The World Beacon

On December 13, 2006, in The WestermaNation, by Scott Westerman

By Scott Westerman
zen1000.jpgMy paternal grandparents retired to Chelsea, Michigan. They lived in a cottage behind a Methodist retirement home and among my grandfather’s eclectic interests was shortwave listening. He had a Zenith Transoceanic connected by an alligator clip to a wire that he strung to an oak tree. I have fond memories of Sunday afternoons pulling signals out of the static. A cherished present was a tape he gave me, filled with the interval signals that shortwave broadcasters used to help listeners tune in. I memorized every one and can recite them chapter and verse to this day.

kadettedial.jpgOne evening he sent me home with an International Kadette. It was a multi band regenerative tube radio encased in hardwood. Family legend had it that an uncle had contributed to its design. Spinning the weighted tuning dial, I could hear church bells pealing the Eighty Years’ War song “Merck toch hoe sterck”, the interval signal the preceeded Radio Netherlands’ Happy Station program. The Chimes from Beethoven’s Fidelio were the alert that Deutche Welle, the Voice of Germany, was about to take to the air. And my first introduction to South Africa was the song of the Bok Makrie which introduced Radio RSA. Barely listenable was the monotonous ideology of Radio Moscow, Radio Peking and Radio Havana Cuba.

By then, radio was already in my blood. I was earning 75 cents an hour as a record librarian at one of our local stations. I imagined my own voice filtering across the ionosphere to a worldwide audience and filed the dream in my mental to-do list.

amg.gifFast forward three decades. I’m talking with Ray Davis. Our kids are in high school together and we discover that we share a radio passion. Ray’s business included television ministry and he’s looking for a way to provide more value to his congregations, a way to sell spiritual French fries with his hamburgers. I’m looking for something fun that tickles my technological interests and the first seeds of what would become the World Beacon begin to germinate.

Ray had been involved with something called the Caribbean Beacon in the 70s so we focused first on opportunities there. It turned out that there was a powerful shortwave license available in Trinidad. I began negotiations with the government and scouted a site on an abandoned island off of the western coast of the country. But this was the third world where pay-offs and under the table deals got things done. When it became apparent that we wanted to play above board, the pace of progress turned glacial.

That’s when I remembered George Jacobs. I had read an ad for his engineering company in the World Radio TV handbook, so I called him. George earned his first FCC license in 1941 and after thirty years in government service, he leveraged his intimate knowledge of international broadcasting, creating a consultancy that helped people like us connect with international radio resources. In his late 70s, he was as engaged as ever in the business.

beaconrampisham_mini.gifGeorge quickly linked us with Merlin Communications, the private entity that sold time on the BBC’s portfolio of worldwide transmission facilities. Richard Hurd and James Stubbs helped us craft a game plan that would blanket the African continent.

Initially, we had expected to lease time on a powerful transmitter in Dubai, but when the government learned that ours were to be religious broadcasts, they turned us down. As a plan B, we signed up for time on the Beeb’s flame-throwing facility in Rampisham in Southern England. We added a frequency on a former Radio RSA transmitter located in Meyerton, near Cape Town in South Africa to complete our coverage map. We hired a combination engineer, board operator and administrative assistant and fired up a long distance phone line to Bush House in London for a nightly 4 hour broadcast.

Ray’s clients sent us programming on cassette tapes, mini-discs and CDs. Jeff Perry, our jack-of-all trades dutifully played them back from a small corner office in Ray’s building over a telephone coupler similar to what sportscasters used for play-by-play broadcasts.

qsl1_small.gifOn April 2, 2000, we threw the switch. With the music of Deep Forest in the background we announced the birth of a new international broadcast ministry that was “spreading the Word, worldwide.”

Almost immediately I wanted to make changes. I couldn’t see the need to have someone pushing buttons, burning up linear long distance lines with class D audio quality. It was the Internet age, after all, and I was soon designing a system to automate program content delivery. It turned out to be a computer based traffic and playback system that was mirrored both in Jacksonville and at Bush House. Jeff digitized the content to MP3 format and we used a file transfer client and a DSL line to lob the shows across the Atlantic.

On the other end, James Stubbs connected our automation system to the BBC’s audio chain and I wrote a program to fire our play list every evening at the appropriate time. Jeff Perry’s modified schedule had him working during business hours. We could now digitize and create our schedules weeks in advance, and the foundation of the Beacon’s content delivery system was firmly in place.

A typical World Beacon schedule to Africa included broadcasts from 1530-1800 daily (1600-1800 on weekends) on 6145 kHz, and from 1800-2200 on 3230, 9675, 17665 and 11640 kHz. Ray’s salesmanship filled the schedule and by 2001 we had expanded our reach with transmissions to Asia on a former Radio Moscow transmitter. The idea that we were using something the Communists built to spread biblical teachings added to the sizzle of our sales pitch.

dxqsl_dial_mini.jpgWhile the programming was mostly spiritual, I got the chance to live my dream as host and producer of a weekly listener appreciation program we dubbed DX-QSL. “DX for distance, QSL for contact confirmed” was our definition, taken from the Morse shorthand that hams used in radio telegraphy. We read listener letters, answered musical requests and created our own “Christian Rock Countdown” where we featured the most popular Christian music. For a time, my daughter, Shelby was my co-host. We produced the show out of a studio I built in our house and over time, the technology migrated from multi track mixers, CDs and DAT tapes to a fully computerized workstation.

tube_box_med.gifWe knew we had arrived when Radio Netherlands profiled the Beacon on their popular Media Network program. The mail poured in and we were soon sending QSL cards to every continent.

With the Beacon running like a Swiss watch, my day-to-day involvement wasn’t needed and I began to focus on other projects, ceding my interest to Ray in late 2001.

Almost two years to the day after its birth, the World Beacon signed off on April 15, 2002. Affiliated Media Group, Ray’s parent company, was up to its ears in television business and the French frys we were selling had become a distraction for more profitable activities.

In the press release announcing the shut-down, it was noted that “The Beacon was in fact the victim of Affiliated’s incredible growth and success. The agency which represents a wide array of spiritual and secular clients found demand for its domestic services far exceeded client requests for overseas radio ministry opportunities. The events surrounding September 11, 2001 were also a factor, limiting the company’s ability to receive and respond to the flood of mail that the Beacon received each week.”

The world was changing, too. Africans were listening to satellite radio and Internet connections could be found in the larger cities. Shortwave, which had been on the front lines of the cold war was becoming an anachronism.

It’s now 2006 and in the serendipity that is often the unintended result of a Google search, I came across an on-line collection of shortwave interval signals. I scrolled through my favorites, still as fresh today as they were when I first heard them in 1967. And there, among the domestic listings in the US section was an entry for the World Beacon. I clicked it, and out of the amplitude modulated hiss that characterizes shortwave reception, I could hear my voice. It was a surreal moment. My adventures had dissolved into a tiny footnote in the history of international broadcasting. Another dream, come true.


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