Radio Ships

Radio London air studio aboard the MV Galaxy
Radio London air studio aboard the MV Galaxy

These were broadcast platforms that were usually anchored in international waters broadcasting popular music to several European Countries including Great Britain, Holland, France and Spain in the late 1960’s through late 1980’s.  The reasons for these peculiar operations was strict government control of all broadcast outlets and programming in those particular countries. The BBC was known to be stodgy and repressive of new music, particularly rock music from bands like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, and others.

At the time, there was no specific law preventing ships anchored in international waters from broadcasting to shore based listeners, a loophole in the government control was found and exploited.  That loophole has been closed in most places, so as they say, don’t try this at home.

At one time there were several ships out there in the English Channel and coastal Denmark. The first and best known of these was Radio London or “The Big L.” It broadcast on 1133 KHz from December 16, 1964 to August 14, 1967 using a 50,000 watt RCA ampliphase transmitter. The ship itself was the M/V (motor vessel) Gallaxy, a converted WWII minesweaper formerly known as the USS Density.  After Radio London went off the air, the ship was transfered from port to port until it ended up in Kiel, Germany, were it was finally scrapped in the late 1990’s.

Radio Caroline was the main offshore competitor, broadcasting on 1520 KHz and several other frequencies off and on from 1964 until 1990 or so using several different vessels to transmit from.

MV Galaxy with radio mast
MV Galaxy with radio mast

One incident in off shore broadcasting that has always fascinated me was the burning of the Mebo II, then transmitting Radio Northsea International off the coast of Holland (this ship moved around quite a bit) in 1971. Later investigations revealed that the staff of an offshore competitor, Radio Veronica, was responsible for the firing of the ship.  Apparently, in those days the competition was brutal.

I like the nice calm music with the increasingly frantic DJ (West, no East). In any case, the ship remained afloat and returned to the air the next day.  The final European offshore broadcaster was something called Laser 558 on M/V Communicator.  It broadcast using to CSI 25 KW AM transmitters on 558 KHz in 1983, again, off and on for several years until 2004.  The CSI grounded grid transmitters may have been inexpensive to purchase, but I’ll bet they cost a lot to run.  This would be especially true if one were using diesel generators as the main electrical power provider.  As a result, they were usually run at about 1/2 power.  Eventually, M/V Communicator ended up beached in the Orkney Islands off of Scotland.

The only such attempt in the US was Alan Wiener’s MV Sarah, known as “Radio Newyork International” anchored off of Jones Beach on 1620 KHz.  The owner’s figured 4 miles off shore was far enough to be in international waters, the FCC felt otherwise, I believe at the time, 12 miles was (and still is) the territorial limits for the US.  Four miles was not international waters, as the broadcasters claimed.  These guys were arrested and sent to trial.  After several years all charges were dropped.

Anyway, an interesting bit of radio history. Goes to show the lengths that some will go to when feeling repressed.

The first radio stations

On this, the 98th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, some radio history is in order.  Before broadcast stations, radio was mainly used by ships at sea sending messages in Morse Code to coastal radio stations.  These messages could be routine; we are on schedule, we are carrying such and such cargo, request port clearance, etc.  They could also be urgent; the ship is sinking, we need medical advice, etc.

RMS Titanic, April 10, 1912
RMS Titanic, April 10, 1912

Most of these early radio stations were owned by Marconi Company, which later became RCA.  One of the first Marconi Stations was in Wellfleet Cape Cod, original call sign MCC (for Marconi Cape Cod) later changed to WCC.

On April 14th about 11:45pm, the Titanic struck and ice burg and sank about two and a half hours later.  The RMS Titanic call sign MGY was equipped with a radio transmitters at a time when ships were not required to be.  Sadly, the finer details of distress procedures for radio equipped ships had not been worked out.   After this incident, radio distress procedures were codified and the SOS evolved into the internationally recognized distress signal.

On the night the ship sank, the Marconi employed radio operators were sending routine traffic to Cape Race, Newfoundland radio.  Because the radio apparatus used spark gap transmitters and crystal radio receivers, interference from other ship stations often caused problems.  Earlier in the evening, a Titanic radio operator had strongly rebuked the operator from the closest ship, the SS Californian, telling him to “Shut up, shut up, I am busy; I am working Cape Race.” About 11pm the SS Californian operator retired for the evening and the Californian never received the distress call.  Sadly, this incident probably led to the high loss of life because the Californian was just over the horizon to the west and would have likely been able to rescue many of the passengers before the Titanic sank.

Coast Guard radioman Jeffrey Herman has a good SOS story from the late 70’s.  Being stationed on Hawaii, he was on duty late one night at Coast Guard Radio Station Honolulu, call sign NMO.

John Davies, the radio operator on board the Eriskay also has a story about receiving an SOS while at sea. Fortunately, that one turns out a little better.

I remember one night, myself hearing an automated SOS on the international lifeboat frequency (8364 kHz).  I imagined some poor guy cranking the life boat radio not knowing if it was going out or not (I was right, it turns out).  We heard him on Guam and DF’d him to off the coast near Australia.  We notified the Australian authorities, who diverted a nearby ship that picked 26 survivors up the next morning.

I am sure there a quite a few old CW (morse code) radio operators out there that have similar stories.  By the 1990’s most maritime communications had moved to INMARSAT, CW and coastal radio stations became redundant.

The end of commercial Morse Code in the US came on July 13, 1999, when KFS, the last coastal radio station, signed off.  Most of them have been scrapped and the valuable coastal land sold off to developers.

The development of broadcast radio was a direct offshoot of these radio stations.  AM radio, or rather AM technology was developed by ATT as an adjunct for their long distance system.  ATT used High Frequency (HF) voice circuits to span oceans for several decades, up to about the mid 1960’s.  Amateur radio operators began fooling around with voice broadcasting, using ATT’s patented AM technology around 1915 or so, after tube type transmitters and receivers became available.   Somebody realized the money could be made with the new fangled radio contraption and commercial broadcasting was born.

Somewhere in Utah, a phone company is missing it’s microwave site…

I followed this a link to this site called “SurvivalRealty.com” and saw this article about what looks to be a former ATT microwave relay site in Utah turned into a residence.  The site is much smaller than the former ATT site in Kingston that I profiled in this post.   Still, that is a Western Electric tower and those are KS-15676 antennas.

Former ATT microwave site turned into a residence
Former ATT microwave site turned into a residence

If I were that guy, I’d take those antennas down a scrap them.  Looks like the wave guides are already gone.  I might have tried to put some windows in while I was renovating it.  It would drive me crazy to live in a house without any windows.  I guess if one where waiting for the big one, windows might not be a desired feature of a survival bunker.

I wouldn’t really call it a “communications bunker” though.  I’ve been in communications bunkers, they are mostly underground and are much more robust than that building.  Still, it is built better than an ordinary commercial building or a regular house.   It would take a special person to live out in the middle of nowhere like that.