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WBT studio waited for bombs to fall
Bunker is a relic of nation's nuclear terror
By MARK WASHBURN, Tv/Radio Writer

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.

"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 survival."

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 Nagasaki.

"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 Columbia.

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 blast.

"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 said.

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: "Melancholy."

Reach Mark Washburn at (704) 358-5007 or e-mail

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