By David Ricquish
The Phoenix Group of Islands
Far out in the Central Pacific, the Phoenix Islands lie in the sun, calm lagoons protected from the sea by a series of encircling reefs. Northwest of Rarotonga and midway between Hawaii and New Zealand, the islands of Canton and Enderbury were claimed by the United States but administered jointly with the United Kingdom under a 50 year treaty signed in 1939.
Canton Island during the 1930s became a regular refueling stopover for the trans-Pacific air services operated by Pan American clipper flying boats. The rich guano deposits on Enderbury Island attracted American interests in the 1850s, but the British were also interested in the area, and colonial control was disputed with the United States.
British interests were administered from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, and with independence drawing near, the future control of the Canton and Enderbury Islands came into question. In the event, the United States gave up its claim to both islands, and they became part of what is now known as Kiribati.
However, during the 1970s, Canton Island was transformed from a sleepy Pacific atoll into an important part of the United States missile testing network. During this period, and prior to Canton Island becoming part of Kiribati, the island made its contribution to the history of radio in the Pacific.
At 0800 GMT on 17 January 1973, Wellington DXer Bryan Clark heard the following announcement on 1385 kHz “It’s 9 o’clock. This is the American Forces Radio and Television Service, WXLE, broadcasting from Canton Island in the Phoenix Islands”.
There was some confusion amongst New Zealand listeners at first, because available information listed WXLE as being located on Eniwetok Atoll in Micronesia, and there was a scurry to check the atlas to find out where Canton Island was. It was not until later that year, that Invercargill DXer Steven Greenyer received the first verification.
It came from AFRTS Washington DC through FEN (Far East Network) HQ, APO San Francisco and was merely an AFRTS shortwave card endorsed ‘1385’ and the time and date of reception.
By now, the station was being heard nightly, with such programs as Wolfman Jack Show and even CBS News heard one evening at 0930 GMT. However, apart from the fact that the station had confirmed it was part of the AFRTS network, on-air announcements were the only evidence of location and no other details were known.
In October 1973, Christchurch DXer David Ricquish received a letter from the Pacific Air Forces-Frequency Manager, Department of the Air Force, HQ Pacific Air Forces, APO San Francisco CA 96553 confirming a report of reception on 7 and 8 February 1973. Location of the station was given as Canton Island, and the antenna co-ordinates as 0024635S 1714320W. The station operated on an assigned frequency of 1385 kHz emission 10A3 with a peak power of 250 watts. At last, New Zealand DXers knew what they were listening to.
It’s known that the station was on air at least during the latter part of 1972, but its signal was never heard in New Zealand. In January 1973, a new 250 watt transmitter was installed and a new 180 foot broadcast tower constructed, and according to WXLE “our coverage was considerably expanded”.
Further details of broadcasting on Canton Island were received in late 1973, from HQ Space and Missile Test Center (AFSC) at Vandenberg AFB, California 93437 and also from Kentron Hawaii Ltd, Canton, Phoenix Islands, SAMTEC O/L-1 APO San Francisco CA 96401. The station manager was Lowell D. White.
WXLE was operated by Kentron Hawaii Ltd, under contract to the USAF, with Lowell White as the only full-time employee, assisted by two part-time announcers. Programs were solely for the entertainment of the 300 or more personnel on Canton and adjoining islands, involved in support activities for missile tracking and recovery operations of the Space and Missile Test Center at Vandenberg AFB.
The station was on air 24 hours daily, seven days a week “for the morale and welfare of the contractor and military people”. By early 1974, WXLE was being heard with strong signals from as early as 0630 GMT and reception was often noted past 1200 GMT. In March 1974, there were indications that Kentron Hawaii Ltd had ceased involvement with support activities on Canton Island, and these were confirmed in October 1974 by new station manager, Max A Chapman.
The station was now receiving regular reception reports from California, Hawaii and New Zealand, and continued to operate with 250 watts, non-directional. According to Max Chapman, the station was now operated by Global Associates, Box 1276, APO San Francisco CA 96401.
During the next 12 months, regular reception continued through all months of the year, and the station was heard in Queensland at 1030 GMT in January 1975. Programs had always been in English, but in September 1975, the station ID was noted at 0938 GMT in both English and a local dialect. This perhaps indicates that reception was regular in some of the adjoining islands where islanders may have been working under contract for plantations.
In December 1975, Max Chapman advised that the USAF Radar Base was being phased out of operations and along with many others, he would be leaving Canton Island. From 7 January 1976, the station was operated on a voluntary basis by James A. Nolan and several others who took over the abandoned radio station with equipment left intact.
Although the full station facilities were due to be removed, James Nolan had volunteered to operate and maintain the equipment if it could stay on the island. The station address was noted as showing continued involvement by Global Associates, but the address had changed to Canton Island, Phoenix Islands Group 96736, USA. During the next few months, tapes and some live programs were supplied 24 hours daily to provide easy listening for the population, as well as ships and aircraft in the area.
According to the new manager, Joyce E Haas who took over responsibility for WXLE in July 1976, the population of Canton Island had now declined to 34 and broadcasts were irregular in the period January-July 1976. It was now on air, more or less continuously. The only tapes available were of easy listening music In the Still of the Night and Joyce Haas created new tapes to add to the range of music available.
Station IDs were inserted at irregular intervals, usually every 15 to 30 minutes. Because of other work pressures, part-time work at WXLE was irregular, and mainly taped programs were aired.
During 1977 and 1978, nothing new was learnt about the station. It continued to provide excellent reception in New Zealand, usually with a format of continuous ”Beautiful Music”. In June 1978, it was noted that the station was operating on 1386 kHz, a shift of 1 kHz and seemingly in preparation for the change in frequency spacing to 9 kHz due throughout the Pacific later that year. Reception was now noted as early as 0450 GMT with very strong signals by 0600 GMT.
In August 1978, perfect reception of the station was noted by DXer David Ricquish, the signal being heard for almost eleven hours through to 1645 GMT with station ID announcements, presumably by Joyce Haas as “You’re listening to WXLE, Canton Island in the Phoenix Islands, Radio 13-85”. A tape of reception reveals a whole side off the Carly Simon album Hot Cakes followed by tropical Beautiful Music such as I am Hawaii and Bali Hai and amazingly clear and completely consistent signal strength.
It was the last known reception of WXLE.
In March 1979, a verification was received from the station, noting that with the proposed phase down of military activity, broadcasts would probably cease in June or July 1979. The station remained entirely voluntary, now serving a population of 37 people on Canton Island, with, usually, 24 hours daily of entirely taped programs with irregular station IDs.
However, the station was never heard again past August 1978, and it must be accepted WXLE closed down the transmitter sometime near mid 1979, some seven years or so after having commenced transmissions.
During its relatively short time on air, WXLE became a firm favorite with many listeners, particularly in New Zealand, where reception was possible in all parts of the country and through all months of the year. Although only using a 250 watt transmitter, the signal was often incredibly strong, penetrating across a complete seapath through the Pacific night.
Reception was often noted for hours on length with absolutely no fading, and the very slight atmospheric noise at irregular intervals never interfered with what often had all the characteristics of a local transmission.
The history of the station reveals that listeners owed much of their listening pleasure to the efforts of a group of dedicated volunteers who operated WXLE during more than half its existence. It’s not known what has happened to the studio facilities and transmitter, and even today, the 180 foot tower may remain standing in lonely vigil, outlined against the sky, and silent.
Surely, a fascinating chapter in the history of Pacific radio
This article was originally published in the September 1982 (Vol 35 No 1) issue of the NZ DX Times magazine.