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RXKR - History

Offshore radio is usually thought of in the context of providing an alternative to the established state monopoly broadcasting systems, but the world's first true commercial offshore station was, surprisingly, located off the west coast of the USA during the early 1930s. Surprisingly because the US Government and authorities had adopted  a much less restrictive approach  to the development of radio broadcasting than most of their European  contemporaries. This was partly because of the geographical size of the country, but largely due to the fact that the USA then, as now, valued most highly the right of its citizens to freedom of speech - an entitlement enshrined in its constitution.  

Initial reports of a planned offshore radio venture appeared in the International Radio News on 16th and 30th July 1932 indicating that a Los Angeles-based organisation planned to anchor its vessel 12 miles outside US territorial waters and broadcast programmes using a 16Kw transmitter. According to these press reports the station planned to take advertising for products not then permitted on federally licensed American radio stations and programming was to consist of "gramophone records, concerts from an orchestra, performances by solo artists, and horoscope predictions by the astrologer Zandra”.

The organisers behind the project acquired a steamship, SS City of Panama, which had previously been fitted out as a casino and speakeasy. Such floating casinos were established in the 1920s and 30s to circumvent the anti-gambling and drinking laws in many states and operated on the same principle as offshore broadcasting - being located in international waters they were outside the territorial jurisdiction of, in this case, the USA. It was a small step from operating a floating casino to launching a floating radio station.

The vessel was registered in Panama, ostensibly to act as a showboat promoting the attractions of that country as a holiday destination for US tourists. A radio station licence, with the call sign RXKR was also granted to the organisation by the Panamanian Government in the belief that broadcasts would be used to promote tourism and industry in their country. Under this licence the station was authorised to broadcast experimental, non-commercial programmes on a frequency of 815kHz (368m) with a transmitter power of between 500 watts and 1Kw.

Reaction to the granting of the licence by Panama was not favourable in the United States - both the Government and owners of many authorised radio stations were seriously concerned that this new offshore station would interfere with existing broadcasting signals. In April 1933, a few weeks before the station’s scheduled launch, a formal protest was lodged by a Washington law firm claiming that that RXKR might be expected to "interfere with and ruin the transmission" of American broadcasting stations.The US State Department sent an urgent demand to the Panamanian Government requesting that both the registration of the City of Panama and the licence for station RXKR should be cancelled immediately.

Panamanian response to the State Department's demands was dismissive. It considered that the US Government had no right to interfere with the activities of one of its legitimately registered vessels whilst in international waters.  The Panamanian Consul in Los Angeles said the vessel was fully within its legal rights and had promised to operate as a "high class station" which would adhere to the standards established by the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) (forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission) for licensed land-based stations.

Unfortunately these assurances from the Panamanian Government were soon discredited by the actions of the offshore station's owners who violated most, if not all, of their licence conditions when station RXKR eventually came on the air on 3rd June 1933. Although authorised as a low power (500w-1Kw) non-commercial station RXKR immediately began broadcasting advertisements along with its popular music programmes and transmitted with a power more than five times in excess of the maximum  permitted by the terms of its Panamanian licence.

The City of Panama was the same floating speakeasy she had always been, but RXKR was transmitting with an estimated 5Kw of power and accepting advertising from companies in California. Commercials were being sold through an office established in Los Angeles and advertisers were reportedly paying as much as $1,500 per month. The FRC also claimed that some of the broadcasts were made while the vessel was anchored in Santa Monica harbour.

RXKR benefited from the fact that, at that time, there were a relatively small number of local commercial stations serving the west coast area. Advertisers were attracted to RXKR because of its enormous coverage area - achieved through use of the high power transmitter and clear channel frequency (no other station in that area was broadcasting on 815kHz).

While RXKR was able to benefit commercially from the use of this high powered transmitter, its strong signal badly affected transmissions by legal stations throughout the west coast of Southern California, particularly those broadcasting between  810kHz  and 820kHz. Many listeners in the Los Angeles area even gave up trying to hear any stations operating between 790 and 840 kHz while RXKR was transmitting.

Reception of RXKR was also reported from places as far afield as the east coast of the United States, Hawaii, Mexico and even north eastern Canada. Among stations known to have been affected were clear-channel WCCO in Minneapolis (810 kHz) which was wiped out in the West,  as was WHAS (820 kHz) in Louisville, Kentucky. One station, CNRH (815 kHz) in Nova Scotia even ceased broadcasting due to interference from RXKR and never returned to the air. In Mexico, station XFI was broadcasting with 1Kw  on 818 kHz from Mexico City when RXKR arrived but shortly after the arrival of RXKR  it too. went off the air for good.

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Key Dates

Ship and Location



Key Dates Ship and Location Technical Staff

Back to RXKR

Back to America Gallery

Broadcast Magazine

15th June 1933

Advert in the Los Angeles Times. 1st June 1933 for the City of Panama ‘cruise to nowhere’ and  the launch of RXKR

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Honolulu Star Bulletin

1st July 1933

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Thanks to Mike Barraclough for allowing us to use the contemporary American press cuttings he researched about RXKR