First trans-global radio transmission to London
From the family sheep station in Shag Valley, East Otago, amateur radio operator Frank Bell sent a groundbreaking Morse code transmission received and replied to by London-based amateur operator Cecil Goyder.
Frank and his older sister Brenda were radio pioneers. Invalided home from the Western Front in 1917, Frank revived a boyhood interest in wireless communication while recuperating. He helped pioneer the use of short radio waves to communicate over long distances, initially through Morse-code telegraphy. He achieved a number of firsts, including New Zealand’s first overseas two-way radio contact with Australia and North America. But it was his radio conversation with London that made world headlines.
When Frank turned his attention to running the family farm, his sister Brenda took over the wireless station, becoming New Zealand’s first female amateur radio operator. In 1927 she was the first New Zealander to contact South Africa by radio. After the Second World War, Brenda Bell moved into professional radio as a writer and broadcaster for Dunedin station 4YA.
As a life-long student of the history of technology–radio or otherwise–I appreciate well-written, authoritative works of history on the subject. That is exactly what you’ll find in Jerome S. Berg’s The Early Shortwave Stations: A Broadcasting History Through 1945. In these days during which shortwave is often viewed only as a legacy technology, it’s particularly fascinating to read about the days during which shortwave was new on the scene, exerting a disruptive influence, and threatening the established technology.
If you’re a shortwave radio enthusiast, you may already know of Jerome (Jerry) Berg; he is, without a doubt, one of the foremost historians of shortwave radio broadcasting and listening. His knowledge, moreover, grew out of his passion for the radio medium, and it shows in his writing. Berg has authored a series of history books on the subject on the subject of shortwave broadcast and listening, which this latest work joins:
- On the Short Waves, 1923-1945: Broadcast Listening in the Pioneer Days of Radio
- Listening on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today
- Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today
I’m not sure how Berg manages to convey his vast store of knowledge in such a readable form, but he does so, and very successfully. As with the other works in this series, The Early Shortwave Stations is chock full of details all entirely relevant, and Berg manages to weave this complex and multifaceted history into a very comprehensive, comprehensible, and rich story that the reader will enjoy.
Moreover, I like the manner in which Berg presents the chapters in The Early Shortwave Stations: the first chapter sets the stage, covering radio broadcasting up to the point of the invention of shortwave; the chapters then coincide with a decade-by-decade account of shortwave broadcasting, e.g., chapter 2 covers the 1920s, chapter 3 the 1930s, and chapter 4 covers 1940-1945 (where Berg’s Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today picks up). Furthermore, each decade and chapter is covered year by year. This obviously makes for easy future reference: should you like to know was happening in shortwave broadcasting in 1931, simply turn to chapter 3 (page 82) to find out.
Berg also draws insightful conclusions in his summary and in chapter 5, which only made me want to buy his next volume, Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today.
I can say that I learned an extraordinary amount of radio history from The Early Shortwave Stations, and have enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve had this book for a little while now, and it soon became my bedside reading. Indeed, it’s been wonderful capping off each day (or even starting it) with early shortwave history. I find that it puts many of the changes that are happening in the industry currently into perspective.
And I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the numerous illustrations and stunning images in The Early Shortwave Stations: there are enough QSL cards, radio ads, and other print nostalgia within its pages to make for good coffee table reading, too. Although its pages are printed in black and white, the photos and illustrations are sharp and of high quality.
The publisher of Berg’s books, McFarland–a leader in publishing academic and non-fiction works–prints in relatively small quantities, hence the price tag per volume is about $45.00. But I assure you that it’s a bargain for a book which so completely encapsulates early shortwave broadcasting history. It’s a book that you will likely want to reference, and (if you’re like me) not only read, but read again and again.
The real test? I’ve placed The Early Shortwave Stations on the same shelf with my WRTH.
The Early Shortwave Stations: A Broadcasting History Through 1945 can be purchased directly from the publisher, McFarland, by clicking here or by calling their order line (800-253-2187). I’m pleased to say that The Early Shortwave Stations is also available via the Amazon Kindle format at $16.12 US, possibly the best purchasing option for those living outside North America. Enjoy!
Jerry Berg also maintains the excellent website, On The Shortwaves. This one’s been in our list of links for many years, do check it out if you haven’t already.
During the Second World War, Switzerland’s fledgling short wave radio service was essential to its attempts to communicate its policies and actions to an external audience made up of both foreign governments and the Swiss abroad.
The archives of the Short Wave Service (SWS), founded in 1935, have been digitalised and are now available online (See link). SWS was the forerunner to Swiss Radio International (SRI) which later became swissinfo.ch.
The manuscripts of news bulletins from this dark time in Europe reveal Swiss thinking on events both out of its control and right on its doorstep as the country desperately held on to its beloved neutrality.
In Switzerland’s national languages (German, French, Italian) as well as English, Spanish and Portuguese, SWS broadcast news and analysis of military events on both sides.
It also reported on living conditions of Australian, New Zealand, South African and American POWs interned in mountain retreats, and issued sharp rebukes of external criticism of Swiss government policy.
“Switzerland finds herself today in one of the most peculiar situations of her long history. From a certain viewpoint, she is surrounded by one power only. From another viewpoint, she is surrounded, among others, by three defeated powers: Austria, France and Italy. Under these circumstances Switzerland has remained true to her traditional role of guardian of the Alpine passes,” began an English broadcast from Hermann Böschenstein in the wake of the fall of Mussolini in 1943.
The same broadcast went on to discuss dashed hopes that Italy’s fall would see a reopening of transport routes to the sea, praised the Swiss influence of the International Red Cross as “incontestable”, and noted that “all-out” training of Swiss army troops had resulted in “quite a few casualties lately” with the use of flame-throwers being responsible in some cases.
Lausanne University’s François Vallotton, a specialist in contemporary audio-visual and media history in Switzerland, was unable to resist the lure of such a treasure trove of documents.
Vallotton, whose work focuses in particular on the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) – the parent company of swissinfo.ch – convened a seminar to undertake initial research on the SWS archive documents.
The archives, which have been formatted into a database searchable by keyword, are particularly interesting for historians because the historiography of international radio services has not yet been developed, particularly in Switzerland.
Vallotton says analysis of the archives is unlikely to reinvent what is already known about Switzerland during the Second World War, but: “What is interesting is that it is a source that allows us to see the image that Switzerland wanted to present to the outside world.”
“That is something that is really new because before we examined local media which was aimed at the Swiss public.”
Broadcasts by SWS at that time were also notable for the fact that they were the first news bulletins produced by a dedicated radio editorial team; previously news bulletins had been written and read by journalists from the Swiss News Agency, a press organisation.
“The service treated events in a different manner than to the local media,” says Raphaëlle Ruppen Coutaz, who is doing his doctorate on the subject. “For historians, it’s precious because it is the only Swiss media outlet to address those abroad during the war.” [Continue reading…]
I have really enjoyed looking through the archives. Of particular interest are the corrections that were made before reading the news. They’re all there.
Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated radio historian and author, Jeff Cant, you can download and read an excellent history of the first fifty years of the BBC’s Woofferton transmission station. Cant began his history as an internal document to the station; he later finished it in his retirement. I wish every shortwave transmitter station had such a well-documented history providing a perspective on the station’s broadcasting. We owe Mr. Cant a profound debt of gratitude.
A special thanks to Jonathan Marks for finding and sharing this great bit of radio history.
Should the link to the PDF above ever become inactive, I’ve placed an archive copy available for download on the SWLing Post server.
I recently discovered that Bob Padula, long-time shortwave radio enthusiast and publisher of The Australian DX Report, has an online project entitled The History of Shortwave Radio In Australia. It’s a thorough and informative read and is available free of charge.
Media Network, which covered international broadcasting developments, recently ended a 30-year run on RNW. In the first three articles of this series, Andy Sennitt recalled some of the highlights, and in this final part he looks at how international broadcasting might develop in the next ten years.
Below, I am posting the full article from the RNW website. I don’t typically do this, but I would certainly hate for this post to be deleted from the RNW site at some point in the future. I think Andy has great insight into the future of shortwave radio and his comments about international broadcasting are most valid (and, indeed, reflect my own).
Andy, we will miss you in Media Network, but wish you the best in your early retirement.
Part four: the future
The first decade of this millennium saw a significant number of international radio broadcasters disappear from the air. For shortwave listeners, it was a decade of doom and gloom as station after station announced that they were ending or reducing their shortwave transmissions.
Hobby clubs which a few decades earlier had complained that international broadcasters were using too many shortwave frequencies were now begging them not to go off the air. I expect this pattern to continue during the next decade, though there will still be a significant amount of shortwave broadcasting to regions such as Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America.
Shortwave broadcasts to Europe will be mostly from private, low budget stations and to North America from the various private US stations that carry mainly religious or right-wing talk programmes. Major international broadcasters such as the BBC, the Voice of America and its sister stations etc. will continue to have a significant presence, but their languages and targets will be more closely tied to current political developments and/or press freedom issues. There will be very little room for ‘legacy’ services, so in general jobs in international broadcasting will be far less secure than they once were.
An exception to this general rule is China, which continues to broadcast in more languages than any other country. Reliable sources with inside information have told me that the reach of some of these services is very small, and that China Radio International is very good at inflating numbers, for example by counting all the spam messages it receives as genuine emails from listeners. Another CRI strategy is to buy airtime on struggling AM stations in the West, although China does not so far offer reciprocal arrangements to Western broadcasters in China.
China also operates several international TV services, and an expanded range of such services from other countries seems certain. In recent months I’ve seen news of several more countries that intend to start TV broadcasts, and some of those already on the air plan to add more languages. The problem is that TV is a lot more expensive to produce than radio. The money has to come from somewhere, and especially in tough times for the economy the radio services usually suffer.
The French connection
It will be interesting to see what happens in France, where the international radio and TV services have been merged into a single organization. If the two can work together effectively, it could prove to be a successful merger that might inspire others to follow suit. I’m thinking of the international services of such countries as Russia, China and Iran, where the radio and TV services rarely mention each other’s existence, as if they are in competition with each other.
I wonder how long it will before we see a TV version of the radio services provided by WRN. When WRN started, it gave international broadcasters a chance to reach a new audience who didn’t listen to shortwave radio, and provided existing listeners with an alternative way of hearing their favourite international stations with better audio quality. Now there are a significant number of international TV channels, but they’re scattered across many different satellites, so only a satellite enthusiast with a large steerable dish and an expensive receiver is likely to see a significant number of them. A WRN-type service, with a variety of TV stations sharing the same transponder, might be a way to make some of the output available to a wider audience.
Websites & apps
In the meantime, the websites of international broadcasters will have to try harder to make people aware of their radio and/or TV programmes, and how to tune them in. It seems ridiculous that some large broadcasters with a staff of hundreds cannot get their act together to produce an accurate schedule of their output. Some only manage to update their schedule weeks after it has gone into effect. Others give the job of compiling the schedule to someone who doesn’t have a clue about technical matters, and then they don’t bother to check it before publication. Sometimes errors and typos are never corrected.
I expect to see more apps from international broadcasters for the various mobile and handheld platforms. These will increase the chances of getting content to the younger generation, to whom conventional radio listening is considered old-fashioned. But the content has to be suitable, and I hope that international broadcasters will recognise the need to have young people on their staff who understand how to serve this generation. Too much international broadcasting content is still produced with the over 50s in mind.
International broadcasters must accept that in general they are far less significant than they once were. For example, since 1947 RNW has had a Dutch service whose reach was high amongst its target group of Dutch expats. But since the advent of the internet, the information that RNW used to provide can be found on numerous websites, and the USP (unique selling point) of RNW’s Dutch service is no longer valid. Hence the painful decision to close it.
I have the impression that many of the people who have made a career out of international broadcasting have in effect entered a time warp, and they have failed to realise how much has changed in the world outside. I recall taking part in an experimental phone-in at RNW in the 1980s, and the newsreader told me that he’d been reading the news for 30 years and that was the first time he’d ever seen or heard any audience reaction.
I once met an experienced BBC World Service producer who admitted that he had never heard BBCWS on shortwave. I decided that I couldn’t – and indeed shouldn’t – work in the strategy department unless I had some regular contact with the audience, so that’s why I’ve also been working part-time on the English website.
Drops in the ocean
Those international services that survive to the end of the current decade will be the ones that can face up to the challenge of creating content that their potential audience wants, making sure that the content is distributed on appropriate platforms, and letting people know about it. They’ll have to work a lot harder to stand out from the crowd. Instead of being big fish in a small pond as they were on shortwave, they’re tiny drops in the internet ocean. I wish them success. International broadcasting has been my life for nearly 40 years, and it has given me friends around the world. Now I’m off to make some around here.
Media Network, which covered international broadcasting developments at Radio Netherlands, recently ended a 30-year run on RNW. In a series of four articles, Andy Sennitt mentions some of the highlights, and then looks ahead to how international broadcasting might develop in the next ten years.