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"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, November 1, 2009

The Original Radio Australia - Pennant Hills

It was at 5:00 pm on Wednesday, December 20 in the year 1939 that the new shortwave service from Australia was inaugurated; and now, during the latter part of our modern year 2009, Radio Australia is celebrating its awesome 70th anniversary. In our Wavescan program today, we are presenting the story of the original shortwave service from "Australia Calling" as it was known at the time, and on two subsequent occasions, we will present the story of the two additional shortwave stations that were also in use during that era for "Australia Calling", Lyndhurst in Victoria and Wanneroo in Western Australia.

Exactly 100 years ago, in October 1909, the Australian government accepted a tender from the Australian Wireless Company for the installation of a large new wireless communication station. During the following year, after an extensive site search, a location at Pennant Hills, 14 miles from downtown Sydney, was chosen, and during the following year, a 40 acre site was procured.

The first spark gap wireless transmitter installed at this location was manufactured by Telefunken in Germany and it was listed as a 25 kW unit, though the power in the antenna was only 8 kW. This transmitter was inaugurated on August 19, 1912.

The first projected callsign for this new wireless station was POP, standing for Post Office Pennant Hills. However, the station was inaugurated as POS, standing for Post Office Sydney, and when the callsigns of wireless stations were regularized internationally, the callsign at Pennant Hills was changed to VIS during the same year, 1912. The initial letter V in Australian callsigns honored the late Queen Victoria in England.

During the early 1920s, the Pennant Hills wireless station was modernized and upgraded with the installation of several new transmitters incorporating the usage of the recently developed valve, or tube. The largest of these new transmitters, rated at 20 kW in those days, was also used for voice communication under the experimental callsign A2ME. A new building was constructed to house the huge transmitter in 1927, and the callsign was also regularized to the more familiar VK2ME.

It was on September 5, 1927 that the first Empire Broadcast was transmitted from VK2ME with programming that was produced in the studios of mediumwave station 2FC in Sydney. This event was the very beginning of the usage of the Pennant Hills radio station for the broadcast of radio programming, which ultimately developed into a regular world wide service.

During the 1930s, additional transmitters were installed at Pennant Hills, mainly for communication usage, though they were in use at times for the relay of program broadcasts to the United States and England, and occasionally to other countries. At this stage there were three transmitters, each at around 10 kW, that were capable of program transmissions, and these were:

VK2ME installed in 1927
VLK installed in 1928
VLM installed in 1931

Interestingly, during the transmission of voice communications, three different callsigns were in use regardless of the actual transmitter on the air. In voice transmissions to England, the callsign in use was VLK; to Java the callsign was VLJ; and to New Zealand the callsign was VLZ.

In October 1939, just one month after the outbreak of hostilities in continental Europe, the Australian government asked Sir Ernest Fisk, Managing Director for AWA, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd., to draw up a proposal for establishing an international shortwave broadcasting service. At the same time, the government also asked the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and the Postmaster General's Department to draw up their suggestions for a similar international shortwave service.

In response, AWA suggested the usage of their two main transmitters at Pennant Hills with programming from their shortwave studios in the AWA Building in York Street, Sydney. The ABC suggested the usage of their own shortwave transmitters located in Victoria and Western Australia with programming from their mediumwave studios in Sydney. Both AWA and the ABC suggested also that an additional large shortwave station should be constructed specifically for world wide coverage.

As a result of these negotiations, three organizations became involved in the launching of "Australia Calling". The ABC would provide programming; AWA would provide their shortwave transmitters; and the PMG, Postmaster General's Department, would provide line circuits and the shortwave transmitters near Melbourne and Perth.

It was announced to Australia and to the world that Australia was now ready to launch its own regular international shortwave broadcasting service, and this announcement was made in Federal Parliament by Sir Henry Gullett, newly appointed Minister for the newly created Department of Information, on November 23, 1939.

This new international shortwave service was inaugurated on Wednesday, December 20, which happened also to be the birthday of Australia's Prime Minister, Mr. (later Sir) Robert Menzies. The two-hour opening program commenced at 5:00 pm and it began with five minutes of announcements, followed by an hour of recorded music, and then more special announcements. The fifteen minute inaugural speech by Mr Menzies was delivered in Melbourne and carried to Sydney by telephone line. This introductory program concluded with translations of the Prime Minister's speech into French, Italian and German.

The programming was produced in the ABC mediumwave studios in Market Street, Sydney, the announcer on duty was John Royle, and the studio manager was Ian Smith.

This inaugural broadcast was beamed to Europe and it was carried by the Pennant Hills transmitter under the new callsign VLQ operating on 9615 kHz. Beginning half an hour later and ending half an hour earlier, another Pennant Hills transmitter, on the air as VLQ2 on 11870 kHz, beamed the programming to southern Europe.

The 2 kW Lyndhurst transmitter VLR beamed the programming from the new "Australia Calling" to the Dutch East Indies on 9530 kHz beginning at midnight.

The original plan, as far as Pennant Hills was concerned, called for the usage of just two of their shortwave transmitters, VLK and VLM. However, on some occasions the old VK2ME was taken off high-speed Morse traffic and brought back into service as a broadcast station. On those occasions it was usually on the air as VLQ7 on 11880 kHz.

Over in Western Australia a new shortwave station was under installation at Wanneroo near the state capital Perth. Even though the first test broadcasts from VLW were noted on October 18, 1939, yet this unit did not join "Australia Calling" until April 7 in the following year, 1940, nearly four months after "Australia Calling" was inaugurated.

During that initial era, the following list of five shortwave transmitters was available for use by "Australia Calling":

Pennant Hills, New South Wales VLK 10 kW redesignated as VLQ
VLM 10 kW redesignated as VLQ2
VK2ME 10 kW redesignated as VLQ7
Lyndhurst, Victoria VLR 2 kW
Wanneroo, Western Australia VLW 2 kW

These days, all of these transmitters would be described as low powered. No wonder then that the German news media at the time disparagingly described the new "Australia Calling" as the "penny whistle in the Pacific", particularly in view of the fact that they operated ten shortwave transmitters ranging in power up to 100 kW.

On a couple of occasions when a higher frequency was needed for coverage into the United States, an older 5 kW transmitter was pressed into service under the callsign VLN. During these years, a couple of additional transmitters rated at around 10 kW were installed at Pennant Hills, though they were in use generally for communication traffic with the United States and England. These units were noted on air as VLY and VLN.

In January 1943, the VLQ callsign at Pennant Hills was dropped and a new callsign, VLI, was taken into usage. The VLQ callsign was taken over by the new ABC shortwave station located at Bald Hills, just a little north of Brisbane in Queensland.

The last day of service for "Australia Calling" at the Pennant Hills shortwave station was November 7, 1944. At that stage, VLC, the new 50 kW RCA transmitter at Shepparton in Victoria, was already on the air with the regular relay of programming for "Australia Calling".

The Pennant Hills station was finally closed on December 3, 1955 after a new station at Doonside had taken over all of the services from the Pennant Hills facility. The property was sold and it became the campus for a girl's high school.

Pennant Hills was on the air with communication traffic for 43 years, and it was in use with the programming of "Australia Calling" for almost five years. Many hundreds of QSL cards were issued for a multitude of transmissions from Pennant Hills under the callsigns VK2ME, VLQ, VLI, VLN and VLT, and these all illustrate the usage of a facility that is today celebrating two anniversaries.

It is exactly 100 years since the government gave approval for the erection of the station at Pennant Hills, and it is exactly 70 years since it was taken into service with "Australia Calling", the early fore-runner of the now better known "Radio Australia".