The school of design
called Art Deco reached its peak of development in the United States
in the mid-1930s. The style is revered today in its surviving
implementations — notably, in period buildings like those found in
Miami’s South Beach; in the streamlined designs of automobiles,
trains and ships; and in a variety of consumer devices from the
Art Deco reflected
everything that was modern, and so it was only natural to see it
applied to the new technology of radio. Thousands of Art Deco radio
receivers were marketed to the public, and the more attractive
surviving specimens bring top dollar at art auctions today.
This was also true
on the broadcasting side, where beautiful Art Deco studio and
transmitter buildings were created.
In this image, we
see it applied to a stylish transmitter created by RCA. This 10 kW
unit was installed in 1937 by CBS at its shortwave station W2XE in
Wayne, N.J. With its streamlined styling and sweeping lines, this
might be the most beautiful transmitter design I’ve ever seen.
W2XE was begun in
the mid-1920s by Alfred H. Grebe, an early manufacturer of radio
receivers. It rebroadcast the programs of his AM station, WAHG in New
York City. In 1926, he formed the Atlantic Broadcasting Company and
changed the AM call sign to WABC.
William S. Paley
bought the AM and shortwave stations in 1928, and so WABC became the
flagship station for his network, the Columbia Broadcast System. (To
avoid confusion, the call sign was changed to WCBS in 1947, when the
NBC Blue Network was sold and became the ABC network. The ABC station
WJZ then took on the WABC call sign.)
For a number of
years, W2XE was simply a relay station for the programs of WABC and
the Columbia Network, the same as its other shortwave station, W3XAU
in Philadelphia. But in 1937, CBS decided to get serious about
international broadcasting and formed a Shortwave Bureau.
A pair of Vee (half
Rhombic) antennas was aimed at Europe and South America. The rotary
switch seen above the transmitter allowed its connection to either
antenna. With more power and a high-gain antenna, W2XE then boasted
an effective radiated power of 40,000 W. That was plenty of power to
be heard around the world on the quiet shortwave bands of the time.
The new transmitter
plant was dedicated May 12, 1937, by Elizabeth Ann Tucker, who was
the new head of the Shortwave Bureau. She had worked for CBS
Engineering since 1931 in a non-technical capacity. She soon
developed a new program schedule that combined domestic CBS programs
with special programs in English and Spanish for international
A QSL card from W2XE
in 1939 shows operations on 6120, 6170, 9650, 11830, 15270, 17830 and
21570 kHz. The same transmitter was apparently used for all
frequencies, and the station changed channels during the day as
propagation conditions changed. Thirty-minute silent periods between
frequency changes gave the engineers time to re-tune the transmitter.
In the 1930s, the
FCC still considered shortwave to be “experimental,” as indicated
by the letter “X” in the call sign. This meant that shortwave
stations could not broadcast advertising, and this — along with the
congressional prohibition against any direct shortwave broadcasting
by the U.S. government — discouraged most shortwave investment in
had a powerful presence on shortwave, spreading Nazi propaganda
around the world. And so, to counter this, in 1939 the FCC eliminated
the experimental designation, which meant that standard broadcast
call signs were assigned. W2XE became WCBX and began a dubiously
successful attempt at international commercial broadcasting.
Meanwhile, NBC and General Electric were also attempting to
commercialize shortwave radio with their own stations aimed at Europe
and Latin America.
This short period of
commercial shortwave radio came to an abrupt end in 1941 with the
bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within a few weeks, all commercial shortwave
stations in the United States would be taken over by the new Office
of War Information for government transmission of war news and
propaganda to the European and Pacific theaters.
To get around the
legal restriction on government broadcasting, CBS and the other
station owners continued to operate the transmission plants, but all
programming came from OWI studios in New York and San Francisco, with
all operating costs reimbursed by the government. CBS moved its
shortwave plant to Brentwood, Long Island, in 1940, and in 1943 added
two more government-financed transmitters, which were heard as WOOC
and WOOW. They also opened a new West Coast shortwave complex at
Delano, Calif., in 1944.
After the war,
Congress finally did an about-face on the issue of government
shortwave broadcasting, with the result that most U.S. shortwave
stations were purchased outright by the government and became the
beginnings of the Voice of America.
Even if World War II
had not interrupted things, it’s unlikely that CBS or the other
commercial broadcasters would have ever made any money with their
shortwave operations. After the war, the shortwave bands found
success only as an outlet for government propaganda and religious
broadcasting. But for two short years, 1939 to 1941, the world
enjoyed a brief taste of American-style commercial broadcasting on
the international shortwave bands.
For other articles
on early shortwave broadcasting, see these previous Radio World
articles; find them with the given keywords at radioworld.com:
“W6XBE at the Golden Gate Exposition, 1939,” keyword W6XBE; “WCAU Used Shortwave in Philadelphia” and “A Sequel to the
Philadelphia Story,” both with keyword WCAU.
John Schneider is
a lifelong radio history researcher. Write the author at