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Early Offshore Days (2)

The first true offshore commercial broadcaster

It took some years before technical developments were sufficiently advanced for any further attempt to be made to launch a radio station from on board a ship. When it did happen the development came about in an unlikely location.

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.  The station - RKXR - was located off the California coast and broadcast programmes and commercials during the summer of 1933.

A full history of this station can be found in the America Gallery.

Other offshore broadcasting ventures

Although a number of other ship-borne radio stations were established in various parts of the world following the demise of RKXR these were mainly for propaganda and military broadcasts, or communications within fishing fleets and their programmes were not commercially  funded.

An early example of this type of floating station was Radio Morue (Radio Cod) which accompanied French fishing fleets to the waters around Newfoundland in the late 1930s. The station, based on one of the  trawlers, was operated by Rev. Yvon and broadcast religious messages and news items from home to fishermen on board other vessels in the fleet.

A propaganda offshore radio station operated between January and April 1938 from a small ship sailing along the European coast between France and Holland. The station - Radio Gegen das Dritten Reich (Radio Against the Third Reich) - had been secretly equipped in Britain by personnel from the BBC and the Dutch broadcasting organisation VARA. Programmes were intended to provide an uncensored and objective source of news and political commentary on events taking place at the time in Nazi Germany. The station broadcast on short wave and its target audience was listeners in Holland and inside Germany itself, where it was hoped to stimulate an anti-Nazi movement.

In 1941 Spanish Communists, who had been exiled by the right-wing Franco Regime after the Civil War, used a Russian trawler anchored in the Black  Sea as a base from which to broadcast programmes to their home country. The station, Estacion Pyrenees, broadcast on shortwave and tried to make listeners believe that it was located somewhere in the Pyrenees Mountains on the French/Spanish border. Transmissions consisted, not surprisingly, of anti-Franco propaganda and although the ship-borne broadcasts ended after a short while the station's programmes continued to be relayed to Spain for some years from  land-based transmitters in  various sympathetic East European communist countries.

Another Spanish political group, this time separatists who claimed to be the Basque Government in exile, also used a trawler (anchored in the French port of Bayonne) to broadcast anti-Franco programmes under the call sign Radio Euzkad between 1950 and 1953.

The United States  Government propaganda station Voice of America used a number of ships as offshore  broadcasting bases, particularly during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1942 the USS Texas was anchored in the Mediterranean and equipped to broadcast Voice of America programmes as a counter to the many Nazi propaganda stations then on the air. These programmes, targeted at North Africa, were transmitted on 601kHz (498m) and commenced on 7th November 1942, coinciding with an Allied military advance in that area. However, some rapid Allied successes against the Nazi forces in North Africa meant that the station's mission became obsolete and transmissions were terminated after only a few weeks.

Three years later, in 1945, the Voice of America again used a ship, this time the Phoenix, anchored in the China Sea to broadcast propaganda  programmes to the Far East on both shortwave and medium wave frequencies.

The most  significant use of an offshore based transmitter by the Voice of America came in the early 1950s and was to serve as a role model for early European offshore commercial broadcasters. A merchant ship,  Doddridge was converted, at a cost of $3.5million, into a floating radio station and renamed firstly  Coastal  Messenger  and later  Courier. The station was fitted out by US Coastguards who installed three on-board transmitters, one medium wave with a power of 150Kw, and two  shortwave, each with an output of 35Kw.

Test broadcasts from this ship-borne station took place in the Caribbean during April 1952 on 1390kHz (215m) using an aerial held aloft by a helium filled balloon (a system tried again over 30 years later off the English  coast by offshore station  Laser 730).

In August 1952, having successfully completed her test transmissions the Courier sailed to the Mediterranean and anchored off the Greek Island of Rhodes, commencing broadcasts as the Voice of America - Seabase Radio Station Dodecanese Islands - on 7th September 1952. The Courier remained broadcasting at this base until 1964 when she was converted for use in connection with early satellite communications, the Voice of America operation having being transferred to a landbased transmitter in Rhodes.

It was the successful operation of this ship-based Voice of America outlet and the experience of its US Navy radio engineers which helped some of the early European commercial offshore stations become established. Certainly the Swedish offshore station Radio Nord depended heavily on technical advice from US Navy radio experts who had been involved with the Courier and the concept of such a seaborne station was partly the inspiration for the launch of Radio Veronica off Holland and later Radio Caroline off the British coast.

Commercial interest

While the practice of using ship-based radio stations for non-commercial military or political propaganda broadcasting had continued throughout the 1940's and 50's it was not until 1958 - 25 years after the closure of RKXR - that  another commercial offshore radio station took to the airwaves - Radio Mercur, off the coast of Denmark

It  is extremely doubtful that the people behind Radio Mercur knew anything about RKXR at the time they decided to set up their station. They had simply identified a legal  loophole enabling them to operate from international waters and challenge an established state broadcasting system. Despite numerous practical difficulties they succeeded  and Radio Mercur itself went on to inspire the establishment of many  similar stations throughout Europe and other parts of the world.

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