"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 N395, September 18, 2016
Outback Radio in Australia - 1
During the first few days of this month, September, international radio monitors all around the world reacted with shock and amazement at the startling announcement that the three ABC shortwave stations in the Northern Territory of Australia were suddenly and abruptly closed. It was the well-known international radio monitor in Melbourne, Bob Padula, who discovered this unsavory information which he revealed to the world via the internet. The reason for closure was given as budgetary cuts.
However, in another subsequent announcement from Australia, it is stated that the three Outback Radio shortwave stations, VL8A, VL8K and VL8T were all reactivated at 9:00 am Sydney time last Tuesday, September 13. In spite of the fact that this new information is just as much welcome as was the previous announcement unwelcome, there still remain several unanswered questions.
It appears that all three stations were switched off simultaneously in the first few days of September, and according to monitoring observations in Australia and New Zealand, they remained off the air. The reason for terminating this triple shortwave service was given as budgetary deficits.
Does this mean then that there were a lot of hidden local listeners in the desert regions of Central Australia who reacted against the closure? Or perhaps the reaction of a large number of international radio monitors around the world caught the attention of the radio authorities?
On all previous occasions of original construction and subsequent maintenance, each of the stations has been attended to usually consecutively, not usually simultaneously, due to the long distances involved and the paucity of local logistics and personnel. The distance between the two furthest stations, VL8K Katherine and VL8A Alice Springs, is in excess of 700 miles. It would seem then that the reason for the now temporary closure could hardly be maintenance. If so, then why no temporary fill in service from Radio Australia, Shepparton, as on other occasions?
However, we welcome the return of the three Outback Radio shortwave stations, and we continue with our intention to present the story of these three unique shortwave stations as announced in Wavescan last week. This week, part 1 of the story, the historic backgrounds.
The three shortwave stations that are on the air in the Northern Territory are identified as VL8A Alice Springs, VL8T Tennant Creek and VL8K Katherine, each operating at 50 kW. This regional network of shortwave stations took its programming from the ABC mediumwave stations in Darwin and Alice Springs, together with additional inserts of programming in Aboriginal languages.
Because of these recent circumstances, we are planning to present two major features in Wavescan, in which we tell the story of Outback Radio in Australia's Northern Territory. Today, we feature the earlier years.
The Northern Territory in Australia is a sparsely populated wide open territory, mainly an undulating desert, which is administered like a state within the Commonwealth of Australia. The territory encompasses half a million square miles with a population of only a quarter million. It is true, however, that the Great Australian Outback also encroaches into adjacent areas of five other mainland states.
The capital city of the Northern territory is Darwin on the north coast, and two of the main tourist attractions are Ayers Rock in the Red Center, and the nearby Olgas Rocks. Other tourist attractions include Kakadu National Park, Australia's largest national park, with its wild variety of 2,000 different plant species and its Aboriginal rock carvings.
The story about shortwave radio broadcasting in the Northern Territory can be traced back to the year 1928. In May of that year, mediumwave station 5CL in Adelaide, a commercial station as it was in those days, applied for a shortwave license for the purpose of relaying their mediumwave programming to the widely scattered listeners in the outback areas of South Australia and the Northern Territory. For a period of time, the Northern Territory was administered by the state government in Adelaide, South Australia.
The 5CL license application requested 5 kW in the shortwave bands around 70 or 80 meters. However, the licensing authorities refused to issue a shortwave license for this purpose.
In response, 5CL began to send some of its programming by landline to Melbourne during the next year (1929), where it was picked up by 3LO and re-broadcast to the Northern Territory on shortwave from VK3ME, the AWA transmitter at suburban Braybrook. It is true also that 3LO-VK3ME carried other programming at times for the benefit of listeners in the outback, even though their main emphasis was in providing shortwave coverage to England and the United States.
In 1938, another attempt was made to establish a shortwave station for specific coverage of Central Australia and the Northern Territory with a transmitter located directly south, near Adelaide in South Australia. However, this project was abandoned due to the war looming in Europe.
Ten years earlier, in 1928, an experimental 600 watt shortwave transmitter had been installed in a galvanized iron shack on top of a small rise near Lyndhurst in Victoria. Programming was taken from the mediumwave stations 3LO and 3AR in Melbourne. Initially this transmitter was on the air without its own specific callsign, though subsequently, a combination callsign was adopted, 3LR. Later again, the call was amended to VK3LR, and finally to VLR, with power increases over a period of time; 1 kW and then 2 kW, and 5 kW, and ultimately 10 kW.
Initially station VLR carried mixed programming from 3LO and 3AR, though subsequently, the National Programming from Sydney via 3AR in Melbourne was on the air from this station. The coverage area for ABC programming over this transmitter was the outback, and on many important occasions, special programming was presented for outback listeners, including several daily bulletins of outback news. The Lyndhurst station VLR was finally closed in 1987.
When the 10 kW VLG was inaugurated at Lyndhurst in 1941, it served a dual purpose; the relay of ABC programming to outback areas, and the relay of Radio Australia programming to the world. This unit was on the air for a period of nearly half a century, and it too was finally closed in 1987.
Another 10 kW companion transmitter was installed at Lyndhurst in 1946 for outback coverage and this unit took a relay of ABC programming under the callsign VLH. Like VLR and VLG, this unit was also closed in 1987, along with all other ABC and Radio Australia shortwave services at Lyndhurst.
Over in Western Australia, the nation's largest state, a new shortwave station was under construction just at the time when war was looming over in Europe. This new shortwave service, initially at just 2 kW, was intended to give wide area coverage for the ABC in the outback areas of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. A new 10 kW was installed for VLW in 1960.
Then, in 1949, a 50 kW transmitter was installed under the callsign VLX. This unit was amalgamated into VLW in 1969, and both shortwave services at Wanneroo were terminated in 1994.
Up in Queensland, likewise there were two shortwave services for the outback with a parallel from the ABC mediumwave station at Bald Hills, a little north of the state capital, Brisbane. A new 10 kW VLQ was inaugurated in 1943; and a temporary 200 watt was installed 6 years later (1949) as VLM. This low powered unit was replaced by a 10 kW unit two years later again in 1951. The twin units VLQ and VLM were closed in 1993.
There was another shortwave station on the air in Australia that gave excellent though unintended overage into Alice Springs and Central Australia and this was the low powered 2 kW VLI at Liverpool in outer suburban Sydney. ABC station VLI was inaugurated in 1948, and it was withdrawn from service in 1983 when apparently the transmitter failed electronically.
That's part 1 of our story on Outback Radio in Australia, the three ABC shortwave stations in the Northern territory. More next week.