Alfredo Cotroneo in his Milan office. MILAN — In 1976 a judgment by the Italian Constitutional Court resulted in the sudden rise of both sophisticated and garage-based commercial FM stations in the country.
At that time, Alfredo Cotroneo, who was “just” a visionary teenager inspired by the pure passion for RF and technology, decided to build an FM transmitter of his own.
Several — burnt out — transistors later, Cotroneo’s transmitter began feeding the homemade antenna he placed on the roof of his house. Unlike the majority of FM radio pioneers, he was not interested in spreading “his” program to the world; he was just interested in the technical aspect of being able to broadcast something, anything. Soon, though, he understood that an important part of the broadcasting puzzle was missing — content.
Little did Cotroneo realize back then that his childhood passion would one day blossom into a global shortwave relay service, Nexus-International Broadcasting Association, aiding those in need of information.
The transmitter room houses four Continental 300 kW units. Bedroom studio
By the end of the 1970s, despite the increasing presence of international businesses in the area, no FM station in Milan was broadcasting programs in English. Cotroneo thus contacted several English-speaking radio stations around the globe for a selection of their programs. “Since there was no Internet nor any affordable satellite service back then, they sent me their programs on audio-cassette or on LP discs,” said Cotroneo. “So, I bought some Sony MTL-10 cassette changers and hacked them to control each of them from a single external device.”
No automation was available at that time, he explains, so he built what he needed himself, using a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer and some interface cards. “The entire station was in my room,” he said. “In the morning, before leaving for university, I loaded the various MTLs with the day’s cassettes and the ZX Spectrum with the day’s programming. No further action was required.”
This is how International Radio Relay Service-Globe Milan Radio got its start. IRRS quickly gained a loyal following in the city, and soon after it was featured in the in-room cable radio service of Milan's leading hotels. Various clergymen, who were born in Italy but were serving in the U.S., started sending IRRS their religious programs (in Italian), together with a small donation for the relay service; this was IRRS’ first income.
IRRS-Globe Milan became the first English-speaking FM station in Milan, offering an increasing selection of information and entertainment to the English-speaking community, says Cotroneo.
In 1988, the broadcaster took a significant step forward. Many small program producers and small groups were eager to reach the European audience with their message, but they simply could not afford the rates charged by the traditional, established shortwave relay facilities in Europe.
“We heard that in Switzerland they were going to quit the shortwave band for ground-to-airplane communication,” said Cotroneo. “So we bought an excellent second-hand shortwave transmitter. This particular unit was originally designed to communicate with each aircraft on its designated frequency, meaning that it was also capable of easily switching between radio frequencies.”
Screens display the management system of the Continental shortwave transmitters. Global expansion
Cotroneo explains that they relocated the transmitter to Milan, in the heart of the Po Valley, where ground conductivity is excellent, assuring a low takeoff angle for a wide European coverage via shortwave.
In November 1988, the IRRS-Globe Milan shortwave relay service went on-air, and was widely used to reach the audience living in the former communist countries. In 1990, IRRS-Globe Milan was re-incorporated as a non-profit organization and branded Nexus-International Broadcasting Association, with Cotroneo as its CEO.
Over the years, Nexus-IBA has relayed programs with content in English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and a little Italian, produced by major broadcasters and organizations (BBC, Voice of America, Radio China, United Nations, UNESCO), as well as by religious organizations and independent producers.
Nexus-IBA’s policy of non-interference in content results in granting almost everyone the possibility to air their message to the world, provided it does not clearly violate Italian or international laws.
This applies to the religious broadcasting as well. Though Nexus, in cooperation with European Gospel Radio, is one of the leading outlets of multilingual Christian programming in Europe, Nexus is strictly non-denominational and open to content of all faiths. “We broadcast almost everything, from disc-jockey shows to religion, philosophy, culture, science and technology, old radio dramas and, of course, news,” said Cotroneo.
Nexus-IBA was the first European site to beta-test streaming audio technologies, making this available as a service to United Nations Radio, UNESCO and any other associate.
The Far East coverage map of one of the 300 kW transmitters used by Nexus-IBA Don’t forget
It also created a CDN in Europe and in the U.S., based on an internally developed technology called “WorldDirector.”
“This allows us to provide more than a mere radio relay service. Our associates are usually small program producers, and we help them to design and deploy a wide-reaching multimedia communication strategy,” said Cotroneo. “A typical package includes a blend of shortwave, streaming, mailing list, Web presence, technical advice and marketing.”
Nexus-IBA currently provides its global shortwave relay services through a network of shortwave facilities, from 50 to 500 kW with directional antennas to effectively target any region in the world on any frequency, at any time.
“Our transmitters are also DRM-capable, and we are ready to broadcast using DRM at any time, but unfortunately, there are still no mass-produced receivers for our listeners to buy at a decent price, hence there are almost no DRM listeners,” he said.
He acknowledges that an increasing number of people will have access to satellite and Internet radio, but in his view there will be no direct replacement for shortwave as the first line of international broadcasting for at least another decade.
A TCI rotatable log periodic antenna airs output of the Continental shortwave transmitters. “There is much pessimistic talk today about shortwave, but today there are no listeners, there are markets. And almost every market can now be reached via satellite or Internet radio. But let’s turn the tables and think about people instead: Millions of people live in areas where no FM radio is available, or they can't afford a TV set.
“We mustn’t forget about them — in many cases their portable radio is the only source of music, information, religious messages, news they can rely on. A shortwave receiver is a mass-available, small and light device. It can be battery powered, and it requires no installation, nor outdoor antenna,” he said.
“It isn’t possible for one to carry a satellite receiver in his or her pocket ,nor take it along on their camel-based desert journey. It is possible however to reach everyone — from the farmers in Malaysia to the nomads in the Sahara — via shortwave radio,” Cotroneo said. “Certainly, this is not an attractive audience for ad campaigns. But we target people, not advertisers.”
Davide Moro reports on the industry for Radio World from Bergamo, Italy.