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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, March 25, 2012

The BBC World Service Celebrates 80 Years: The Story of a Mystery Transmitter

On Leap Year Day, February 29, just three weeks back, the BBC World Service celebrated its 80th anniversary. So, here in Wavescan today, we take a detailed look at the beginnings of the BBC World Service, and we trace its developmental history from its earliest origins, and onwards throughout the intervening years.

On November 11, 1927, the BBC began its first experimental shortwave service with the use of a rented Marconi transmitter, G5SW at Chelmsford, out from London. Programming for the shortwave transmitter, rated at 10 kW, was a parallel relay from the mediumwave station 2LO in London. This experimental relay proved to be quite popular with listeners throughout the British Empire and throughout the world, and so the BBC envisioned a truly international dedicated shortwave service.

In June 1930, the BBC placed a request before the Colonial Secretary in the British government, seeking approval as well as funding for the purpose of establishing this new international shortwave radio broadcasting service. A large new shortwave station would be required, and work began on this ambitious project at Daventry in the central Midlands during the following year, 1931.

In preparation for the launching of this new Empire Service, the BBC began to incorporate special programming into their experimental shortwave service; and for example, on January 5, 1932, a 15 minute news service was introduced for this purpose.

Before the new shortwave station at Daventry was ready for use, the BBC inaugurated the New Empire Service from two available shortwave transmitters. On Monday February 29, Leap Year Day, 1932, the BBC Director-General, Sir John Reith, officially inaugurated this new BBC Empire Service.

In his inaugural address, Reith stated: "Don't expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programs, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programs will neither be very interesting nor very good."

Reith might also have added, that initially the shortwave coverage area would not be that great either!

At this stage, the new Empire Service was on the air from just two shortwave transmitters, rated at what we would consider these days to be quite low power. One transmitter was the Marconi G5SW at Chelmsford with 10 kW on 11750 kHz; and the other was an unidentified transmitter radiating on either 4320 or 4820 kHz. But where was this second unannounced transmitter located?

A shortwave listener living in the regional city of Broken Hill in the desert areas of far western New South Wales reported to the Australian radio magazine "Listener In" that he was hearing programming from a strange new shortwave station that was on the air under the callsign G6RX. That was back in January 1932, at the time when preliminary test broadcasts were on the air preparatory to the launching of the new BBC Empire Service in England.

At first it was conjectured, incorrectly we might add, that these transmissions from station G6RX were from the new passenger liner, "Empress of Britain". Then in March, a listener in the United States indicated that he was hearing a relay from the BBC via station G6RX. But where was this station actually located? It could not be from the new Daventry station, because that was not yet ready to go on air.

In July, the same "Listener In" magazine in Australia declared that enquiries had been made at the GPO in London, and they stated that they were aware of the broadcasts from G6RX, but they would not confirm any details about this station. Likewise, the RSGB, Radio Society of Great Britain, would give no official information either.

However, as time went by, the collective information from shortwave listeners in England, North America and the South Pacific confirmed that these G6RX broadcasts were actually a relay of the new BBC Empire Service from a 15 kW shortwave transmitter located at the rather new GPO station at Rugby, quite near to Daventry. When G6RX at Rugby was not on the air with BBC programming, it was in use for international radio communication under the callsign GDB on 4320 kHz and GDW on 4820 kHz.

The Mystery of the Missing Shortwave Transmitter was solved. It was identified as a regular communication transmitter located at the GPO shortwave station at Rugby that was taken into temporary usage for the new BBC Empire Service.

Thus, we see that the new BBC Empire Service was officially inaugurated, on shortwave only, on Monday February 29, 1932 via just two rented transmitters:

G5SW Chelmsford Marconi Company 5 kW 11750 kHz
G6RX Rugby GPO 15 kW 4320 or 4820 kHz

However, the new BBC shortwave station at Daventry made its first test broadcasts eight months later, on October 25, 1932, and the usage of G5SW at Chelmsford and G6RX at Rugby was phased out, though the G5SW transmitter was subsequently re-engineered to 20 kW, removed from Chelmsford, and re-installed at Daventry.

Seven years later, in November 1939, the BBC Empire Service became the BBC Overseas Service, with a separate European Service; and in 1965, the BBC Overseas Service became the BBC World Service.

The first studios for the BBC Empire Service were located in what was the new building known as Broadcast House, Portland Place, London. In 1941, the studios were relocated to Bush House on The Strand; and just a few weeks back, the studios were moved to a new extension building back at Broadcasting House.

In September 1939, the BBC was on the air from just 8 shortwave transmitters, all at Daventry; and over the years, many new shortwave stations were constructed in England, as well as in countries overseas, such as Singapore, Cyprus and Oman, and many other locations. Today, the BBC World Service is still a mighty voice that can be heard on shortwave in every country of the world every day of every year.