Monday, July 08, 2024

Radio Luxembourg – The Early History, part 2


Thanks to Ray Robinson and Jeff White for sharing Part 2 on the history of Radio Luxembourg

Jeff: Last week, Ray Robinson reviewed some of the early history of Radio Luxembourg in Europe – specifically the year it first launched – 1933.  Now in the second part of this story, here’s Ray again continuing from January 1934.

Ray:  Thanks, Jeff.  The 1933 Lucerne Plan of long, medium and shortwave frequency allocations for radio stations in Europe became effective at 11pm UK time on Sunday, January 14th, 1934.  All over the continent during the early hours of Monday 15th, stations were adjusting their transmitters to comply with the new frequency allocations.  The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, as we mentioned last week, had not been granted a long wave channel due to the small size of the country, and had only been assigned one medium wave channel instead.  But, when Compagnie Luxembourgoise de Radiodiffusion (CLR) opened transmissions of Radio Luxembourg that Monday, to many listeners’ surprise, they found the station had moved not to the medium wave frequency that had been allocated, but to 1304m / 230 kHz longwave.  This was a channel which under the new plan was allocated to Warsaw, Poland.  As you can imagine, this gave rise to yet more charges of piracy, even as the station continued to become more successful commercially.

It was also the 1933 Lucerne Plan which reallocated the channel used by the BBC National Programme from 1554m to 1500m / 200 kHz, which, give or take the minor adjustment that occurred in 1978 to 198 kHz, is the same channel on which it has operated for 90 years and continues to do so to this day.

Immediately after the implementation of the Lucerne Plan, chaos from interfering stations on both the long-wave and shortwave bands was noted by listeners.  Stations in a number of countries had refused to comply for various reasons, and a follow-up conference was needed to iron out the problems.  This was held in Geneva in late February 1934, and again the Government of Luxembourg sent its delegates.

On Friday 2nd March, it was announced in Geneva that a ‘pact for peace on the air’ had been reached by experts from 15 countries, including Luxembourg.  The agreement involved the changing of more than 12 long and short wavelengths in 10 countries, including the wavelengths for Radio Paris (which had been interfering with the BBC) and Radio Luxembourg.

Notwithstanding that announcement, however, it was actually Radio Warsaw that decided to shuffle down the band slightly, from 1304m / 230 kHz to 1339m / 224 kHz.  Although that was still not enough to provide 9 kHz separation to avoid interference completely, both were high power stations, and it was reported that adjacent channel splash was barely noticeable if the listeners off-tuned their wireless slightly.

During 1934, the International Broadcasting Company, which had been buying time for sponsored programmes on Poste Parisienne and Radio Normandy, began similarly buying time on Radio Luxembourg, which helped it expand its broadcast schedule considerably.  The station more than doubled its output from 40 hours/week in 1933 to 87 hours/week by 1935 and then grew to 104 hours/week in 1936.

Radio Luxembourg remained on 1304m for quite some time.  Program listings from April and May 1935, more than a year after the Geneva conference, showed the station was still on 1304m, at that time with programming in English on Sundays from 7:45am-12midnight, and during the rest of the week from 12noon-11pm.

Then, later program listings from 1938 show that by that time, Radio Luxembourg did change frequency once more, moving up the dial slightly from 1304m / 230 kHz to 1293m  / 232 kHz.  This then put an 8 kHz gap between them and Warsaw on 1339m / 224 kHz, which was enough to end the adjacent channel interference.  And, 232 kHz was the frequency on which the longwave transmitter in Luxembourg remained until the new band plan in 1978 required an adjustment to 234 kHz.

One of the first announcers on Radio Luxembourg was Charles Maxwell, who first went out to the Grand Duchy in 1936.  Here he is speaking about his early recollections in a documentary about the station that was broadcast in 1974:

And if you’re wondering why he couldn’t fly directly to Luxembourg, it was because there was no airport there!  The first small grass airfield in Luxembourg wasn’t opened until the late 1930s.

When war broke out on September 3rd, 1939, all private stations in France were ordered to close by the government.  Radio Luxembourg was taken over by the Luxembourg government for a few more weeks for special news programming, but advertising revenue had stopped completely, so it was decided the station should close also, which it did, on Friday, September 22nd, 1939.

Early in 1940, an enterprising engineer at the transmitter site decided to bury four high-power amplification tubes from the transmitter in an adjacent field, to prevent them from being used by the Germans, and in case they should be needed again after the war.

Nazi German forces eventually overran Luxembourg in May 1940 and took control of the Radio Luxembourg studios and transmitter site.  They managed to reactivate the transmitter, and in July 1940 began using it for their own propaganda broadcasts by William Joyce (known as Lord Haw-Haw) and others.

Radio Luxembourg remained under the control of the Germans until early September 1944, when the advancing American forces entered and liberated the city of Luxembourg.  Before the Germans withdrew, they attempted to destroy the station.  Their attempt failed, but they did do severe damage.

The engineer who had buried the transmitter tubes in the field adjacent to the transmitter site in 1940 dug them up again, and the station was quickly refurbished.

Sadly, Radio Normandy on the coast at Fecamp was totally destroyed during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, and it was never rebuilt.  Radio Luxembourg was to be the only continental broadcaster of English language commercial programs which survived into the 1940s and 50’s.

In early 1945 under US Army control, the Luxembourg transmitter was used on a different frequency and with only 50 kW to broadcast ‘black propaganda’ programming into Germany, pretending to be a German station.  The station is identified in German by its wavelength, as ‘Hello, This is Twelve Twelve Calling’ (on 1212 metres).

William Joyce was captured, and after the war he was tried for treason and hanged at Wandsworth Jail in London in January 1946.  Control of Radio Luxembourg was returned to the Luxembourg Government, and then to CLR.  In February 1946, sponsored programs were back on the air, and in the summer of that year, English programs were heard once again on 1293 metres.  A small British staff worked wonders with records that had remained hidden during the German occupation.  They were very much out of date, but at least they told the listeners, 'Radio Luxembourg is BACK on the air!'

The longwave transmitter continued to carry English language programming until the new Copenhagen band plan of 1949 went into effect.  In that plan, Luxembourg was also allocated 208 metres medium wave, 1439 kHz, and the station decided to use the longwave frequency exclusively for French language programming.  From July 2nd, 1951, the medium wave channel became the home for all German language programming during the daytime, and English language programming during the evenings, from 7:45pm-3am UK time.  There was also a short block of programs in the early evening in Italian and Dutch after the German programs closed.

Shortwave transmissions were also introduced, with the French programming being relayed on 15350 kHz, and the daytime German programming on 6090 kHz.  During the evenings on 6090, religious programming was carried in various languages up until midnight, followed by a relay of the last three hours of the regular English language programming.

The English service ended on 30th December 1992, with the medium wave channel then carrying German language programming only, until the transmitter was finally turned off for the last time on 31st December 2015.

Radio Luxembourg in French is still heard on FM stations throughout France and on various digital platforms, but the longwave broadcasts on 234 kHz were discontinued on January 2nd 2023, at midnight UTC.