Monitoring at the United States Federal Communications Commission listening post at what was then called the Laurel Monitoring Station, in present-day Columbia, Maryland. (Library of Congress photo)

World War I and post war communications advances provided our military and government leaders with insight into the new and clever ways the enemy would work to gain tactical and psychological advantages in future contests. To keep pace with these advances and get ahead of the unsavory lot of criminals, spies, and ne’er-do-wells, the U.S. Government consolidated its agencies and financed an expanded infrastructure that included building a primary monitoring station — the Laurel Monitoring Station — in the Maryland suburbs, to meet the rapidly changing communications environment.   

The need for a single government agency with the authority to license and regulate and the enforcement authority to ensure that an unlimited number of users could effectively and efficiently communicate with their intended audiences without impacting the effective and efficient communications of others, especially those with national security mandates, such as the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard, led to the signing of The Communications Act by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 which created the Federal Communications Commission.

A 1940 Time article, Radio: Monitors, noted that an infusion of funding for a National Defense Operations Section led to the broadening of the FCC’s routine monitoring mandate.

The arm of the FCC that was tasked with investigating and monitoring clandestine wireless operations in the U.S. and with training military personnel and intelligence agents in monitoring techniques was established on July 1, 1940. 

The Radio Intelligence Division, Engineering Department of the FCC, was headed by George E. Sterling, who, according to Time “helped organize the first radio intelligence unit of the Army in World War I, served as an inspector for the Department of Commerce before the FCC took over radio,” and was an “inveterate ham” radio operator.  

Hostile activities overseas before World War II and the government’s desire to remain abreast of the actions of the aggressors, led to the need for the FCC/RID to put the country in a state of radio preparedness.

The FCC acquired land in Maryland for what first was the Guilford Monitoring Station but became the Laurel Monitoring Station. The property, a 237-acre tract of land in Howard County, was identified for condemnation and legally adjudicated to be surrendered to the United States before Feb. 10, 1941 for use as an FCC primary monitoring station.

A March FCC memorandum declared the station should be identified with the City of Laurel to avoid being confused with the Guilford area of Baltimore. 

In 1983, the Laurel Leader noted that it became the Laurel Monitoring Station because Laurel was the biggest spot on the map when the FCC set up shop in the farmhouse. 

Although the farmhouse was in serious disrepair when the FCC/RID acquired it, quick repairs were made to the property as electric power, antennas, and equipment were promptly installed.

The site was ideal for its proximity to Washington and for the expansive field surrounding the farmhouse that would accommodate the large and varied antennas necessary for collecting the radio signals for the FCC’s missions of policing the U.S. airwaves, for the RID’s mandate, and for the Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service counter propaganda missions. Today, the FCC monitoring station falls within the boundaries of Columbia.

In 1941, FCC FBMS Director Lloyd A. Free testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee for “instantaneous communications facilities between Washington and the listening stations” to improve the agency’s ability to provide information to Washington more quickly than newspapers. The station was responsible for recording propaganda emanating from Europe and North Africa. The recordings would be “piped” directly to Washington, according to transcripts of the closed-door hearing.

The full version of this story appeared in two parts in Voices of Laurel, Fall of 2022, Vol. 2 No. 4, and Winter 2023, Vol. 3 No. 1, which can be found online at https://www.laurelhistory.com/read-online.

Angie Latham Kozlowski is a staff writer for Voices of Laurel focusing on local history and Howard County; Email: [email protected].