"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 N355, December 13, 2015
Focus on the South Pacific: Railway Radio 5ZB in New Zealand - 2
The mobile radio broadcasting station, 5ZB, was installed into a luxury railway carriage and it made a 3 month tour of the North Island of New Zealand beginning on March 20, 1939. The first town to host the station was Rotorua where it was involved in local civic and commercial events for a period of five days. Mediumwave radio 5ZB radiated its locally produced live programming from a 250 watt transmitter on 1360 kHz through an antenna suspended above the railway carriage.
The last town to host this unique radio broadcasting service was Masterton, and at the end of its third day at this location in June (1939), the station left the air; its purpose in demonstrating the value of local commercial radio broadcasting in New Zealand had been successfully achieved. Its 2,000 miles of travel over the railway system in the North Island and its three months of service in 13 communities was over, forever.
Well, as subsequent events demonstrated, not quite. Give five months later, and the 5ZB railway carriage was on display with a majestic flourish at the Centennial Exhibition in suburban Wellington. This Centennial Exhibition was staged in Rongotai, a specially built venue in the south eastern locality of the national capital, Wellington. The purpose for this exhibition was to celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of a treaty between Maori leaders and the British colonial government.
On the opening day, Wednesday November 8, 1939, 5ZB was on the air, much to the admiration of multitudes who thronged to see this unique radio broadcasting station. The original 250 watt broadcasting transmitter was on the air again, still on its same regular channel 1360 kHz.
In addition, a motor van had been fitted out with a low powered shortwave transmitter for use in relaying live interviews and program segments from various remote locations back to 5ZB. For example, on January 16 early in the new year (1940), the Exhibition welcomed its one millionth visitor, Mrs. L. D. Cogan from Dunedin. On this occasion, the van made a shortwave broadcast back to 5ZB from a location at the gateway to the Exhibition.
Station 5ZB was on the air daily from its stationary location inside the Exhibition areas, usually in the afternoons and into the evenings. Recordings were made of the 5ZB programming, including the shortwave spliced-in segments from nearby remote locations and these were broadcast nationwide over the network of government owned ZB commercial stations throughout New Zealand.
A special series of remote broadcasts was planned for February 6, 1940, the exact one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The signing of this Treaty took place at the locality of Waitangi, which is situated on the Bay of Islands, quite near the northern tip of the North Island, nearly 500 miles north of the Exhibition location in Wellington.
Another mobile broadcast van, normally operated by commercial station 2ZB in Wellington, was driven to Waitangi for the special anniversary broadcast. However, this van was not equipped with a mobile shortwave transmitter, so the assistance and the equipment of three local amateur radio transmitters was called into action.
Alan Snow of nearby Whangarei took his amateur radio equipment ZL1HJ to Waitangi for the occasion, and he relayed the anniversary celebrations on shortwave to 5ZB's sister commercial station 1ZB in Auckland. The input from a total of 12 microphones was spliced into this special radio programming, which was also carried by 5ZB in suburban Wellington.
For this special radio occasion, transmitter ZL1HJ was on the air under the callsign 1ZA, borrowed from the government operated standard mediumwave station at Whangarei. Two other amateur stations also co-operated in this unique program relay on shortwave; Frank Hart from Paparoa with ZL1NH and Cliff McLean of Waipu with ZL1AI.
The final day of the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington was Saturday, May 4, 1940, and by this time, 2.8 million people had visited the Exhibition, considerably more than the total population of New Zealand at the time. Radio station 5ZB was in service at this Exhibition for the entire 6 months that it was open.
Then, radio station 5ZB was again silenced, forever. In fact, that is not quite true either. After the Exhibition was over, the contents of the special radio carriage AA1710 was removed and the carriage itself was returned to the New Zealand railway system for regular railway service. In February 1982, this same carriage, though now numbered as AL50049, was written off in Auckland.
However, the 5ZB transmitter was taken way down south in the South Island and it was placed in service with sister commercial station 4ZB in Dunedin where it was licensed as an auxiliary (emergency) transmitter under the callsign 4ZF. At its new location, transmitter 4ZF was noted on occasions in New Zealand and Australia in early 1941 with test transmissions still on its regular channel of 1360 kHz. When 4ZF got too old to be useful, it was finally silenced, for the last time.
However, there was an echo of this station some forty years later when another railway carriage in New Zealand was fitted out with a radio production studio, just like the old and nearly forgotten 5ZB, though no actual transmitter was installed. The Pleasant Point Railway & Historical Society in Timaru staged the occasion in 1982 when they outfitted a Guard's Van F423 with a bevy of electronic equipment. Programing from this special event studio was transmitted over the nearby regular radio broadcasting station 3XC in Timaru with 2 kW on 1152 kHz.
And that really is the end of this fascinating radio saga, a series of interesting events that spanned 43 years!
From the Pacific to Europe: The Story of a Unique QSL Card
Quite recently, we obtained a very special QSL card via Ebay. The QSL text was duplicated onto a 1 cent postal card and it was issued by the Audience Mail Department of NBC in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. This very special QSL card verified the reception of a shortwave transmitter WMEF aboard a US navy vessel, the "Avocet" and it was dated for reception on June 14, 1937.
This is what happened. A new RCA 1 kW shortwave transmitter weighing 5 tons was installed into a special enclosure on the main deck of the "Avocet" in preparation for a voyage into the central Pacific. It was intended that listeners in the United States could hear a series of special broadcasts from isolated Enderbury and Canton Islands during a spectacular total eclipse.
At 4 pm on Thursday, May 6, 1937, just before the "Avocet" left Honolulu, a special half hour farewell program was broadcast over this specially made shortwave transmitter WMEF. This program was relayed to the RCA station at Point Reyes/Bolinas in California for nationwide coverage on mediumwave across the United States. The "Avocet" was then bound for the two small islands in the exotic central Pacific to study the eclipse of the sun during its unusually long duration.
The "Avocet" arrived off shore at the small Enderbury Island one week later, at 8:30 am local time on May 13. There was no satisfactory anchorage location at Enderbury, so she moved on to Canton Island arriving there later in the same day.
After unloading men and supplies on Canton Island, the "Avocet" returned to Enderbury and off loaded men and supplies there also, in preparation for the coming eclipse. A small 20 watt Apex high frequency relay transmitter, also manufactured by RCA and licensed with the American callsign W10XEP, was installed in a tent.
Soon after the ship arrived back at Enderbury, a radio documentary under the title "A Desert Island" was broadcast over station WMEF. All of these program broadcasts were intended for pickup in the United States and England for nationwide distribution over local mediumwave networks.
Interestingly, the advance schedules for mediumwave WEAF in New York City show the insertion into their programming of eclipse broadcasts from the central Pacific. In addition several of these special programs from Enderbury and Canton were heard direct from WMEF aboard the "Avocet" by international radio monitors in the United States.
On one occasion station WMEF was heard calling station W2XAF in Schenectady, New York for a program transfer; and on another occasion they called station W3XZ which was operated by the Jenkins Laboratories in Washington, DC. On another occasion again, WMEF was heard passing a program broadcast to the BBC in London.
On Eclipse Day, Tuesday June 8, 1937, three live broadcasts were made; one early in the morning, another during the eclipse which began around 8:30 am local time, and another in the evening as a summary of the day's events. Each of these broadcasts contained eye witness accounts from both Canton Island as well as from the fifty mile distant Enderbury Island.
The atmospheric conditions at both Enderbury and Canton on Eclipse Day were described as almost perfect and the photographs taken that day are still studied three quarters of a century later. The insert broadcasts from Enderbury were transmitted by the low power Apex transmitter W10XEP and spliced live into the main on-air programming from WMEF on board the "Avocet" which was off shore near Canton.
With the eclipse events over, equipment and personnel on Canton were loaded onto the "Avocet" next day, she voyaged over to Enderbury and picked up the men and equipment there, and then sailed for Honolulu later that same day.
The unique NBC QSL card verifies the reception of WMEF during the transfer of a radio broadcast while the ship was en route on the return journey two days before arrival in Honolulu. The fortunate listener was Mr. L. D. Brewer of Phoenix in Arizona.
So that is the interesting story of an important QSL card, verifying a broadcast from a heavy transmitter on board a ship in the central Pacific. The 20 watt high frequency shortwave transmitter W10XEP carried radio programming from lonely and uninhabited Enderbury Island. This programming was picked up on the "Avocet," and broadcast on shortwave to the RCA stations in Hawaii and California for onward relay on mediumwave throughout the United States. But that is not the end of the story.
The five ton shortwave transmitter WMEF was placed in storage in the United States for a period of five years. Then, in 1942, this equipment was renovated and taken to North Africa, and in August of the following year it was set up and placed on the air at Syracuse on the island of Sicily.
A month or two later, the transmitter was shipped to Bari in Italy and then taken by road to Naples, where again it was placed on the air. Shortly afterwards this same unit was then transported to Rome where again it became airborne.
This historic one kilowatt RCA shortwave transmitter that initially saw service in the Pacific on board a ship for the broadcast of a significant eclipse of the sun in the year 1937, finished up in Rome as a temporary relay station for the Voice of America. The engineers who manned this station nicknamed it "Relic," due to its size and age. When its usefulness in Rome was over in 1944 or 1945, we can only assume that this transmitter was subsequently abandoned at its most recent location.