Vatican Radio Celebrates 90 Years

It was at 4:30 pm on Thursday February 12, 1931 that the new Vatican Radio was officially inaugurated under the direction of the famous radio experimenter Guglielmo Marconi with the internationally recognized callsign HVJ.  The location of this new radio broadcasting station was in the Vatican Gardens at Leonine City, that is the Vatican itself, and the inaugural transmitter was a 10 kW shortwave unit manufactured by the Marconi Company in England.

Administration building and radio masts at Vatican City.
Photo: Joshua Sherurcij, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, three additional shortwave transmitters were installed progressively at this city location for international coverage, as well as half a dozen mediumwave units for local coverage.  However, due to the density of the city of Rome and its suburban areas, the Vatican location for high powered radio broadcasting transmitters was far from ideal.

Consequently, a nearby and perhaps somewhat isolated country location was sought, and after considerable searching, a large 1,000 acre property nearly 20 miles northwest of Rome was ultimately chosen.  That spacious property, at Santa Maria di Galeria, was already owned by the Catholic Church as an educational institution.  On June 18, 1952, the Santa Maria di Galeria property, which is ten times larger than the Vatican itself, was granted extra-territorial status by the government of Italy as a political part of the Vatican.

Planning for that huge new shortwave station began in 1952; and two years later, sight work commenced.  The first shortwave transmitter, a 100 kW Philips unit from Holland, was transferred from Vatican City and re-installed at the new Santa Maria di Galeria station.  At 10:30 am on Sunday October 27, 1957, a special ceremony marked the inauguration of the new shortwave station.

QSL Card from Vatican Radio showing their transmitter site in 1975.
© Radio Heritage Foundation – Chris Mackerell Collection

Over the years, a dozen or more shortwave transmitters built by half a dozen different manufacturers have been installed consecutively at Santa Maria, including four at 500 kW.  In addition, important mediumwave transmitters have also been on the air at Santa Maria.

The extensive antenna field with its more than two dozen antenna towers is laid out in the shape of the English capital letter Y, and it includes mostly curtains, as well as a small variety of additional shortwave styles.  Two 500 kW transmitters feed a four tower rotatable antenna system that was designed and built by Telefunken of Germany.

A special four tower mediumwave antenna system allowed for directional change on the mediumwave frequency of 1530 kHz.  However, due to accusations of radio frequency emanations at a level dangerous to local citizens, the usage of this particular unit (two transmitters and four antenna towers) was closed in 2011.  The towers themselves were finally demolished three years later, on May 8, 2014.

The programming for Vatican Radio is produced in 23 languages in the studio complex at Palazzo Pio, a five storey building in Rome just outside Vatican City.  The on air programming is fed to Santa Maria via satellite and microwave FM relay.

Vatican Radio English Service to India in DRM, recorded in New Zealand. 15:28 UTC, March 15, 2015
© Radio Heritage Foundation – Chris Mackerell Collection

A surprising move in the international radio world was reported in the March 2017 issue of the Australian DX News.  The Japanese shortwave service NHK in Tokyo had 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 was contained in a news release from the Catholic World News Service, and it was copied into the March 2017 issue of the Australian DX News.

No, the shortwave service of Vatican Radio was not sold off, neither was it closed down, though in more recent times there have been significant reductions in languages and some services as an economy measure.  Yes, Vatican Radio is still here, and today it is celebrating the 90th anniversary of its inauguration way back last century in 1931, eight years before the beginning of World War 2.  And in addition, Vatican Radio is still a ready verifier of listener reception reports from all parts of the world.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of April 18, 2021

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