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Listening to Byrd on Short-Wave Radio
July 1934 Radio News and the Short-Wave

July 1934 Radio News & Short-Wave

July 1934 Radio News and the Short-Wave Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio & Television News, published 1919-1959. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

Little America was a series of Antarctic exploration bases begun by Admiral Richard Byrd in 1929, located on the Ross Ice Shelf, south of the Bay of Whales at the South Pole. In those days such expeditions captivated the imaginations of Americans and folks worldwide for that matter. CBS radio broadcasted a weekly show that featured in part communications from Byrd's team. Listeners sat in rapt attention as the announcer described the S.S. Jacob Ruppert passage through the Panama Canal en route to New Zealand and then on to the South Pole for the "Byrd Antarctic Expedition II." As reported in this 1934 issue of Radio News magazine, KFZ, Byrd's station call sign, used an aerial constructed of a horizontal, diamond-shaped type known as a Bruce antenna. The wires are stretched between four 60-foot telegraph poles. Shortwave frequencies between 6,650 and 21,625 kilocycles were accessible by both amateur radio operators and by non-technical types with their commercial receivers.

Listen to Byrd

Admiral Byrd and His Antarctic Announcer

by Samuel Kaufman

On the broadcasts from Little America on the short waves - RF Cafe

On the broadcasts from Little America on the short waves, standard microphone equipment is used and the programs are supervised by Announcer Murphy. The two circular illustrations on this page are both sides of the medal recently presented to the Admiral for distinguished contributions to the radio art.

With complete studio and transmitter facilities set up on the icy terrain of Little America, programs from Admiral Byrd's base near the South Pole are now supplying countless thrills to listeners throughout the world. In addition to the regular Wednesday night broadcasts emanating from the short-wave directional antenna of Station KFZ - the most remote outlet of the Columbia Broadcasting System - actually on the ground with the exposition - there are numerous other Antarctic features available to short-wave listeners.

There is one weekly program from Little America which is relayed to the CBS for rebroadcasting over its stations from coast to coast. Also, there is a bi-weekly series of NBC programs to the Byrd Antarctic base. Thus, in addition to having the programs available on local broadcast-band outlets, short-wave enthusiasts have the advantage of tuning-in the features, direct, from the high-frequency channel employed by the transmitter at the program's point of origin.

But, besides the network relay programs, short-wave fans have also easily picked-up various additional transmissions to and from the Antarctic each week since the beginning of the series.

Edwin K. Cohan, technical director - RF Cafe

At the New York Program End

This is Edwin K. Cohan, technical director, as he cuts-in the short-wave program from Little America to the broadcast wavelengths, all the while talking direct to the technicians at Little America via short waves and the desk microphone.

Broadcasts from the expedition are heard in the U.S.A. regularly since the S.S. "Jacob Ruppert" passed through the Panama Canal en route to New Zealand last Fall. A 1,000-watt Collins transmitter designated as Station KJTY was on board and the first Saturday night broadcast took place on it from an improvised cabin studio. At Wellington, New Zealand, the facilities of a local broadcasting station were turned over to the Byrd party. Here programs were presented from a well-equipped land studio linked by telephone wires with the transmitter on ship-board. The "Jacob Ruppert" then set out on the perilous trip to the Ross Ice Barrier at Little America. The expedition, according to their news flashes, came near disaster on many occasions and listeners were thrilled with the accounts of the unexpected breaking-up of ice and the perils of the journey.

Byrd Antarctic Expedition Map - RF Cafe

Byrd Antarctic Expedition Map, Courtesy General Food Corp.

Radio Lords of Antarctica - RF Cafe

Radio Lords of Antarctica

Members of the Radio Division of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, left to right, are: John M. Dyer (Columbia), radio engineer for communication; Stanley Pierce, electrical engineer and relief operator; Guy Hutcheson, radio operator "S. S. Jacob Ruppert," and Clay Bailey, chief radio operator. Above, official map of the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition. Insert shows frequencies used by the short-wave radio transmitter of the expedition; arrow points to location of Little America.

Once at their destination, the 1,000-watt transmitter was moved off the ship and set up on the ice, the call letters being changed to KFZ. The studio and transmitter "building" is a wooden shack only fifteen by thirty feet in size. It also serves as living quarters for the operating staff. The walls are "decorated" with fur parkas, windproof overalls and sled harnesses.

John N. Dyer, engineer in charge of all Byrd communications, presides over the KFZ facilities. Charles J. V. Murphy, announcer and production man, is also quartered in the radio shack.

KFZ's power is supplied by a 7 kw. gasoline generator mounted on the ice.

Although tall radio towers were left at the Little America base by the first Byrd party, an entirely new antenna system was erected for the Byrd Antarctic Expedition II.

The aerial is of a horizontal, diamond-shaped type and is known as a Bruce antenna. The wires are stretched between four 60-foot telegraph poles. A slight tilting of the antenna aims the signals toward Station LSX at Buenos Aires, Argentina, from which point the programs are relayed to Riverhead, Long Island, New York.

Relaying of the program is handled by RCA Communications, Inc. The nerve center for each Antarctic relay is in an office building on Broad Street in the heart of New York's financial district. Here, the programs from Little America are received over land lines from the receiving station at Riverhead and sent over wires to the New York studios for redistribution to the entire network. Also, messages to the Byrd expedition are sent through the same Broad Street nerve center. For outgoing programs, the impulses are conveyed to the huge transmitting base at Rocky Point, L. I.

Two-way short-wave communication is maintained through this method on Friday and Saturday evenings from stations WCG and WEF about 9 p.m. Eastern Daylight Saving Time. These talks, however, are not rebroadcast over the network. The network feature occurs between 10 and 10:30 p.m., Eastern Daylight Saving Time, Wednesdays.

The network programs during the first few months were presented with 15 to 90 percent intelligibility, according to E. K. Cohan, technical director of CBS. He told the writer that the average reception was about 60 percent perfect, which, considering such various technical obstacles as magnetic storms and seasonal atmospheric disturbances, may be termed highly satisfactory.

The Byrd Radio Equipped Plane - RF Cafe

The Byrd Radio Equipped Plane

This twin-motored airplane was carried to Little America on the "Jacob Ruppert" and unloaded on the ice for use by the expedition

Antenna-switching arrangement for direct short-wave transmission from Schenectady to Little America - RF Cafe

Hello, Antarctica!

The antenna-switching arrangement for direct short-wave transmission from Schenectady to Little America. The middle switch throws the transmitter circuits onto the Little America antenna

Short-wave transmitter W2XAF - RF Cafe

Short-Wave Contact

The short-wave transmitter W2XAF sends programs and messages to the members of the Byrd party weekly via the transmitter shown below and the directional antenna below.

The KFZ programs are broadcast on selected frequencies between 15 and 100 meters. Various frequencies are chosen to meet specific conditions. For example, when the long Antarctic night set in last April, it was found essential to utilize lower frequencies than in daylight. At a remote outpost - the last base before the contemplated flight over the South Pole - was erected Station KFY. KFY and KFZ are utilizing the same assortment of wavelengths originally assigned to the shipboard transmitter KJTY. He explained that during the Antarctic daylight season, which is the Northern Hemisphere's winter season, the channel of 13,200 kc. was chiefly used.

But, out of the large assortment of available channels, other frequencies are utilized to meet changing atmospheric conditions. The assigned channels include (in kilo-cycles) 6650, 6660, 6670, 8820, 8840, 9520, 11,830, 13,185, 13,200, 13,230, 13,245, 13,260, 15,270, 17,600, 17,620, 21,515, 21,600 and 21,625. These are the frequencies of particular interest to short-wave fans.

Whenever possible, the impulses of KFZ are picked-up direct at Riverhead - a distance of 9,000 miles from Little America. But the usual method is to have the programs relayed from Station LSX on about 28.9 meters, the TransRadio Internationale station at Buenos Aires. The programs, received at the Argentine transmitter, are then relayed by LSX on the 10,350 kc. channel, to Riverhead. When reception, via Buenos Aires is marred by interference, a few additional pick-up points try to "catch" the impulses and relay them to Riverhead. One is the RCA station at Point Reyes, California, while the other three stations are the same firm's base at Koko Head, Hawaii, KKP on 16,040 kc., KEQ on 7370 kc. and KKH 7520 or on a number of other frequencies. The frequencies of the commercial stations, and the Antarctic Communications System of the Mackay Radio Company can often be changed and the frequencies given are those on which they have been heard. At Rocky Point alone, there is available a choice of 141 frequencies for the transmission of programs to the Antarctic. The short-wave fan should search the dials for new points during the transmissions.

Cohan told the writer that the Byrd network broadcasts as well as the two-way short-wave conversations are "down to a nice routine" with most arising obstacles being eliminated. Voice transmission is always used from Little America. No relays are used in the programs going to the Antarctic from Rocky Point. These occur on waves between 30 and 32 meters. For this reason (taking in account the long distance) voice transmission is not always successful and code - or a combination of voice and code - is used. The airline distance between Little America and New York is 9,000 miles. Including the Buenos Aires relay, the signals travel a total of 9,340 miles before reaching New York. The accompanying map shows the terrain around the polar expedition.

Many short-wave fans have reported picking up KFZ, LSX and the various commercial transmitters employed in the transmission of two-way conversation or in the relaying of broadcasts. But the CBS refuses to confirm any correspondent's report. To all writers asking for confirmation of the short-wave portions of the expedition's radio activities, they reply that the messages are point-to-point private communications, or tests pertaining thereto, and that there is an obligation of secrecy which prevents any confirmation. He invites correspondents to tune-in the Saturday night Byrd programs on the regular network channels. Many short-wave fans write to Radio News telling how they compare the short-wave and the rebroadcast signals.

The Byrd broadcasts from Little America are tinged with real drama and local color. The spirited narratives of real life adventure are making interesting program fare for the world's radio listeners who have been accustomed to the make-believe studio dramatizations usually available on the broadcast channels. Each highlight of the trip to Little America and the activities at that base are conveyed to radio listeners by radio, an exciting incident in itself. At times, static mars reception and, on one occasion, the Antarctic rebroadcast had to be eliminated. But the average transmission results are very satisfactory in the minds of all concerned.

Officials are so satisfied with the Byrd programs that they decided to award the chain's medal for outstanding contribution to the radio art to Admiral Byrd. The presentation was made over radio from the Columbia Radio Playhouse, in New York, by Henry A. Bellows, vice-president of CBS, before a distinguished assemblage. Admiral Byrd heard the proceedings at Little America while the medal was handed to Captain Ashley C. McKinley, third in command on the first Byrd Antarctic Expedition, who will keep it until Admiral Byrd's return.

Short-wave transmitter W2XAF antenna - RF Cafe

Short-wave transmitter W2XAF antenna.

At the time of the award, Admiral Byrd was alone in an ice-hut 123 miles away from the expedition base. It is his intention to spend several months alone in the shack to test, among other things, the psychological effects of real solitude. But a New York representative revealed to the writer that Byrd's hut is equipped with two-way radio equipment. He is able to receive voice messages and reply in code. At times, the expedition commander's own code messages were relayed to New York via KFZ.

Past recipients of the medal (shown on this month's cover) include Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, famed aviators; Sir John Reith, Managing Director of the British Broadcasting Corporation; Leopold Stokowski, conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Nino Martini, Metropolitan Opera Company tenor.

At Little America, numerous ultra-short-wave receivers are utilized so that every individual or group exploring by dog-sled or plane can keep in touch with the base. Early reports indicated that the sets are proving very practical.

Special broadcast programs to the Antarctic base are jointly presented by the NBC and the General Electric Company on alternate Sundays. Newspaper publishers in various key cities serve as guest sponsors for the programs the expedition keenly awaits every two weeks. The programs are broadcast over a 51-station hook-up while Station W2XAF, at Schenectady, on a wavelength of 31.48 meters, conveys the special proceedings to the men at "the bottom of the world." For each broadcast, the newspaper serving as "guest sponsor" was free to select any type of material thought to be of most interest to the fifty-six men isolated on the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Most programs have consisted of two-thirds music and one-third spoken messages.

The network carries the first half-hour of the special Sunday programs. But short-wave enthusiasts have the advantage of listening in to the "mail" broadcasts which immediately follow the network period. The reading of letters to members of the expedition party has proven to be one of the most interesting features on the short-waves. Following each broadcast, the guest sponsors receive a message from Admiral Byrd, telling how well the presentation is received and enjoyed.

The W2XAF programs on 31.4 meters to the Byrd Expedition were arranged at the request of Admiral Byrd, who found a similar series highly valuable in his first South Pole expedition. Before his departure from the U.S.A., he told a General Electric representative how much the broadcasts meant toward keeping up the spirit and morale of the men.

Dr. E. F. W. Alexanderson's directional antenna, erected for the express purpose of sending the programs to Little America during the first expedition, is again in use.

The radio aspects of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition II are so extensive that they offer short-wave fans one of the most thrilling objectives for tuning-in. The fact that the programs to and from the South Pole regions are presented on regular schedules throughout the term of the expedition gives owners of short-wave receivers repeated opportunities to tune-in on history in the making for months and months to come.



Posted December 8, 2021
(updated from original post on 8/13/2013)

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