Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Calcutta Story - American Radio Stations in Calcutta

This is the fourth episode in the long and interesting history of radio broadcasting in Indias first capital city Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is known today.  We look at the intriguing story of American radio broadcasting stations in or near Calcutta.
            We go back to the year 1928, and we discover that one of the early shortwave stations in the United States made a special broadcast beamed specifically to the city of Calcutta.  The date was December 26, which is known as Boxing Day in countries associated with British backgrounds. 
            This special broadcast was on the air from the two General Electric shortwave transmitters W2XAD & W2XAF in Schenectady New York which were operating at the time with 25 kW and 40 kW respectively.  The programming was produced in the studios of mediumwave WGY and it featured speeches by congressmen from Washington DC and from visiting Indian officials.
            In 1943, All India Radio Calcutta carried spasmodic programming that was produced by locally resident personnel at a nearby British army base.  Around this time, there was a British soldier serving in the front lines in Assam and his wife was ill in hospital in England and not expected to survive.  The soldier was removed from battle and flown to Calcutta where he recorded a message to his wife and this was transmitted back to England.  It is reported that the wife revived, and recovered completely. 
            On April 1, 1944, the Indian government gave official approval to the American forces stationed in India for the installation of six local stations at 50 watts each, including Calcutta.  However, as time went by, there was somewhere around a score of these little local entertainment radio stations on the air throughout the widespread dominion of what was British India at that time.  These Armed Forces Radio Service AFRS stations were allocated Indian style call signs in the series beginning with VU2Z.
            The new Calcutta station was allotted the callsign VU2ZU and it was inaugurated with 50 watts on 1355 kHz during the summer of 1944.  Shortly afterwards, a new 1 kW mediumwave transmitter arrived and this was installed and officially inaugurated on the same frequency with due ceremony on Thursday September 7 (1944). 
            With the increase of power and lack of interference on the mediumwave band in those days, AFRS VU2ZU was heard during the dark hours of the early morning and verified in both Australia and New Zealand.     As time went by the transmitter level at Calcutta AFRS diminished until the power output was rated at just 300 watts.  The station closed forever on April 22, 1946.  The  need was over.
            A shortwave outlet had been inaugurated at Calcutta in August 1945 and this transmitter was heard also in both Australia and New Zealand under the callsign VU2ZZ.  The initial frequency was 14983 kHz, though it was heard subsequently on 14870 kHz.  
            Curiously, daily programming from the new AFRS VU2ZZ was a relay of the regular AIR service from Delhi, followed by special programming in French.  It is not known whether the French programming was beamed to the previous French territories in South East Asia, or to what had been the French territory at Pondicherry on the south east coast of India, or perhaps both.  This AFRS shortwave station was closed in January 1946.
            Two questions remain unanswered regarding these two AFRS stations at Calcutta during World War 2.  The first question: Where did the French programming come from, for broadcast over shortwave VU2ZZ?  Was it American VOA programming? or part of the overseas service from All India Radio?  Or produced locally? Or perhaps from some other source, such as the BBC?
            The second question: Where were the two AFRS stations located?  It would be reasonable to presume that mediumwave VU2ZU and shortwave VU2ZZ were collocated, at the same American base near Calcutta, though this is might not be the case.  During World War II,  the Americans operated four major bases near Calcutta beginning in early 1944; they were all located south of Calcutta, they were all rather near each other, and they were all associated with the American air force.  One American base, Chakulia, had been established by the British two years earlier.
            Nearly twenty years later, the American involvement in Calcutta became evident again.  This is what happened.
            It was back in the year 1963 that negotiations between the governments of the United States and India resulted in an agreement for the Voice of America to establish a giant mediumwave station on the edge of the city of Calcutta.  It was intended that this new facility would also be available for the broadcast of programming on behalf of AIR, All India Radio, and also for Radio Free Asia.     
            This plan for this huge medium wave station would be at a power level of one megawatt, and after 5 years, VOA would sell it to the Indian government for just R1.  A transmitter, apparently already in storage, was procured for this new relay station; and it was in fact 2 transmitters at 500 kW each, manufactured by Continental Electronics in the United States.

            However, when the information about the projected high powered American radio station near Calcutta was printed in the newspapers in India, public opinion rose up against the project, and the Indian government cancelled their agreement with the Voice of America to establish this station, over the issue of Indian non-alignment in regional politics.  The American government then transferred the entire project from Calcutta to nearby Thailand.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 281)