Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Medium Wave and FM Radio Scene in South Pacific Vanuatu

Island of Espiritu Santo (wikipedia)
Back during the era of the Pacific War in the middle of last century, the islanders in the New Hebrides discovered the usefulness of radio for information and entertainment.  There were even occasions when small groups of village people crowded around a radio receiver that was tuned to the American Forces Radio Station WVUR at Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo.

After the war, radio listening in various areas of the New Hebrides continued to increase due to the improving availability of radio receivers in the New Hebrides, and the installation of radio broadcasting stations (mediumwave and shortwave) in other islands of the South Pacific.  Then with the flood of the new cheap transistor radios from Japan in the late 1950s, the reception of radio signals from afar became increasingly popular in the New Hebrides. 

Shortwave stations that were popular among the educated and prosperous islanders in the New Hebrides back then were Radio Australia, Radio New Zealand (International), and the stations that were located in Suva Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. 

There were occasions when the growing network of Teleradio low power communication stations (15 watts on 6900 kHz) on the various islands of the New Hebrides presented in brief what we might call radio programming.  However, the New Hebrides needed their own broadcasting stations, and somewhere around the year 1960, three enterprising Frenchmen in Port Vila took a novel approach to this matter.

A new radio program was prepared by this threesome; successful businessman Pierre Bourgeois, prominent political leader Georges Milne, and the influential Catholic Priest Zerger.  As they travelled the islands, they recorded local news, local music and interesting traditional stories in both French and the local languages.

Back in Port Vila, these village recordings were then assembled into a short radio program, using reel-to-reel tape.  Each radio program, lasting from ten to fifteen minutes, was then forwarded to Radio Noumea in nearby New Caledonia where they were broadcast on Wednesday evenings back to the New Hebrides on mediumwave and shortwave.  (The WR(TV)HB editions for both 1961 and 1962 list a Folklore Music program from Radio Noumea at 6:15 pm, though on Thursdays, not Wednesdays.) 

A theme song for this locally assembled radio program was written and sung by a village musician whose home, and language, was on the island of Ifira, in Port Vila Bay.  The words tell the story, like in a parable, of a group of crabs on a sandy beach putting their arms around each other and forming a circle.  This theme song, in the Ifira language was called Kavelicolico, and the program became known as Radio Kavelicolico.

Radio Vila in the New Hebrides was on the air only on shortwave for ten years before the first mediumwave transmitter was inaugurated.  It is understood that the first mediumwave transmitter on the air in Vanuatu was a small temporary (and therefore probably quite informal) unit in Port Vila that was installed by the Australian Radio Engineer Ken Munyard.

The first reference in WR(TV)HB for a government mediumwave station in Vanuatu is in the 1975 edition, and the station is listed as Radio Vila under the callsign YJB with 1 kW on 1420 kHz in Malapoa, near the national capital Port Vila.  Subsequent frequencies have been 1422 kHz and 1125 kHz, and subsequent power levels have been 2 kW and 10 kW.  Mediumwave station YJB was transferred from Malapoa to Emten Lagoon in 1995.

A regional mediumwave station was established near the St Michel Mission Station, three miles southwest of Luganville, on Espiritu Santo Island also in 1995.  This station was listed with 2 kW, and subsequently with 10 kW, on 1179 kHz, and programming was generally a relay from Radio Vanuatu at Emten Lagoon, Port Vila.  Though off the air at present due to cyclones and technical problems, attempts are underway to reactivate this Luganville station.

Over the years, there have been suggestions for installing additional mediumwave stations throughout Vanuatu in an endeavor to provide satisfactory radio coverage of all 82 islands.  Half a dozen of the larger islands have been suggested as suitable locations, though thus far mediumwave stations have been installed on only two of these islands; capital city island Efate, and the largest island Espiritu Santo. 

The first FM station in Vanuatu was installed by the aforementioned Ken Maynard, and this was a small informal 5 watt unit in his home in Port Vila, with the antenna attached to the top of the neighboring water tower.  The first official FM station, with 15 watts on 98 MHz, was inaugurated in Port Vila in 1982.  Since then, nearly a dozen additional FM stations (government, political, commercial, religious and community) have been installed on more than half a dozen islands.

Six of these FM stations have been installed as satellite relay stations with programming on behalf of major world government organizations.  Just as a matter of international interest, we list these foreign FM relay stations:- 
BBC World Service  Port Vila  Efate Island  99 MHz
BBC World Service  Luganville Espiritu Santo 99 MHz
Radio France International  Port Vila  Efate
Radio Australia  Port Vila  Efate
China Radio International  Port Vila  Efate
China Radio International  Lakatoro  Malakula
(AWR-Wavescan/NWS 590)