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Column: Reminiscing with a Radio

by Adrian Peterson

Voice of America Hicksville, Long Island, New York

image of Adrian Peterson

Adrian Peterson

Back in those days, we were surprised, and literally amazed, at the rapid increase in the number of shortwave stations that began to carry the programming of the Voice of America. At the time, the only shortwave receiver I owned at our family home in country South Australia was a small home-constructed battery-operated un-calibrated set that utilized the old bulbous English Cossor valves. Thus it was that on Sunday afternoons I would sometimes cycle the three mile distance and go over to the home of my mentor, Ern Suffolk. He lived in a country house near Lobethal, a Bavarian migrant town with a name in German meaning "Valley of Praise". Officially this town was re-designated during the war years as Tweedvale, honoring its large woolen mill factory, but we as locals always called it Lobethal.

Ern Suffolk was the guiding light for the South Australian Branch of the old Australian DX Radio Club with its headquarters in Melbourne, Victoria. On his powerful shortwave receiver, I would often tune in to the escalating number of VOA shortwave transmitters and send reception reports to their two addresses, one in California and the other in New York. Most of my reports were acknowledged; some with QSL card, some with QSL letter, some with a letter stating that it was against policy to verify, and the rest were ignored.

During those years of international crisis, the American stations that we would listen to were located mostly in California, though we would also hear the Eastern stations as well; and yes, we held QSL cards to prove it. One of the major transmitter bases that was pressed quickly into VOA service was located at Hicksville, on Long Island in New York state. This massive electronic complex was in some ways, the largest communication station that was commandeered by VOA. Well, OK, VOA did not just walk in and take the facility over, but they did arrange for the usage of many transmitters at this location to carry their programming, with who knows, maybe a score of different callsigns.

It was Press Wireless International, PWI, that constructed the Hicksville radio station for the purpose of increasing the flow of intentional news reports. Work on the station was commenced in 1932 at two different locations, Little Neck & Hicksville. Initially, it would seem from the available information, the smaller property at coastal Little Neck was developed as a temporary transmitter base with a couple of shortwave transmitters, and maybe even up to four. The official 1933 list for Little Neck shows half a dozen callsigns in use; five in the WJ series such as WJO, WJP & WJQ, and also one four letter call, WRDK. When PWI Hicksville became functional, it would be presumed that the transmitters were transferred, and Little Neck then became their Receiver Station.

image of W2XGB Hicksville, Long Island,  NY listener card, 1940

W2XGB Hicksville, Long Island, NY listener card, 1940
© Adrian Peterson Collection, AWR

The larger PWI property on Long Island was situated in Hicksville, quite close to where the offices of the radio magazine, "Popular Communications" are now located. The 500 acre property for Press Wireless Hicksville was developed as a massive shortwave communication radio station with, at its height of activity, 47 shortwave transmitters and 70 antennas. It seems that the largest transmitters were rated at the time at 40 kW, though these days the power rating would likely be given as 20 kW. The many additional transmitters were rated at lower power values, varying from 10 kW to 5 kW to a few hundred watts.

The Hicksville station became operational initially in 1933 with the original complement of transmitters, and these were augmented progressively during the next several years. The purpose for establishing this station was to enable the free flow of press reports to and from overseas news bureaus and newspaper offices throughout the United States. However, as was the custom in those days, PWI Hicksville also went on the air spasmodically with experimental program broadcasting in the shortwave bands.

During the year 1935, mediumwave station WOR in New York announced that they planned to establish their own shortwave transmitter to carry the same program feed in parallel with their mediumwave unit. In fact, work commenced on the construction of the shortwave transmitter which was already licensed as W2XHI. However, before the new transmitter was completed, station WOR announced that they had abandoned their shortwave project. Now, it so happened, that around this same time period, Press Wireless inaugurated their own program service on shortwave over the transmitter W2XGB. On many occasions, this unit carried a tandem relay from the mediumwave WOR.

A year or two before the commencement of the European Conflict, Press Wireless Hicksville became more active in the area of program broadcasting and they began a daily two-hour service on shortwave from W2XGB. The programming consisted of recorded music, relays from New York's WOR, and news bulletins from their own Press Wireless sources. On Saturday afternoons, their program schedule showed opera broadcasts on relay to Latin America. In addition, the Hicksville transmitters were noted by American shortwave monitors on several occasions with program relays on behalf of the national networks. For example, Hicksville was heard with NBC programming beamed to local stations COCX & CMAS in Cuba in mid 1938; and East coast relays beamed to California around the same time period. A few QSL letters and cards were issued to verify listener reports on these program relays. The QSL cards showed photographs of their transmitter building and antenna systems, and also the operating positions at their receiver station.

In January 1942, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, irregular test broadcasts commenced from Hicksville under the callsign WCW. In those days, a separate callsign was issued by the FCC for each shortwave channel, and thus it was that PWI Hicksville was noted with maybe a score of different callsigns during this era. Programming for these broadcasts was taken from the local networks, such as NBC & Mutual, and they were relayed for example to Press Wireless KJE9 in California. Test broadcasts were also beamed to continental and islandic Europe.

image of 40kW Press Wireless transmitter

40kW Press Wireless transmitter. Used at both Hicksville NY and Paris [France].
© Adrian Peterson Collection, AWR

A few months after the series of test broadcasts began, station WCW Hicksville New York began to carry official OWI-VOA & AFRS programming beamed to Europe, Africa & the Middle East. Over a period of more than four years, Hicksville was noted with this relay programming in many languages and under as many as a score of different callsigns. Program relays were taken from the VOA studios in New York, from the studios of the nationwide networks, and from the studios of station WLW-WLWO in Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, wartime pilot John Willmott states that he heard about the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942 from a VOA broadcast over the Hicksville station while he was ferrying a plane to the Russian Air Force in Iraq.

In March 1943, Hicksville began the usage of regularized four letter callsigns instead of the usual three letter callsigns. For example, callsign WKRX was noted on 7820 kHz with a parallel relay from WGEO Schenectady. The callsign on this Hicksville channel, WKRX, was previously noted as WBM4. The internationally regarded Arthur Cushen MBE in New Zealand reported that he received three QSLs from Hicksville during this era. His QSLs were two cards verifying WKRD & WKTM and one letter verifying WKTS. It is not known at this stage specifically what cards Cushen received in acknowledgement for his reception reports.

It was on April 20, 1942, that station WCW Hicksville New York began the official relay of programming on behalf of OWI-VOA. Two years later, in January 1944, the new shortwave station WOOP & WOOO was activated at Wayne, New Jersey with the result that PWI Hicksville was no longer needed at the same level. The usage of the lower powered and older station at Hicksville was thus diminished in the regular VOA & AFRS services to Europe, Africa & the Middle East. The final listing of Hicksville with VOA programming occurred in the VOA scheduling in January 1945, though occasional point-to-point relays were noted subsequently.

In March 1945, WJQ Hicksville was reported in the American radio journal Radio News, with a special program relay to SHAEF Paris on 10010 kHz. The station known as SHAEF Paris was in reality a new and temporary Press Wireless station located out in the country near Paris. In fact, Robert Knight of Lisbon, Connecticut, tells us that he received his technical training on the 40 kW transmitter at Press Wireless Hicksville and that he worked on the same model transmitter that was re-installed near Paris in France. That's the story for next time in "Reminiscing with a Radio".

In 1965, Press Wireless was acquired by ITT World Communications and a few years later the station was dismantled. The multitude of tall towers no longer hovered over the landscape near Canitague Lane. What an illustrious and interesting history for such a large and magnificent shortwave station that performed so admirably and yet was so little known during the era of its usefulness.

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Adrian Peterson is a noted radio historian and broadcaster for many years with Indianapolis based Adventist World Radio, a global shortwave, AM, FM and satellite radio network. Originally from South Australia, Adrian has worked in radio across Asia and the Pacific and is well known worldwide for his long running Wavescan radio series. He has published an extensive number of radio heritage articles using his large database of historical information, and personally maintains the AWR heritage collection, one of the world's largest privately held memorabilia collections.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the Radio Heritage Foundation. Send us your column comments and feedback.

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