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RKXR - 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 RKXR 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. 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 RKXR 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.  At the same time, however, Panamanian officials did indicate that the station would voluntarily adhere to the rules laid down by the US Federal Radio Commission (FRC) 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 RKXR eventually came on the air in May 1933.

Although authorised as a low power (500w-1Kw) non-commercial station RKXR 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.

Commercials were sold through an office established in Los Angeles and RKXR 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 RKXR 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 RKXR 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. Understandably these stations immediately lodged complaints with the Federal Radio Commission, but like many governments and official bodies over thirty years later, that agency was initially unwilling or unable to stop the activities of the offshore broadcaster. Reception of RKXR was also reported from places as far afield as the east coast of the United States, Hawaii and even north eastern Canada.

As the result of no action being taken on their behalf by the Federal Radio Commission some legal stations made direct contact with RKXR's backers, requesting that the offshore station move its transmissions from the 815kHz frequency. Amazingly the response from RKXR's management to these requests was that they would agree to change frequency only in return for substantial payments (amounting in some instances to many thousands of dollars) from the legal stations which claimed to be affected.

In June 1933 the US State Department, alarmed by reports of these extortion demands, again requested that the Panamanian Government revoke both the broadcasting licence for RKXR and the registration of the station's vessel, City of Panama. This time the Panamanian Government's attitude was more positive. They were now fully aware that their 'tourism promotion' vessel and radio station were being wholly misused by the unscrupulous operators and agreed to the US Government request. Within a few days both the ship's registration and the radio station's licence had been withdrawn, but this did not deter the owners of the offshore station and RKXR continued broadcasting defiantly for several more weeks.

Meanwhile, both the US and Panamanian Governments discussed what action, if any, they could take to silence the now un-licensed station. Some initial confusion existed about its legal status on the high seas since the vessel was no longer registered by Panama, but eventually the US State Department was satisfied that it had grounds upon which to act. In August 1933 the City of Panama was seized at sea by officials from the State Department and the US Coastguard Service who towed the vessel into Los Angeles harbour.

The US Government's concern about RKXR was that if no action had been taken to silence the station then a fleet of similar offshore broadcasters would soon anchor off both the east and west coasts, causing interference to legal stations' transmissions. More seriously, as had been graphically demonstrated by the response from RKXR to requests for it to change frequency, an ugly situation could have quickly developed if other offshore broadcasters chose to behave in the same irresponsible manner and engage in similar extortion demands.

Following this belated, but in the end decisive, US Government action the owners of RKXR  were not involved in further radio broadcasting, legal or otherwise, after August 1933.

The action taken against this early offshore station and the demonstration of just what a threat it had posed to the established broadcasting system also helped shape future United States broadcasting laws, particularly those designed to prevent unauthorised transmissions. The impact of those laws became evident over half a century later when action was taken by the US authorities, this time rather more quickly than in 1933, to silence further offshore stations or even prevent ships involved with such projects leaving port.

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