AWA’s VK2ME Sydney and VK3ME Melbourne
by Dr. Adrian Peterson
The almost forgotten anniversary! September 5, 1927
It was just 75 years ago that the first international shortwave station in Australia went on the air with its first radio broadcast. The date was Monday September 5, the station was VK2ME in Sydney Australia, and the program was the 1st “Empire Broadcast”.
Back there in those days, Australia was really “down under” and quite isolated. The only communication with the outside world was by boat, or by Morse Code sent over a long and tenuous underwater cable system, or by Morse Code sent by variable wireless via several intermediate relay stations.
Then it was that Sir Ernest Fisk, managing Director of AWA, Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (OS-tral-Asia), devised the concept of broadcasting radio programs from Australia to other parts of the world. For this purpose, AWA utilized its new 20 kW communication transmitter in the main hall at their new facility at Pennant Hills in an isolated area some 14 miles from downtown Sydney.
This new state of the art transmitter was so large that it was contained in several wire cages with access only through safe-guarded gate-ways. The antenna was a long-wire that was attached to the main radio tower in use for the broadcast service of the mediumwave station 2FC.
The 1st “Empire Broadcast” went on the air in the early morning of Monday September 5, 1927 so that it could be heard in England during the Sunday evening. The programming originated in the studios of the mediumwave station 2FC in Farmers Departmental Store in Sydney. This live program in this first historic shortwave broadcast from Australia consisted of speeches from prominent political leaders and instrumental & vocal music from Australia’s leading musicians.
This innovative program from Australia was heard clearly in London by local listeners using their own shortwave receivers. The BBC station in London, the famous 2LO, also picked up the program and relayed it to millions of listeners throughout England. This 1st “Empire Broadcast” was also heard quite clearly in Scotland and India.
Six weeks later, the 2nd “Empire Broadcast ” went on the air, this time over VK2ME shortwave for overseas listeners and on 2FC mediumwave for local listeners. The programming in the 2nd “Empire Brodcast” was similar in content to the 1st broadcast.
Two weeks later again, the 3rd “Empire Broadcast” went on the air and this time it was heard in North America, in addition to several countries in Europe. In the United States, the programming from Australia was picked up by the General Electric station WGY in Schenectady, New York and relayed on mediumwave nationwide and on shortwave worldwide. Over in England, the well known Gerald Marcuse picked up the programming and relayed it on shortwave back to Australia over his famous amateur station G2NM.
Program number 4 went on the air in early November; and program number 5 was a special broadcast for Christmas 1927.
A little less than a year later, another 20 kW shortwave transmitter was installed at Pennant Hills for the broadcast of special programming during an international Catholic Convention in Sydney. On this occasion, the 5 kW mediumwave transmitter for 2FC was re-tuned also to a shortwave channel for a parallel relay. The new 20 kW transmitter was subsequenlty designated with the callsign VLK.
During its 13 year broadcast history, experimental station VK2ME was on the air over at least four different shortwave transmitters:-
- The original 20 kW VK2ME.
- The 5 kW mediumwave transmitter was retuned to a shortwave channel.
- Another 20 kW transmitter under the callsign VLK.
- Another 20 kW shortwave transmitter again, under the callsign VLM.
In addition, for a while during the mid and late 1920s, the programming from VK2ME was also heard on an experimental FM outlet on 7 MHz, station VK2MA.
Two of the AWA transmitters were taken into service in December 1939 for the original service from Radio Australia. The transmitters VLK & VLM were redesignated as VLQ & VLQ2, though these calls were later changed to VLI, the original broadcast station with this callsign.
Several colorful QSL cards were issued by AWA for transmissions from their stations and these include two different versions of an early map card and the more famous Kookaburra card in yellow. One of these early cards shows the original callsign, A2ME.
AWA Pennant Hills is now gone, along with all of the pioneers who kept it on the air, and its colorful history is now stored in boxes in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Nevertheless, we honor Australia’s pioneer shortwave station on the occasion of what would be the 75th anniversary of its inauguration.
Another Radio Anniversary in Australia – Victoria’s VK3ME
Two weeks ago here in Wavescan, we honored the 75th anniversary of the launching of Australia’s first international broadcasting service. The experimental shortwave station was VK2ME, the location was Sydney in New South Wales, and the date was September 5, 1927.
Just two days later, another famous “first” was achieved in Australia, and this was the launching of another shortwave broadcasting service with a similar callsign, VK3ME. The location was Braybrook, on the edge of Melbourne in Victoria, and the date was September 7, 1927.
Let’s go back now to the beginning of this historic radio venture in Australia’s second largest city.
Sydney Newman was an engineer with AWA and in 1921 he established an amateur wireless station at his home in Mont Albert Road, a long suburban street running east from downtown Melbourne. From this suburban home, Sydney Newman ran many broadcasts over his wireless station VK3ME, sometimes under his own initiative and sometimes as part of his work with AWA.
In 1927, Sydney Newman built a shortwave transmitter which was installed with the mediumwave station 3LO in Braybrook and the callsign was transferred from Newman’s home to the new location. Extensive Morse Code tests were conducted over this new transmitter in preparation for launching a new shortwave broadcasting service.
After the mediumwave station 3LO signed off at the end of the broadcast day on September 7, 1927, the shortwave transmitter was fired up for the inaugural live broadcast from the 3LO studios in downtown Melbourne. This programming was also picked up by the BBC station 2LO in London and relayed on mediumwave thoughout the British Isles. A regular schedule of weekly broadcasts was inaugurated just two months later.
On several occasions, the shortwave programming under the auspices of station VK3ME was transmitted by a higher powered 20 kW unit, the communication transmitter VIY which was located at Ballan, further out along the highway running towards Ballarat. On several important occasions, both VK3LR at Lyndhurst and VK3ME at Ballan were heard with parallel programming, usually the broadcast of an international Test cricket match.
The AWA communication station at Ballan contained two shortwave transmitters, VIZ & VIY, for wireless communication with England and North America. This station was officially opened also in the year 1927, just five months ahead of the broadcast unit VK3ME.
Shortwave broadcasting from 3LO ended in 1929 when the two mediumwave stations in Melbourne, 3LO & 3AR, were amalgamated and ultimately taken over by the government for incorporation into the nationwide network of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. From that time onwards, all shortwave programming was independently produced in the AWA studios, even though the VK3ME shortwave transmitter was still co-located in the same building as the 3LO mediumwave transmitter.
Early in its broadcasting history, station VK3ME introduced several important “firsts” in Australian shortwave programming, such as the call of the Kookaburra which was later taken over by VK2ME in Sydney, and later again by Radio Australia. The Melbourne station also introduced station announcements in several different languages, and the call of the famous Victorian bird, the Lyre Bird. Interestingly, the wavelength at VK3ME was described at one stage as “35 yards” rather than the metric 32 metres.
All images used in this article are from original documents held in the Eric Shackle Collection © Radio Heritage Foundation.
Dr Adrian Peterson is a member of the Radio Heritage Foundation Board.