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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, December 13, 2009

Return to Pitcairn

You will remember that we broadcast a short series of programs here in Wavescan back in July on the topic of radio broadcasting on Pitcairn Island. As a result of this programming, John Cruddas here in the United States made contact with us, stating that he was holding many items associated with Pitcairn, and that he would like to pass them on for permanent preservation.

In due course, several packages containing Pitcairn memorabilia arrived at our Indianapolis address, and they turned out to be very interesting and very valuable historic items. Included in these packages were many items of historic importance from the middle of last century: old magazines, travel brochures, newspaper items, pictures, and QSL cards, all in some way associated with Pitcairn Island, and in particular their historic radio scene.

A copy of the commercial magazine, Pacific Islands Monthly for June 22, 1938, contains several items about Pitcairn Island, including one about the inauguration of the new radio station and its first relay broadcast on April 6. The magazine article quotes the complete text of this short radio program. Additional items in this magazine give the complete schedule of the ABC shortwave station VLR with programming beamed to the Pacific, as well as the programming schedule for the AWA shortwave station VK2ME at Pennant Hills, near Sydney in New South Wales.

Another magazine, the T & R Bulletin from England for December 1938, contains two items of radio interest; one item states that radio experiments during an eclipse of the moon provided no changes in propagation during that time, and the other item tells about the three callsigns in use on Pitcairn Island. We will present this information in our next edition of Wavescan.

Several of the travel brochures show the travels of Lewis Bellem and Granville Lindley on the occasion of their voyages to and from Pitcairn Island for the installation of the celebrated radio station PITC-VR6AY.

Included in the packages were four radio scripts giving the text of the radio broadcasts from Pitcairn Island that were re-broadcast in the United States over the NBC mediumwave network. Copies of newspaper items and photographs from this same time period also tell about the radio station and other events on Pitcairn Island.

And what about the QSL cards? These QSL cards, several hundred in number, are associated in some way with Pitcairn Island. They are all from amateur radio operators and shortwave listeners who addressed their QSL requests to Lewis Bellem in Providence, Rhode Island. These QSL cards and letters report hearing Pitcairn Island radio, and also Lewis Bellem at his home in the United States under his own amateur callsign, W1BES. Some of the Pitcairn QSO contacts were in Morse Code and some were voice.

So great was the interest in Pitcairn radio during this 1938 era that many of these QSO cards and letters are actually a follow up request, just to ensure that a genuine QSL card would be received from Pitcairn Island in due course. Here are the details of some of these reception report/QSO cards and letters:

Well, that brings us to the end of our new information on these old radio events associated with Pitcairn Island. Next week, we are planning to present a special feature regarding the three callsigns that were in use by the radio station on Pitcairn Island; two amateur callsigns and one communication callsign.

Usage of Callsigns - Shortwave

Back just before the middle of last century, the government licensing authority in the United States issued a decree stating that every shortwave transmitter should be licensed under its own separate callsign. How simple it would be in researching the history of international radio broadcasting if every shortwave station in every country around the world was identified in this way. But that has not been the case.

In earlier times in the United States, for example, a list of shortwave channels for the RCA station located at Bolinas in California was published in the monthly magazine, Radio News, for August 1935. This list shows almost thirty different three letter callsigns ranging from KEB to KWE; one callsign per channel, not one callsign per transmitter. There were occasions when a couple of these transmitters were in use for the relay of broadcast programming to Hawaii and across the Pacific.

This same 1935 list shows more than twenty callsigns for the large RCA terminal on the east coast, at Rocky Point on Long Island, New York. These three letter callsigns run from WAJ down through WQP, though not all of these letters were taken up by this station.

Interestingly, when this RCA station at Rocky Point was on the air with radio broadcast programming, an experimental callsign, W2XBJ, was in use, regardless of transmitter and regardless of frequency.

However, it is true; most of the shortwave stations in the United States that were on the air with broadcast programming during the 1930s and 1940s were identified with just one callsign per transmitter. Examples of this form of callsign usage would be:

W8XK Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
WRUW & WRUL Scituate, Massachusetts
KGEI & KGEX Belmont, California
W4XB Miami Beach, Florida
W2XAD & W2XAF Schenectady, New York

Going northwards into Canada for example, one authority informs us that the basic callsign for the large shortwave station located at Sackville, New Brunswick is CKCX. However, during the earlier part of its history, this shortwave station was on the air with one callsign per each shortwave channel. These callsigns were made up with four letters in the English alphabet, all beginning with CH or CK. The basic callsign, CKCX, identified both the station, and also the shortwave channel 15190 kHz.

At the time, Radio Canada International was on the air with three new shortwave transmitters at 50 kW each, obtained from RCA in the United States.

Over in England during the 15 year period extending from 1930 to the mid 1940s, the BBC London was on the air from a total of 46 shortwave transmitters installed at eight different locations scattered throughout different areas in England, and including Northern Ireland. This enormous assemblage of shortwave transmitters ranged in power from 7.5 kW right up to 250 kW.

During this era in the middle of last century, this huge bevy of shortwave transmitters was on the air under various callsigns; not with one callsign per transmitter, but with one callsign per shortwave channel. These callsigns, numbering more than one hundred, ran from GRA to GSZ and GVA to GWZ.

Under these circumstances, the BBC operated with maximum flexibility, and they could use any transmitter, at any location, at any desired power level, on almost any shortwave channel. It was therefore impossible for the international radio monitors in those days to know just which transmitter at which location they were listening to.

Over in Australia, the old AWA shortwave station located at Pennant Hills, an outer suburb of Sydney in New South Wales, was on the air with an interesting mixture of callsigns. For example, they operated three different communication transmitters during the middle of last century, and these shortwave units were identified with the internationally recognized Australian callsigns; VLK, VLM and VLN. However, when AWA Pennant Hills was calling England with communication traffic, they identified with the callsign, VLK; Java, VLJ; New Zealand, VLZ.

When Radio Australia was launched at the end of 1939 under the slogan, "Australia Calling," transmitters VLK and VLM were taken into service with new callsigns, as VLQ and VLQ2. However, this was also somewhat confusing, due to the fact that transmitter VLQ was also on the air under another numeric callsign on another channel, as VLQ5.

In 1939, the 2 kW ABC shortwave transmitter at Lyndhurst in Victoria was in use for both the ABC Home Service as well as Australia Calling. In mid-1941, an additional 10 kW shortwave transmitter was installed at Lyndhurst, and this was inaugurated under the same callsign, VLR.

However, with the two transmitters at the same location, and both on the air under the same callsign, this became quite confusing. So it was that the callsign of the new transmitter was changed, and it became identified as the more familiar VLG.

In 1946, another 10 kW shortwave transmitter was installed at Lyndhurst, and this one was identified as VLH. However, by this time the program relays of mediumwave 3AR and 3LO via VLR and VLH were quite regular and consistent for Home Service coverage throughout Australia.

At one stage back then around mid morning, there were two 10 kW transmitters on the air with the VLH service on two different shortwave channels, with overlapping scheduling for a quarter hour or more. Thus, VLH was by this stage more a program service on shortwave rather than a transmitter identification.

The Shepparton shortwave station was on the air under Radio Australia with three transmitters that were identified as VLA, VLB and VLC. When these transmitters were given a new shortwave channel, a suffix number was added, such as:

VLA2 on 9615 kHz VLA3 on 9680 kHz
VLB3 on 11770 kHz VLB4 on 11810 kHz
VLC9 on 17840 kHz VLC10 on 21680 kHz

However, this system became quite cumbersome, so Radio Australia changed the system in mid 1951 and the suffix numeral indicated the MHz band; thus:

VLA7 Any channel in the 7 MHz 41 metre band
VLB9 Any channel in the 9 MHz 31 metre band
VLC11 Any channel in the 1 MHz 25 metre band

It is true that the usage of callsigns throughout the world to designate shortwave transmitters is decreasing. However, we would suggest that the best system for the identification of a shortwave transmitter has always been the simplest, and that is; one callsign, one transmitter.