WVUV Radio in American Samoa
by Bill Reiker
After a 35 year broadcast career in the U.S., I took some time off in 1989 to sail by myself on my small boat to the South Pacific. I stopped in the Marquesas, Tahiti, Bora Bora and finally American Samoa.
It was there that I went to work at WVUV as an announcer and later station manager. Bill Faulkerson was general manager.
At the time the offices were in Pago Pago at Pago Plaza with the actual studios, transmitter and tower on the other side of the island near Leone in the small village of Vialoa. For most of the time I lived on my boat in the harbor and took a 45 minute bus ride to work everyday. Ultimately, the station obtained a rental car for me to get around.
WVUV operated 24 hours a day. Although we were licensed for 10,000 watts, we broadcast only 1kW or 5kW (I forget). The ancient control board was either Collins or RCA and could very well have been WWII vintage, with tubes and lots of relays. The music was played on Rusko turntables. The commercials were mostly on tape cartridge and played on older American cart machines (probably Spartomatic). We also played some commercials on cassette when we’d run out of carts. It was found to be very cost effective to just use very cheap cassette decks. The station obtained a quantify of them for about $80 each. With 24 hour a day use they’d last 6 months or a year. Since repairs were not practical, we’d just toss out a broken machine and plug in a new one.
Our auxiliary power was from a diesel generator that was utilized almost daily. The government owned power company had very old turbines that would fail frequently. Most businesses on the island had their own generators. Our neighbors in the small village would sometimes complain about the generator noise when it would engage in the middle of the night. It made a fair amount of racket.
When I first went to work at the station we got U.S. network news from NBC in the following way: Once every 4 hours the announcer would telephone a number in Hawaii that would automatically play over the phone line a local all news station. Our announcer would record the 5 minute network newscast off the phone onto cassette and then play it on the air in American Samoa every hour until it was updated. Of course, it was quite redundant and sounded just awful, like it was coming out of a soup can. Life would have been much easier if we’d just been able to take a news feed from a satellite. The problem with that was the domestic U.S. satellites that carried network news were too low on the horizon.
We ultimately found out that the U.S. Armed Forces Radio and TV Service had a satellite that we could receive in the region that carried all the networks and many other programming services. We obtained the equipment to receive it and the quality was fine. It was up and running just in time for the Gulf War and for the first time in history American Samoa had live news from America. The only technical problem involved the fact the AFRTS satellite was very old and it’s position was not perfectly stationary.
Over a 24 hour period it would wander around the heavens a bit, requiring the announcer to reposition the dish from time to time. This was done manually by turning up the volume on the cue speaker, stepping outside the back door and adjusting the dish by ear.
The programming was sort of a hybrid adult contempory presentation with a mixture of AC, country and Samoan language songs. Believe it or not, that was the exact mix everybody liked. A typical hour might include Barbara Streisand, Garth Brooks and religious songs in Samoan.
The station sold local advertising and business was fairly brisk. In many ways it sounded like a typical small town American station. Sponsorship was sold on special events like ball games and boat races.
One unique Samoan tradition involved funeral programs. A family would buy a 5 minute program that featured hymns, prayer and kind words about the dearly departed. These mini-funerals would be sold and scheduled like regular commercials. Sometimes I’d be rockin’ and boppin’ at 7 A.M. doing my morning show only to break for a quick funeral… and then return to more light hearted fun. I suppose it sounds weird to an outsider, but that’s how it had always been done.
Swains Island was a tiny island many miles to the north and inhabited by just a few families. The government maintained contact with the island by way of single sideband radio for medical emergencies, weather alerts, supply boat schedules, etc. Since keeping the 2-way radio on all the time would run down the automobile battery powering it, they would simply listen to WVUV on small portable radios (powered by D cells, I suppose) to learn when they were to turn on the communications radio for a contact. When the government would occasionally ask us to alert them to a radio call we would do so at a predetermined time, usually right after our legal station identification at 12 noon. The wordage would be something like, “This is WVUV, American Samoa. It’s 12 o’clock noon. Attention Swains Island, short wave radio communication is scheduled for 1500 hours today. Repeat, radio contact is scheduled for 1500 hours today. And now it’s time for the news from NBC…” It was truly a case of commercial broadcast radio providing a critical community service.
Today I’m back in California working at oldies radio, K-Earth 101 in Los Angeles (using the name Bill Stevens). Of course, the on air presentation is very professional and the equipment is state of the art. But I’ll never forget those happy and crazy days on that far-flung Pacific Island and that little radio station. They form some of my happiest memories.
This article was originally prepared for radiodx.com
Images are from the David Ricquish Collection © Radio Heritage Foundation