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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, January 3, 2010

CBS Radio in Philadelphia on Shortwave

During the radio era before World War II, there was quite a movement in the United States, and in other countries throughout the world also, to establish shortwave relay stations in an endeavor to give wider coverage to the programming from a local mediumwave station. At the time, television was an experimental concept and not a reality, and FM radio was still a distant dream. The standard mediumwave band was not overcrowded at the time, though the mediumwave signal generally gave only local coverage, particularly during the daylight hours. However, it was understood that shortwave transmissions could give wide area coverage within the country, and even internationally on a much larger scale.

Many mediumwave stations in the United States established shortwave relay transmitters during the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s to carry their programming to distant listeners. In fact, printed documents from this era indicate that there were several hundred of these shortwave relay stations on the air in the United States during the past eighty years. Some of these shortwave stations were quite large, while many were quite small and temporary.

One of these shortwave relay stations that held a high reputation back during those early years was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This station was launched on behalf of the co-located mediumwave station WCAU, under the experimental shortwave callsign W3XAU. And again, even though a casual glance at the callsign might seem to indicate that it was an amateur radio station, this was not the case. Station W3XAU was indeed a professional station, relaying the programming from the mediumwave WCAU. The X in a pre-war shortwave callsign indicated an experimental station, either amateur or professional, and in this case, indeed quite professional.

The mediumwave station WCAU was launched in 1922 as a very small operation located in the back room of a small radio shop in Philadelphia. Ten years later, following a couple of intermediate migrations, WCAU was established in a professionally built studio complex, the first building in the United States that was constructed specifically as a radio station. This facility was located at 1622 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia.

Now, at the same time, a new 50 kW mediumwave transmitter was under construction also, and this was installed in a new transmitter building out at Newtown Square. The initial broadcast from this grand new, and we might add, quite powerful, WCAU was on September 19, 1932.

Before we leave the mediumwave scene and take a look at the shortwave events in Philadelphia, just a touch of humor from a re-run of the TV series, "Gilligan's Island." On July 5, 1992, Gilligan and his six fellow castaways on a lonely and unidentified tropical island somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean tuned in their radio receiver and they heard a broadcast from a radio station that gave the identification announcement as "WCAU." At the time, the real WCAU in Philadelphia had undergone a callsign change to WOGL, and so there was no real radio station on the air with the callsign WCAU at this stage.

And now back to the story. Not only was there a new suite of studios and offices, and a new transmitter facility back in 1932, but the relatively new medium of shortwave broadcasting was also under development. Early in the year 1930, a small locally made 1 kW shortwave transmitter with the callsign W3XAU was co-installed with the regular mediumwave unit in Philadelphia. It is claimed that this was the first license issued by the FCC for an international shortwave broadcast station as a commercial operation.

However, two years after the Newtown Square facility was inaugurated, a re-built version of the same 1 kW shortwave transmitter was installed alongside the huge 50 kW mediumwave unit. All of these developments took place during the era when the innovative William Paley of later CBS fame was at the helm.

Four years later, this same transmitter was re-built to a 10 kW capacity and two V type antennas were erected to provide coverage into Europe and South America. Station WCAU became even more ambitious for a truly international outreach with the erection of two large curtain type antennas for coverage into the same two areas, Europe and South America. At the same time, they made a request to the federal licensing authorities for 50 kW operation on shortwave. In fact, on several occasions in the late 1930s and early 1940s, CBS lodged similar applications, but on each occasion the request was denied.

With war clouds looming over Europe in 1939, the FCC took a hard look at the international shortwave scene in the United States and they issued a set of three new rules. This edict, issued on May 23, 1939, required that:-

1. All shortwave callsigns should be regularized
2. The power output of each shortwave transmitter should be increased to a minimum of 50 kW
3. Directional antenna systems should be installed

As far as the callsigns were concerned, this edict gave time for consideration and negotiation regarding desired call letters. Initially, the first new callsign chosen to replace the experimental call W3XAU was WCAI. This new callsign for the shortwave outlet, WCAI, proved to be only temporary. With information derived from a contemporary issue of Time Magazine, FCC news releases, and several other sources, it is learned that this temporary new callsign was in use for a little less than two weeks, beginning in mid August, 1939.

The FCC subsequently ruled that all callsign changes for the shortwave stations should become effective on September 1, 1939. However, some stations introduced the new callsign prematurely, and at least a couple were a little tardy in implementing the change. As far as W3XAU was concerned, the change from the initial WCAI to the subsequent WCAB was implemented on August 26, one week before the official date. It is probable that the call WCAI stood for "WCAU International" but there is no known logic for the subsequent call, WCAB.

As for the directional antennas, they were already in place. And the power increase to 50 kW? CBS Philadelphia had already applied on several occasions and had been denied. However, there was another factor involved; a new shortwave station for CBS was already under construction at Brentwood on Long Island.

Initially, the concept was for WCAB Philadelphia to supplement the new Brentwood facility. However, in view of the power restriction imposed by the FCC upon the Philadelphia transmitter, CBS finally considered it best to close this Pennsylvania station in favor of the new high powered facility under development on Long Island, New York.

Programming from the Philadelphia shortwave station was initially a tandem relay from mediumwave WCAU, though separate identification announcements were given over the air. However, when the station became a genuine international broadcaster, much of the scheduling was specifically prepared for the target areas, Europe and Latin America.

Programming in foreign languages was taken on relay from the CBS sister shortwave station W2XE in Wayne, New Jersey, and programming in English was often taken live from the CBS national network. This shortwave station was heard quite frequently throughout the Americas, over in Europe, and also in the South Pacific.

The first new transmitter at the new CBS shortwave station at Brentwood was officially inaugurated on January 1, 1941, and just one year later, the 10 kW unit in Pennsylvania was finally switched off. This nostalgic event took place at midnight on December 31, 1941.

However, that is not the end of the story. You will hear the sequel to this story here in Wavescan next week; and it is just as thrilling as any spy story you can read in any spy story book.

Early Shortwave QSL Cards

It was back in the mid 1920s that shortwave radio broadcasting stations located in several different countries began to appear on the radio dial. Back in that era, these stations were quite experimental, and in many cases the programming was taken on relay from the parent mediumwave station. In other cases, special programming was produced for the benefit of listeners in distant countries.

Way back then, when the extent of the coverage area was largely unknown, the operators of these shortwave stations encouraged listeners to send in reception reports, for which a QSL card would be issued. You can imagine just how pleased the staff at a shortwave station was to receive a flow of mail from distant listeners, and you can imagine even more so, how pleased the listener was to receive a QSL card in acknowledgement of his reception report.

The earliest shortwave QSL cards in the Indianapolis Collection date back to the year 1928 and they are from shortwave broadcasting stations in Australia, not the United States.

Our very oldest shortwave QSL card verifies a reception report dated December 15, in that year, 1928. This card was issued by the New South Wales Broadcasting Company Limited who owned and operated mediumwave stations 2FC and 2BL at the time, even before the formation of the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

This 81 year old shortwave QSL card states quite clearly in the pre-printed text that 2FC can be heard on shortwave at intervals, on 28.5 metres, which corresponds to 10525 kHz. It was issued to a listener living in Auckland, New Zealand, and the postage stamp is missing. Apparently it was removed and placed into a Stamp Album.

Another card from Australia, dated in the following year, 1929, verifies the reception of the Melbourne shortwave station 3LO. This card shows the very large shortwave transmitter which was located at Braybrook and installed behind a wire cage for safety.

Our earliest QSL card from the well known Australian shortwave station in that era, VK2ME, is dated in 1930. This card is not the more familiar card showing the map of Australia in yellow with the Kookaburra superimposed. Instead, this card is printed in red and black and it shows a map of the Pacific Rim.

A careful examination of the VK2ME QSL cards showing the yellow map and Kookaburra, reveals that there were at least seven different printings of this particular design.

Our earliest QSL card from an American shortwave station is dated in 1930, and it was issued by W9XAA in Chicago, at the time when the transmitter was located on the Navy Pier on the edge of Lake Michigan. This 79 year old card does show its age; the ink has faded and the card is torn.

Other early American cards verify the reception of, for example:

1930 W9XQ, also in Chicago
1934 The famous KDKA shortwave outlet W8XK in Pittsburgh
1934 W1XAZ in Boston
1934 W3XAU in Philadelphia Pennsylvania
1935 And the Schenectady twins, W2XAD and W2XAF

Our earliest QSL card from a shortwave broadcasting station in New Zealand is dated in 1931. This card was from station ZL3CW, in the city of Greymouth, which was on the air with a program relay from the mediumwave station 3ZR. During this era, there were half a dozen shortwave relay stations in New Zealand, all on the air with very low power.

Interestingly, back in the year 1931, the BBC in England was issuing QSL cards verifying their broadcasts from the shortwave station G5SW. At the time, experimental shortwave transmitter G5SW was owned and operated by the Marconi Company in Chelmsford England and it was on loan to the BBC for a relay from the famous London station 2LO.

Our earliest Canadian shortwave card is also dated in 1931 and it was issued by station VE9GW which was located at Bowmanville in Ontario. This was in the era when the station was owned by the commercial company Gooderham & Worts, before it was taken over by the Canadian Radio Commission, the fore-runner to CBC Canada.

Other very early QSL cards during this long-ago era, are from:

1935 HJ4ABE Colombia
1935 PMA & PLK Island of Java
1935 EAQ Spain
1935 HAS & HAT Hungary
1936 VPD Fiji
1936 TFJ Iceland