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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, May 23, 2010

Radio Broadcasting on Lonely Ascension Island - Pt. 1

In our program today, we look at the story of radio broadcasting on another lonely island way out there in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. On this occasion also, we begin the story back at the beginning.

More than five hundred years ago, the Portuguese explorer, Joao da Nova Castella, came across the island and named it Conception Island, though he did not report the sighting nor the naming of this isolated island. Two years later, in the year 1503, another Portuguese explorer, Afonso de Albuquerque, also came across the island and he named it Ascension Island, due to the fact that he discovered it on Ascension Day.

Ascension Island is a rugged volcanic peak rising three thousand feet above the sea floor. It is located half way between South America and Africa, some five hundred miles south of the equator and eight hundred miles north of St Helena Island. There are forty four distinct volcanic craters on Ascension and many old lava flows. The highest peak is Green Mountain at more than two thousand eight hundred feet.

At the time of its discovery by European navigators, Ascension was uninhabited, though for the next two hundred years, it was the haven for occasional shipwrecked sailors.

Exactly two hundred years after its first discovery, the Royal Navy vessel, HMS Roebuck sank in Clarence Bay and the sixty survivors spent two months on the island before they were rescued. On subsequent occasions, a Dutch ship's officer was exiled on Ascension; it was visited by the famous Captain Cook, and it was visited also by the equally famous Charles Darwin.

In 1815, the British navy established a garrison on Ascension as a precaution against the French if they were to make an attempt to rescue Napoleon off St Helena. Forty years later, the British Commandant stated: This is one of the strangest places on the face of the earth.

During the year 1900, the undersea cable reached Ascension, and a generation later they issued their first postage stamp. During World War II, the German U-Boat 124 approached the island with hostile intent, and shortly afterwards the first contingent of Americans arrived to survey the island for an airport.

These days, the island with its several hundred inhabitants, all of whom are classed as non-citizens, work for the major facilities on the island, including the airfield and the BBC shortwave station together with the needed supportive facilities. The golf course, with its surface made up of volcanic ash, rock rubble, and a sandy oil mix, is officially declared to be the worst golf course in the world.

It was back in the year 1925 that the British navy installed the first wireless station on Ascension Island. All of the electrical equipment was imported from England and it was constructed on the area known as Wireless Plain where it was activated under the British navy callsign BZO.

Interestingly, the transmissions from station BZO were monitored at the Meudon Observatory in Paris, France during a solar eclipse on May 29, 1919. During the time of darkness, it was noted in Paris that there was an increase of signal strength from the longwave transmitter on Ascension Island, and it is probable that this was the very first occasion when propagation enhancement was noted during an eclipse of the sun.

Station BZO was abandoned in 1922, though the building was re-used a generation later for another navy wireless station. This building was finally demolished in 1937.

Originally, Cable & Wireless established a shortwave station to supplement the usage of the undersea cables that connected Europe, Africa and South America. It is probable that the first of these shortwave transmitters was installed before World War II. Currently, C&W is still on the air shortwave, with transmitters for maritime communication under the callsign ZBI.

The first radio broadcasting station was installed by the Americans as an AFRS unit with just 50 watts on 1110 kHz under the callsign WXLR. This station was inaugurated on September 3, 1944 and it was closed when the American left, in June 1946.

However, just twelve years later again, the AFRS station was revived with just 3 watts output under an Ascension callsign, ZD8VR, Volcano Radio. The power output was soon afterwards increased to 30 watts, and then later again to 1 kW, though this was subsequently reduced as an economy measure to half power at 500 watts. The American Volcano Radio ZD8VR rebroadcast a live relay of the famous St. Helena Day Broadcast from Radio St. Helena in 1994, as a service to the many people from St. Helena who were working on Ascension Island.

A few QSL cards were issued from the first American AFRS station WXLR, and two different QSL cards have been issued from Volcano Radio ZD8VR.

Ten years after the AFRS station was established, another local mediumwave station was installed on Ascension Island. This new station was established and operated by the BBC under the callsign ZD8RA, Radio Ascension.

Subsequently, additional radio stations have been installed on Ascension. BFBS Radio on FM only, came in 2003; a local Saint FM was established by Cable & Wireless C&W, for the benefit of the St. Helena workers around the same time; and shortwave communication stations have been in use by the Americans at the Wideawake Airfield, and also by the NASA space facility. The Wideawake AIrfield is named after a local bird that wakes people with its call early each morning; and the communication radio station operates under the American callsign WYUC.

Here is a list of the local radio broadcasting stations recently on the air on Ascension Island. It should be stated that the two mediumwave stations are currently reported to be inactive:

* BBC ZD8RA Radio Ascension 1485 kHz 500 watts 93.2 MHz 15 watts
* AFRTS ZD8VR Volcano Radio 1602 kHz 100 watts 98.7 MHz 400 watts
* C&W Saint FM 91.4 MHz 25 watts
* BFBS BFBS Radio 97.3 and 105.3 MHz

In addition, the BBC Atlantic Relay Station is also located on Ascension Island, and that's the story here in Wavescan next week.