"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.
Wavescan N420, March 12, 2017
Final End of Another VOA Relay Station: Iranawila in Sri Lanka
Several e-messages on the internet dated for January 19 inform us that the previous VOA Voice of America relay station located at Iranawila in Sri Lanka is under demolition. This is now the second VOA station on the island of Ceylon-Sri Lanka that has been closed and demolished; and this Iranawila station was listed as the largest VOA station outside of the United States. This is the story.
In December 1984, authorities representing the Voice of America and the Sri Lankan government signed a document of approval to establish a new VOA station on the island. This new station would be set up with a total of 6 shortwave transmitters; 2 at 250 kW and 4 at 500 kW.
At the time of my visit to the Iranawila site by taxi during the following year (1985), I found the projected new location, though it was still in occupation by the local village people, with all of the protected coconut palm trees still standing. At the approach to the property on the track leading to the projected station, there was a big signboard in the two languages, English and Sinhala, indicating that this was the location for the huge new VOA relay station. This station was located on the coast on an extensive property of 1,000 acres, in walking distance to the Indian Ocean.
According to international radio reports back then, supplementary information about the new station included the installation of an additional powerful 600 kW mediumwave transmitter. In addition, the already operational receiver station a few miles distant at Seeduwa would be upgraded.
During the initial stages of development of the property, there was considerable opposition to the project on the part of the 188 fisher families that would be displaced. Their opposition included attacks on construction personnel, one resulting in death, and damage to the station itself.
Villagers attending the local Catholic Church supported the opposition to the radio project. It seems that subsequently the acquisition of the property was modified somewhat, and perhaps moved just a little further inland.
Progress on the project was slow and the first four transmitters, new 500 kW units from Cincinnati Electronics in Ohio, Model 86128, were installed in 1992. Three years later, three transmitters from the closed VOA station in Bethany, Ohio, BBC Model SK53C3, were taken out of storage in Brooklyn, New York, and shipped to Sri Lanka for installation at Iranawila.
An additional four Marconi transmitters at 500 kW, Model B6132, were subsequently shipped to Iranawila, but during installation, one was destroyed by fire. The three remaining units were still in their original unopened shipping containers and not damaged.
It is officially stated that the cause of the fire on November 5, 1996 remains unknown. An additional replacement transmitter was shipped out from England soon afterwards.
Then in 1997, three more transmitters were shipped out to Sri Lanka from the recently closed VOA relay station at Gloria in Portugal. These additional units were nine years old, Continentals at 250 kW, Model 419F2.
The first test transmissions from the new VOA Iranawila were noted in the United States on October 30, 1997. One transmitter was on the air, and test tones were radiated progressively on several different shortwave channels.
Some eighteen months later, the station underwent a weeklong series of proof of performance tests, beginning on July 17, 1999. At the end of seven long years of construction activity, this new VOA relay station was now on the air, carrying a full load of VOA programming beamed to the many countries of Asia.
However, give another seventeen years, and the antenna systems needed considerable repair, including the replacement of a quarter million bolts due to salt air corrosion. It was declared that the station was too expensive to operate, and it would be closed. Friday June 10 (2016) was the last day of on air operation. Next day, the station lay silent.
On January 19 (2017), English newspapers in Colombo, Sri Lanka reported that the VOA shortwave station at Iranawila was being dismantled. The station assets would be taken over by the Sri Lankan army, Sri Lanka Telekom, and SLBC, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.
It was reported that SLBC planned to take over one of the 250 kW transmitters, presumably as a replacement at their recently acquired station in Trincomalee. The land, now measuring only 410 acres, for which VOA was paying $40,000 a year on lease, will be taken over by the island government and developed as an eco-friendly tourist zone.
On March 16, 1999, two well-known and highly respected international radio monitors, Anker Petersen from Denmark and Victor Goonetillike from nearby Colombo, paid a visit to the station by prior appointment, and they reported that the station contained 4 transmitters at 500 kW each, together with 26 curtain antennas.
At the time of closure in the middle of last year, the newspapers reported that the station contained a total of 8 transmitters in use; 6 at 250 kW and 2 at 500 kW. At this stage, the 2016 edition of the WRTVHB listed 7 transmitters at Iranawila; 3 at 250 kW and 4 at 500 kW, though the 2004 edition of the WRTVHB listed 10 transmitters; 6 at 250 kW and 4 at 500 kW.
Relying upon all of the international radio reports over the past nearly quarter century, we would suggest that a total of 13 shortwave transmitters had been installed at VOA Iranawila, including the one that was destroyed by fire. Only 8 were listed as active at the time when the station was closed.
What happened to the other 4 transmitters? Were they active but not listed? Were they on site but inactive? Had they been removed and sold as scrap? Or is our information not totally accurate? I guess we will never know.
And in answer to another question: Was the VOA relay station at Iranawila the largest outside the United States? It is true, VOA did contemplate enlarged plans for their station in Sri Lanka. However, even if all 13 transmitters are taken into account, the VOA station at Tinang in the Philippines does actually possess a larger contingent of shortwave transmitters than the one in Sri Lanka.