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Radio Free America - History

The background to the arrival of  this offshore station off the Atlantic coast of the USA lay in  a dispute over the complex  Federal rules governing legal land-based broadcasting in America.

Rev. Carl McIntire, then 67, was pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Church of Collingwood, New Jersey and  owned two stations - WXUR - AM and WXUR - FM in Media, Pennsylvania.  His syndicated programme "20th Century Reformation Hour" was at one time carried by 610 radio stations across America, but because of the extreme views he often expressed during these broadcasts many  stations started to cancel contracts, fearing the FCC would revoke their own licences for transmitting such material. Listeners made huge donations as a result of appeals made during these programmes and the widespread cancellation of contracts led to financial difficulties for McIntire.

He had also run into trouble with the governing body of American broadcasting - the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the so-called 'fairness' rule  entitling all parties to have equal hearing in any broadcast debate containing controversial subject matter. The Commission alleged that McIntire had used his stations as a platform  to air controversial and one-sided discussions on current events, without balanced editorial comment as required by FCC Regulations. (This rule was eventually abolished by the FCC, but not until 1987.)

The FCC, frustrated by McIntire's continued flouting of the fairness rule decided to close both WXUR outlets on 5th July 1973, ostensibly for failing to keep regular station logs. Carl McIntire announced during the final programmes on WXUR  that he would find a way of returning to the airwaves with a new station, which he would call Radio Free America, and promised to do so  within two weeks.

In order to stay outside FCC control McIntire planned to use a ship anchored in international waters as a base for his new radio station, but instead of the anticipated two weeks  it took him six weeks to find and equip a suitable vessel.

Having announced his plans, Mcintire began a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. When he lined up a suitable ship for his station, a 160-foot dry docked freighter in Trinidad, the U.S. State Department promptly applied pressure and the Trinidadian government disallowed the sale. Another deal elsewhere was similarly scuttled.

The ship eventually acquired by McIntire was the MV Oceanic, a former minesweeper which had also latterly  been used by oceanographer Jacques Cousteau as a base for  scuba diving off Cape Canaveral in Florida. The vessel was leased by McIntire and re-named  Columbus. By the end of August 1973 she had been fitted out as a floating radio station with a 10Kw RCA transmitter, an aerial array consisting of wire strung along the ship supported by the 100' central mast as well as some rudimentary studio equipment including a control panel, microphone and four reel-to-reel tape decks. The ship, which was crewed by six marine staff and two radio technicians, took up position in international waters off Cape May, New Jersey on 28th August 1973.

First transmission

Radio Free America had its landbased headquarters in Carl McIntire's "Christian Admiral" Hotel at Cape May, New Jersey. McIntire proposed to give listeners to his new station a demonstration of free speech "as the Founding Fathers had intended it."  Some broadcasts, including news bulletins, were to be transmitted live from the MV Columbus, with guest speakers being taken out to the radio ship, while other programmes would be pre-recorded on land. Plans were even announced to install a laser transmitter at the "Christian Admiral" Hotel to relay up-to-date news to the ship at its  anchorage outside the three mile territorial limit.

A test carrier signal was transmitted from the Columbus on 1160kHz (259m) shortly before midnight (EST) on 12th September 1973. Then just after 1.30am the following morning the first music was broadcast from Radio Free America. However, this test transmission only lasted half an hour due to technical problems with equipment which ultimately resulted in a small fire breaking out  in the control room and on the wooden deck of the Columbus.

The following day, 14th September 1973 the ship broke from her anchor and was forced to enter port for repairs and to have a new anchor installed. Some work was completed, although the new anchor could not be fitted immediately, but nevertheless the Columbus left port  at 7.00pm on 15th September and sailed into international waters along the New Jersey coast. Radio Free America made a further four hour test broadcast while the ship was sailing up and down the coastline  during the early morning of 16th September 1973. Later that same day the ship  entered port to have her new anchor fitted and three days later  she was back at sea again transmitting programmes for Radio Free America.


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