Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Original Vatican Radio

(via Gayle Van Horn Collection)
A surprising move in the international radio world is reported in the March issue of the Australian DX News.  The Japanese shortwave service NHK in Tokyo has made an enquiry regarding the possibility of buying the shortwave station at Santa Maria di Galeria that is owned and operated by Vatican Radio.  This unusual report is contained in a news release from the Catholic World News service, as copied into the latest issue of the Australian DX News.
            In recent years, it has been reported that Vatican Radio has been attempting to cut its operating costs by a reduction in some of its transmission services, and also by operating its complement of shortwave transmitters at a lower power level.  In addition, Vatican Radio has also co-operated in  exchanging reciprocal relay services with other international broadcasting stations, such as Radio Canada International, Radio Netherlands and NHK Tokyo.       
            The Catholic World News Report states that the newly appointed prefect of the Secretariat for Communications in the Vatican, Msgr Dario Vigano, will cut off all shortwave broadcasts as a move to cut costs.  One of the first moves in this regard occurred on March 24 when all English language broadcasts to Asia came to an end.  This dramatic move in ending its shortwave transmissions will include the closure of their large  shortwave station at Santa Maria di Galeria.
            No specific date was indicated in the brief three paragraph news release as to the target date for closure.  However, this same news release refers to the fact that the Vatican will no longer use the shortwave station at Santa Maria di Galaria, and that NHK Tokyo has already enquired regarding the possibility of buying this station.  
            In our program today here in Wavescan, we go back to the beginning, and we investigate the origins of Vatican Radio and its first shortwave station.  This is the story.
            Back on July 25, 1925, a senior Vatican official issued a memorandum calling for the Vatican to establish its own radio broadcasting station, primarily for the broadcast of astronomy news from the Vatican Observatory.  Two years later, the Italian-Irishman of radio fame, Guglielmo Marconi, received an official invitation from the Vatican to make plans for establishing a radio broadcasting station in the Vatican.
            Two years later again, on February 11, 1929, a concordat was signed between the government of Italy and the Vatican, thus re-establishing the Vatican as a separate political entity with extra-territorial status.  Then four days after the signing of this concordat, which is known as the Lateran Treaty, Marconi was entrusted with the installation of a radio broadcasting station, Vatican Radio. 
            Under the Marconi initiative, a new 10 kW shortwave transmitter was installed in Vatican City, or Leonine City as it is sometimes called.  This transmitter and its associated equipment was manufactured in Marconi’s own factory at Chelmsford in England.
            The transmitter and self-supporting antenna tower, together with its associated reflector at the base, was erected in the area of the enclave known as the Vatican Gardens.  Interestingly, this new radio broadcasting station would operate solely on shortwave, and a mediumwave service would not be established until a dozen years later, during the stressful years of World War 2.
            At 3:30 pm on Thursday February 12, 1931, Marquis Marconi arrived and he entered the small studio where he announced to the world in fluent English that the official inauguration ceremony would begin just one hour later.  This introductory shortwave transmission was heard loud and clear, it was reported, in New York City USA, Melbourne Australia and Quebec Canada.  All of the new electronic equipment was then switched off.   
            One hour later at the previously appointed time of 4:30 pm, the electronic equipment was officially switched on again, stage by stage.  The transmitter operator sent out a short four word message in Morse Code in the Latin language as an indication that the official inauguration program was about to begin. 
            A few minutes later, Guglielmo Marconi himself, speaking again in fluent English, announced in two brief paragraphs the birth of shortwave station HVJ,  the new Vatican Radio.  Vatican dignitaries speaking in the Latin language for a full hour and a half, then pronounced the official inauguration of the new shortwave radio station whose signal could be heard around the world.  Monitoring reports received subsequently indicated a good signal into so many different countries around the world.
            Initial programming from shortwave HVJ consisted of two brief broadcasts each day; 15 minutes each, beginning at 5:00 am on 15120 kHz and at 2:00 pm on 5970 kHz.  Program content was usually astronomy information from the Vatican Observatory presented in the Italian language.  There were however, special broadcasts on special occasions, and occasional broadcasts in the English language.
            Some six years later, in 1937, a German made 25 kW Telefunken transmitter, Model S379GR, also shortwave, was installed, though programming still remained much the same, with English on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  However, with war clouds ominous over continental Europe, developmental plans were laid in the Autumn of 1939 with increased programming in multiple languages. 
            The first mediumwave transmitter for Vatican Radio was installed during the year 1943 under the callsign HVI.  From where did the Vatican obtain an additional radio broadcasting transmitter when active war was wreaking havoc and devastation in so many countries of continental Europe, including Italy itself?  
            By this time, the European war was turning against the central powers, and Italy signed a Peace Memorandum with the allies on September 3, 1943, the very day that British forces landed on the toe of Italy.  And American forces followed very quickly afterwards, just three days later. 
            With the British and American presence already in Italy, we could guess that the new 1 kW transmitter in the Vatican came from either England or the United States.  Perhaps the Marconi company in England, or perhaps RCA in the United States? 
            Over the years, additional mediumwave transmitters have been installed in the Vatican, including 100 kW on 1529 kHz in 1951, and several smaller units at 5 kW 10 kW 15 kW and 20 kW. Also in 1951, a Philips 100 kW shortwave transmitter was installed in Vatican City, though this was transferred six years later as the first transmitter in Santa Maria di Galeria. 
            The last shortwave transmitter in Vatican City itself was a double unit made up of a Marconi 50 kW and a Telefunken 30 kW combined to produce 80 kW on the out of band channel 6210 kHz.  This unusual operation was closed down half a dozen years ago.

            Later this year, we plan to present the story of the Vatican shortwave station at Santa Maria di Galeria, which, we understand, NHK Tokyo would now like to buy.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS 423)