part of the job was attempting
to discern whether intercepted communications were legitimate or
Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service
By Oliver Read, W9ETI
FBIS receiving station at Silver Hill, Md. Highly directional
antennas connect at this building to one of the most elaborate
receiving installations in the world.
Managing Editor, Radio News
Radio, as an instrument of propaganda, has proved its importance
beyond any doubt. It reveals many psychological slips.
A little-known governmental agency, but one of extreme importance
in wartime, is the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS)
of the Federal Communications Commission.
The FBIS came into being nine months before Pearl Harbor when
this official monitoring service was set up to keep our Government
informed of what the enemy radio was saying to its own people, to
neutrals, and to its enemies. Due to lack of normal peacetime sources
of information, a continuous round-the-clock monitoring of the short
waves provided intelligence agencies of this and other friendly
governments with valuable clues as to enemy strategy and how best
it might be combated on military, economic, and propaganda fronts.
Four listening posts manned by skilled engineers, linguists, students
of public affairs, and editors sift through 2,500,000 words a day
of foreign broadcast material and send it minute-by-minute over
teletypes to nineteen government war agencies. It is interesting
to go back and review the normal chain of events that led to the
development of the FBIS.
Radio broadcasting developed originally in the "medium-wave"
part of the radio spectrum - the part where most ordinary domestic
broadcasting is now carried on. Dr. Frank Conrad of Westinghouse
and Signor Marconi in Italy were experimenting with broadcasting
on much shorter wavelengths early in 1923, using radio waves of
100 meters or less instead of the 360-meter waves used by standard
broadcasting at that time. It was noted that for long-distance broadcasting
these shorter waves possessed many advantages. Soon experimental
short-wave broadcasting stations in the U. S. and in England were
exchanging programs. Thus, international broadcasting was inaugurated
These original international broadcasts were relayed. There existed
in each country but a handful of radio receivers capable of tuning
in shortwave programs. The only way to build up audiences for these
broadcasts was to pick them up and then rebroadcast them in the
standard radio band used by ordinary listeners. The cooperation
of radio stations in both countries was required for successful
Audio level and output control panel, used at the FBIS
receiving station at Silver Hill. Md. (P) Push buttons to
check audio level. (C) Selective switch for phone output.
(M) Voltmeter (0-150) with 2250 ohms substituted for multiplier.
(S) Selective switch for Memovox recorders. (J) Phone jack.
(T) Terminal for rack of four receivers.
Organization chart of the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence
Monitoring officer "logs" transmissions from all parts
of the world and notes the exact time which they are heard,
together with any other information needed for future reference.
Radio transmissions are picked up by 29 SX-28 receivers
and piped through the console (foreground) to the wax cylinder
recorders located seven miles from this receiving station.
David Cooper, FBIS Supervisor, records a broadcast on
a Memovox machine. Over an hour's intelligence may be recorded
on each side of the flexible discs. Continuous recording
is possible by using duplicate machines.
This monitoring officer, at Portland, Oregon, caught
the sensational news that Tokyo had been raided by Gen.
Doolittle's flyers. Japanese broadcasts are four times more
difficult to interpret than any others.
Wax cylinders containing the original intelligence that
has been received from the elaborate receiver installation
located at Silver Hill, Maryland, are kept for a period
of forty-eight hours. and then are reshaven for further
No one doubted in the early twenties that this international
broadcasting would be a prime force of international peace and good
will among nations. They anticipated no friction. Shortly thereafter,
however, radio amateurs and others began constructing radio receivers
which were able to pick up foreign broadcasts directly by short-wave
instead of being limited to the standard band rebroadcasts of these
international programs. Soon, enterprising manufacturers were marketing
radio receivers that included short-wave bands and anyone could
listen to foreign broadcasts on shortwave.
The result was that the international broadcast stations could
build up listening audiences from other countries even for those
programs which the other countries chose not to rebroadcast. About
this time medium-wave broadcasts were being used across national
borders for political propaganda. The Russians took the lead in
this field. Adolph Hitler in 1933 rose to power with his doctrine
that "words are deeds" and quickly perceived the disrupted possibility
of sowing seeds of distrust and dissension by international radio.
Short-wave transmitters became a new kind of Nazi weapon.
Transmitters were pouring forth words in scores of languages
by 1938. Great Britain used the short waves extensively as a means
of welding the far flung dominions to the Mother country. The League
of Nations broadcast news of its activities through a powerful Swiss
station. The Nazis were stirring up conflict within neighboring
The Germans developed special directional antenna systems for
their transmitters and beamed their propaganda to every corner of
the world. The British, for example, would be told that the United
States would soon dominate the world, while the Americans were simultaneously
being warned through another transmitter that the British were the
chief danger. When war came in 1939, this radio warfare became intensified.
Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi radio star, built up a tremendous listening
audience in England and was featured on front pages of American
newspapers. In this way, direct German propaganda procured the fullest
access into both Britain and the United States. Simultaneously,
the Nazi barrage of anti-American broadcasts to Latin America was
The FBIS was set up at the suggestion of the State Department
with the approval of the Board of War Communications to operate
as a central agency serving all Government agencies requiring foreign
There are nine simultaneous or successive steps in FBIS operations.
These are (1) Scheduling; (2) Interception; (3) and (4) Monitoring
and recording (that go on simultaneously); (5) Translating; (6)
Wire services, including editing and teletyping; (7) reports (including
editing and mimeographing); (8) analysis (including periodic and
special reports) and (9) individual services of various kinds.
Special services are provided by the FBIS to Government officials
requesting them. For example; at the time of the Hitler speech following
the Italian surrender, the White House had a special telephone installation
with Hitler's voice on one end and Churchill, General Marshall and
others on the receiving end.
Principal speeches by German and Japanese leaders, by standing
order, are recorded as received on permanent high fidelity discs
and are furnished the OWI and the equivalent British Overseas Broadcast
agency for use in their Library of Direct Quotations.
We visited the FBIS receiving station at Silver Hill, Md., to
get first-hand information on the important functions of this nonmilitary
unit. There are four such stations operating for the express purpose
of checking all foreign short-wave broadcast transmissions, recording
their content and interpreting them into English. The receiving
stations are chosen for excellence of reception. They include a
maze of communications receivers (Hallicrafters SX-28's), Memovox
and Presto recorders, and various and sundry units assembled and
developed by FBIS personnel. The receivers are mounted in bays.
They are easily accessible from the rear for quick servicing. All
of the sets are in continuous operation. There are twenty-nine of
these in operation at Silver Hill alone.
In charge of each receiving station is a Monitoring Officer.
Under him are a number of monitoring officers and radio operators
working in shifts, whose job it is to maintain an accurate worldwide
program "log" and to pretune receivers to prescheduled programs
over a twenty-four hour period.
Connecting to these receivers is a highly complex antenna system
including five Rhombic antennas, each covering a maximum angle of
twenty degrees. The operators select the antenna which provides
the strongest signals to be heard. The outputs of the receivers
go through a control console provided with complete "patching" facilities.
There are special telephone circuits which go to the central office
located many miles distant and which terminate to wax cylinder recorders.
The audio level is maintained by the console operator at a predetermined
level, one which will afford correct modulation for the wax-cylinder
Other equipment, as mentioned previously, includes Memovox recorders
employing paper-based discs capable of holding over an hour's recording
per side. These are used when a complete transcription is required
for counter-propaganda purposes. In addition, two Presto tables
are in readiness to record any type of intelligence requiring high
The FBIS interpreters are not located at the receiving stations.
They work from the downtown headquarters of the FBIS in Washington
(seven miles away). The experts of the FBIS are equipped to monitor
thirty-four different languages plus thirty other dialects. Most
of the interception carried out by the personnel involves voice
broadcasts. A small part, particularly enemy news, is transmitted
by International Morse code. The Germans use it frequently. The
Jap Domei Morse in the Japanese language presents some peculiar
difficulties however. It is directed from Tokyo to its satellite
newspapers in the Asiatic area. The Jap announcement of the resignation
of the two Japanese Chiefs of Staff, for example, was first received
in the United States via these Jap press broadcasts. The Japanese
language itself is written in ideographs which cannot be transferred
directly into dots and dashes. They must first be changed into a
Roman alphabet reading of the Jap language on a purely phonetic
basis. This Romaji is then transmitted by International Morse code.
At Portland, Oregon, where Jap broadcasts are monitored, engineers
receive and type it out as so many meaningless letters. It is teletyped
in this form and is translated to English at the Washington headquarters.
Such translations take about four times as long as for any other
language. These experts, specializing in various languages, listen
to the programs as they come over the telephone circuits. They wear
a pair of headphones and type the intelligence as they listen. They
do not make a complete transcription, however, unless it is of extreme
importance. A second cylinder may be cut in instantaneously so that
an uninterrupted recording may be had. These are kept in special
racks for a period of forty-eight hours in case an entire program
is requested by one of the various agencies using the service.
Other important functions of the FBIS include editorial and teletype
A special service has been rendered on occasions to the Department
of Justice. This is in connection with trials involved in sedition,
violation of alien registration laws, and the treason clause of
the Constitution of the United States. One of these was in August,
1942, of William Dudley Pelley and two other defendants on charges
of having violated the federal sedition Act. Dr. Pelley, leader
of the American Silver shirt organization, was publisher at the
time of the trial of a periodical called "The Galilean." This periodical
contained material reflectng and corresponding to the main lines
of Axis propaganda and contained no material which contradicted
these main lines of Axis propaganda.
Two government witnesses, one of them Ensign Harold N. Graves, Jr.,
then Assistant to the Director of FBIS, who testified to the main
lines of Axis propaganda, identified fourteen themes constantly
"harped on" by the radios of Germany and Italy. The second witness,
Dr. Harold Lasswell of the Library of Congress, testified that an
analysis of "The Galilean" showed it to reflect Axis propaganda
to a considerable degree. It was shown at the trial that members
of "The Galilean" organization actually had taken notes of foreign
short-wave broadcasts and that on at least one occasion, notes from
an Italian radio broadcast had appeared with some modification in
following issues of "The Galilean." Pelley was convicted and sentenced
to five years in the penitentiary. The case was appealed but the
verdict was upheld by a higher court.
Frank X. Green, monitoring officer-in-charge, cruises
the ether in search of new stations or program changes.
Miss Ann Wilkinson, French language monitor and daughter
of Vice Admiral T. S. Wilkinson, shown listening at her
Historical news, too, has come from the facilities of the FBIS.
For example, the scoop story on Doolittle's raid on Tokyo back in
April, 1942, was made possible by the alertness of one of the monitors
at the Portland, Oregon, receiving station. Picking up the Japanese
word "Kushu" and thinking simultaneously in ideographs (picture
characters which give the meaning of Jap words) this monitor knew
that here was the news all America awaited. Upon completion of the
item it now was known that our fliers had successfully raided and
bombed Kobe and Nagoya. This information was later confirmed by
the Doolittle fliers themselves.
It is interesting to note that most of the operating personnel
at the receiving stations are, or were, radio amateurs. Their skill
and technical know-how gave them a valuable background for this
type of work. In charge of the station at Silver Hill is Frank X.
Green, former engineer of KFXJ, KFEL, KOA, KMA, and KIVL. While
there we met an interesting chap by the name of James G. Wedewer,
Assistant Monitoring Officer, who is an official of several short-wave
listening clubs and an authority on short-wave broadcast stations
of the world. He told us the location of all the call letters we
A group of four Hallicrafters SX-28 receivers is used for scanning
the ether for new stations, changes in schedules and other information
in order to keep the "log" accurate. Each receiver is supplied with
a small booklet placed in a metal clip adjacent to the set. Complete
calibrations are included which show the exact tuning setting for
any frequency throughout the spectrum. These must be kept currently
accurate, particularly if a sudden change in weather is encountered.
A constant check on frequency is had by means of several crystal
controlled secondary standards that put out signals at either 100
or 1000 kc. The personnel at Silver Hill rigged up a special changeover
switch (seen at the bottom of the receiver bays) so that this signal
is accessible for checking the receivers simply by pressing the
switch with the toe.
We have visited many military and nonmilitary installations all
over the country throughout the present war. Never have we seen
so many receivers going at one time in one place. If ever there
was an ideal all-wave receiver this was it. In fact, it might well
be called "Uncle Sam's radio set" - at least one of them.
Posted October 17, 2014