On this page you'll find a random selection of articles I've written over the years. Some were published or were intended for publication; others were not. I have invoked the writer's privilege of revising and cleaning up copy that was written decades ago, in some cases. However, I've resisted the temptation to make wholesale changes, even in cases where doing so might be a good idea. Doing that would make it hard to see where my head was at the time.

Conquistador of Science

Radio and the Exploration of New Guinea in 1938-1939

This article was written on "spec" for a national monthly catering to the radio hobbyist. Unfortunately, it never saw the light of day in print until now. This piece combines two of my passionate interests: shortwave radio and flying boats. A flying boat is not a float plane. Both are seaplanes, however the float plane is just an ordinary aircraft with a couple of ungainly water shoes strapped on. The flying boat was designed from the start to swim as easily as it flies. In the 1930's and 1940's, the most ubiquitous flying boat was the PBY "Catalina" designed by the Consolidated Aircraft Company in San Diego, California. This article is the story of one particular Catalina owned by a rich explorer who flew off to what was then one of the least well known areas on earth, at least to those who weren't born there. The image of the QSL card is courtesy of the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida. The other photographs were originally published in The Consolidator, the employee newsletter for Consolidated Aircraft workers.

PK6XX_Guba_QSL-title_page_scan.jpg“SEAPLANE ALIGHTS ON LAKE TWO MILES UP” read the headline in the July 24th, 1938, edition of the New York Times. The article it led had been sent by shortwave radio to report the initial success of the third Archbold Expedition to New Guinea. Described by others as a “young millionaire”, Richard Archbold’s formal title was Research Associate in the Mammology Department at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He had explored parts of New Guinea during two earlier expeditions, but the third was to be the most ambitious, ending with a record-breaking flight around the world. And from the moment Archbold and his five-man crew took off from San Diego, California, in their twin-engine Consolidated “Catalina” flying boat Guba, the expedition was in constant touch with home via shortwave radio.

Archbold realized the vital role airplanes and radio communication could play in the exploration of one of the most remote and mysterious places on earth. During his second expedition in 1936, he used an amphibious Fairchild airplane dubbed Kono equipped with two-way radio to explore the region around the Fly River in Papua. The plane overturned and sank during a sudden midnight storm while anchored at Daru harbor, but not before Archbold decided that his next expedition would be supported by an even larger plane, also radio-equipped. The storm even gave the new plane its name: the word “guba” means “fierce storm” in Papuan.

In early June 1938, Archbold and crew took off from San Diego Bay for the eighteen-hour flight to Hawaii. Among those seeing them off was Barney Boyd W6LYY. As the big flying boat flew across the vast Pacific, stopping first at Honolulu and then remote Wake Island, Boyd was in constant radio contact with Archbold, relaying news of his progress to reporters. Three days after leaving Hawaii, Guba and her crew touched down safely in the harbor at Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea, a place now called Jayapura in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. There, an advance party had built a large base for the expedition which was to last nearly a year. It included an amateur radio station, PK6XX, and another station, PO6ZA, that maintained contact with Guba and small exploration parties in the bush.

Guba_Archbold_journal_scan-1.jpgArchbold used his new airplane for a series of preliminary flights over the largely unknown territory the expedition would cover. He flew over a giant river valley, previously unknown to the outside world, inhabited by at least 60,000 people – making it the most densely populated area in the world’s second-largest island. Archbold also made a test landing on Lake Habbema, a large body of water high up in the Snow Mountains, about 200 miles from Hollandia, where he hoped to set up an advance camp. Guba’s crew was apprehensive about this landing; no one had ever landed so large a plane and taken off again at an altitude of 11,000 feet. But the rarified air proved no problem for the twin 900-horsepower engines and the 13-ton flying boat was airborne again in under 30 seconds. Just in case, however, Archbold brought a portable radio station and food for a month. It would have taken a rescue party that long to cover the distance from Hollandia to the lake on foot. The same trip took only two hours by air. Radio operator Harold Ramm fired up PK6XX on its primary frequency – 14,009 kHz – and Archbold himself dictated a dispatch reporting the successful landing to the New York Times. Barney Boyd picked up the transmission back in San Diego and passed it on.

While Ramm stayed behind at Hollandia with the “ham” station, the expedition’s second radio operator, Raymond Booth, went with the airplane as it ferried about 130 men and tons of equipment to the base camp at Lake Habbema. The thin air kept activity to a minimum for several days as the party acclimated to the altitude. Several of the Dyak carriers brought from the jungle island of Borneo to the north of New Guinea never did get used to it and had to be taken back on stretchers. Exploration and collection of specimens got underway as soon as possible while Archbold and several others made plans to scale the 15,600-foot summit of nearby Mount Wilhelmina (now called Puncak Trikora). Although surrounded by thousands of square miles of steaming tropical rain forest, the mountain was often covered by snow and obscured for days on end by freezing mist and rain. Temperatures at the base camp regularly fell below freezing at night. The mountain party set up a base camp near the foot of the peak where botanist Dr. L. J. Brass later reported excellent radio reception and transmission conditions. Unfortunately the small, gnarled trees at that altitude did not yield enough wood to build a proper antenna mast. So Guba co-pilot Russell Rogers flew over and delivered a load of bamboo from the coast by parachute. Brass noted that everyone except the radio operator was far more interested in the box of fruit Rogers thoughtfully included with the other cargo.

Bad weather forced Archbold to break off the attempt to reach the mountain’s summit but the important scientific work continued. The Lake Habbema camp was in constant touch by radio with Guba, the main base at Hollandia, and with a smaller advance camp near the Idenburg River.

Small exploration parties led by Dutch military officers attached to the expedition also had portable radio sets so they could coordinate supply drops from the flying boat. With help only from aerial photographs taken by Archbold, these men cleared the way when the main group broke camp at the lake and began moving overland toward the giant Balim River valley – at that time uncharted territory. Near the end of World War Two, three survivors of a plane crash in the same area walked out of the jungle and reported harrowing adventures among the primitive people living in what the newspapers dramatically called a “Shangri-La” never before seen by Europeans. An irritated Archbold was not impressed, pointing out to reporters and the military that he had charted the very same valley not so many years before.

The Archbold expedition slowly moved to a series of new camps, sometimes carried by the flying boat. The scientists had many friendly encounters with the natives along the way. In a gorge cut by the Bele River, people from villages for miles around gathered to initiate the white visitors into the tribe by sprinkling them with the blood of a pig slaughtered for the occasion. When the party moved on a few days later, the scientists watched as the Papuans “looted” the camp where a lot of unneeded equipment and supplies had been left behind. An hour down the trail they were overtaken by natives carrying sacks filled with their former belongings while other booty went speedily to other villages in all directions.

The main goal of the Archbold expedition was to collect examples of the exotic animal and plant life for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where some of the material went on public display in a special section of the museum devoted to the flora and fauna of the Snow Mountains region. Through it all, PK6XX and W6LYY maintained a regular schedule. Each Saturday night at 10:30 Pacific time, Boyd went to his radio shack to call New Guinea on 14,204 kHz (or “kilocycles-per-second”, as it was then known). PK6XX answered on either 14,009 kHz or 14,340 kHz. The stations were also used for “live” radio broadcasts from New Guinea that were carried on local U.S. stations.

The expedition’s internal radio system was more complex. Archbold and Ramm built a base transmitter adapted to the special conditions imposed by the tropical climate of coastal New Guinea. The 400-watt PO6ZA transmitter at Hollandia was crystal-controlled with plug-in coils to change frequencies within the range of 500 kHz to 15 MHz. Hollandia communicated with Guba on a number of frequencies. The plane was equipped with a 100-watt main transmitter using 500 kHz; 3,105 kHz; 6,210 kHz; and 12,420 kHz for either voice or CW. Guba’s 40-watt back-up transmitter, for CW only, used those frequencies as well as the longwave channels 333.3 kHz and 375 kHz. Out in the bush, the advance exploration parties were equipped with portable sets made by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia), Ltd. These had an output power of 10 watts on 6,425 kHz but they were “portable” in name only. It took five native carriers to haul the transmitter, receiver, batteries, and charging motor. However, the small sets worked well despite their low power. On Mount Wilhelmina, Archbold found that a special one-watt CW transmitter kept him in reliable contact with PO6ZA on the coast more than 200 miles away. The mountain party used the same batteries for three weeks to make radio contact daily every 30 minutes. Using the portable sets, the remote camps were almost continuously in contact with Hollandia base – a reassuring link when faced with unknown territory and natives whose friendliness could never be taken for granted.

As if there wasn’t adventure enough, Archbold volunteered the use of Guba to help find a missing Pan American Airways Martin M-130 flying boat that vanished somewhere between Manila and Guam only a few days after the scientific party arrived in New Guinea. After learning that the large, four-engine Hawaii Clipper had apparently crashed, Archbold radioed his offer of help from Hollandia. But Pan Am officials politely declined, saying that U.S. Army Air Corps bombers based in the Philippines could do the job. They were wrong. To this day the airliner’s fate remains a mystery.

Closer to the expedition’s backyard, the Guba crew brought a thousand pounds of food and water to about 40 people stranded when a Dutch patrol boat ran aground 75 miles from Hollandia. Learning by radio that the nearest ship was at least a day away, Archbold took off six of the vessel’s passengers, including one with a serious case of pneumonia, and flew them to his base where medical help was waiting.

Guba_Archbold-journal_scan-2.jpgWhen the New Guinea expedition drew to a successful close in the spring of 1939, the Australian government chartered Guba for a flight to survey air routes between Western Australia and East Africa over the Indian Ocean. Radio again played an important role. Joined by the famous Australian aviator Sir Gordon Taylor, the flying boat’s crew homed in on a radio beacon but failed to find the lonely Cocos (Keeling) Islands because of bad weather and were forced to divert to Batavia (now Jakarta), the colonial capital of the Dutch East Indies. However, the flight to the islands went off without a hitch the following day. This was a prelude to the similarly uneventful flight to Mombasa on the coast of British Kenya. The survey flight now over, Archbold and his crew continued on across Africa, stopping in the Belgian Congo and Dakar on the Atlantic coast of French West Africa. After one more stop at St. Thomas in the Caribbean, Guba and her crew landed in New York and a heroes’ welcome on July 1st, 1939, that included a reception at the World’s Fair.

During the thirteen months since she had left California, Guba had covered 40,000 miles and spent 700 hours in the air. In the process she became the first seaplane to fly around the world and the first airplane of any kind to do so at its greatest circumference. The expedition’s scientists collected 6,000 kinds of plants, hundreds of birds, and a species of giant rat over three feet long. Some of these were unknown to science before the expedition.

Archbold planned to return to New Guinea in Guba for a fourth expedition but the Second World War intervened. Japanese forces later overran much of the territory Archbold had surveyed. As the tide of war turned in the Allies favor, General Douglas MacArthur used Hollandia as his headquarters during the long march back to the Philippines. Archbold sold his flying boat to the British government in 1940. After serving with the Royal Air Force, Guba was stripped of useful equipment and scuttled at sea shortly after the war ended. Archbold went on to found the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida, in 1941 where important research continues today. Before his death in 1976, Archbold was said to be fond of regaling friends and colleagues with stories about his aerial adventures in the southwest Pacific so many years before.


Archbold, Richard; “Seaplane Alights on Lake 2 Miles Up”; New York Times, 24 July 1938.

Archbold, Richard; “Unknown New Guinea”; National Geographic, March 1941.

Archbold, Richard, with A. L. Rand and L. J. Brass; “Results of the Archbold Expeditions, Number 41; Summary of the 1938-1939 New Guinea Expedition”; Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, volume LXXIX, article III, pp. 197-288, New York, 26 June 1942.

Archbold, Richard, with Geoffrey Tate; “Something Lost Beyond the Ranges”; unpublished manuscript; Archbold Biological Station, Lake Placid, Florida, 1946.

Brass, L. J.; “Summary of the Indisch-Amerikaansche Expeditie”; unpublished manuscript, Archbold Biological Station, n.d.

Cohen, Stan; Wings to the Orient; Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana, 1985.

“Expedition Finds Rats 3 Feet Long”; New York Times, 1 January 1939.

 "Flying Boat Ends 40,000-Mile Jaunt”; New York Times, 2 July 1939.

 “Hopes are Waning for Hawaii Clipper”; New York Times, 1 August 1938.

 “Guba Departs”; Consolidator; Consolidated Aircraft Company, San Diego, California, September 1938.

 “Via Shortwave Radio”; Consolidator, September 1938.

 Wagner, William; Reuben Fleet and the Story of Consolidated Aircraft; Aero Publishers, Incorporated, Fallbrook, California, 1976.



Rebuilding the Past

WMmagazine_logo.jpgI wrote this in March 1987 for West Michigan Magazine in Grand Rapids. It was scheduled to appear that summer ahead of the annual High on Kalamazoo airshow, although they never sent the promised "tear sheet". I don't recall getting paid for it either. I do remember spending a very enjoyable afternoon with Al Rohrstaff and looking over his airplane, then in pieces all over his combination workshop and garage. The idea was to highlight an aspect of airshows that doesn't get nearly as much attention as the Blue Angels and the Second World War planes: vintage civilian aircraft. Assuming it was published, I hope it did just that. If not, maybe it will do so now.

As the jets whine and roar overhead and the World War Two-era “warbirds” chase each other in re-enactments of old battles, some vintage civilian airplanes lay quietly along a runway at the Kalamazoo County Airport. Most people will come to the annual High on Kalamazoo airshow to see the main attractions. But others will be drawn by the skill of people like Al Rohrstaff who lovingly restore antique flying machines and take them back into the sky every day.

A woodworking and machine shop teacher at Parchment High School for more than sixteen years, Rohrstaff has restored ten old biplanes, including five British DeHavilland Tiger Moths that were used as basic flight trainers during World War Two and for many years after. He’s at work on his eleventh project: a French Stampe biplane of the same vintage. Dismounted wings newly recovered with Dacron fabric crowd one wall of his backyard garage and workshop. The skeleton of the fuselage perches on its landing gear, the Renault engine exposed under open gull-wing covers. Rohtstaff says the Stamp (pronounced “Stomp”) has a devoted following among antique airplane buffs and that’s led to a club inevitably named the Stampe Collectors.

Using networks like the club and the national Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), Rohrstaff and others find the rare parts they need to get an older airplane back into the air. Rohrstaff flew his biplane until last November but was “tender” with it, not knowing how badly the passing years had affected it. By “tender” he means not flying it upside down or indulging in the more exciting aerobatic maneuvers, even though that’s exactly the kind of flying that Rohrstaff loves.

Around Thanksgiving the Stampe headed for the garage and a complete overhaul. Rohrstaff checks carefully for any sign of rot in the wooden airframe. Built shortly after the end of the Second World War in a devastated Europe, the Stampe helped get the French aircraft industry back on its feet, even though wood was the only material available. The plane’s few metal parts, including the engine, are made of “liberty steel” – the melted down remnants of the great conflict. All of them, to the smallest bolt, must be examined for signs of wear and fatigue. Rohrstaff’s first flight in his Stampe might have been the last because one small bolt in the engine failed. Just two miles from Flint’s Bishop Airport, where he bought the airplane, the 145-horsepower Renault suddenly reverberated with a series of loud bangs and pops. The plane rapidly lost altitude and the engine’s power fell off. Rohrstaff quickly turned back to the airport and nursed the Stampe back onto the runway. Since it had no radio, Rohrstaff wiggled his wings to attract the attention of air traffic controllers in the tower. They finally gave him the green light – literally – as a DC9 jetliner behind him aborted its landing with only a few hundred feet to spare. Rohrstaff replaced every bolt in the engine’s rocker arm push-rod assembly before attempting the second flight.

Rohrstaff_Stampe.jpgOnce the Stampe has been disassembled and checked, Rohrstaff begins re-covering the flying surfaces: the wings, stabilizers, elevators, rudder, and tail. He also cuts lengths of white Dacron to cover the supporting wooden spars and ribs, glues the fabric to the frame and shrinks it with a hot iron until it’s as tight as a drum. The fabric must be stitched every two inches along each rib to prevent it from ballooning out in flight. The newly covered surfaces are now ready for coats of pink primer paint and then the final color. Rohrstaff says he’ll probably paint his Stampe bright yellow because that’s a lot easier for other pilots to see in the air.

Once the surfaces have ben re-covered and the rest of the plane reassembled, Rohrstaff begins the laborious task of rebuilding the forty-year-old engine: “It’s the rubber band that keeps the plane in the air” so it gets lots of attention. “I save the best for last.”

Engine back in one piece, Rohrstaff will wheel the “new” plane out of his big garage and finish putting it all back together. It isn’t easy. Wings must be realigned to tolerances of half-a-degree using a system of wires and screws that provide the needed tension. Wires bracing the all-important wings must also be adjusted in unison. When he’s satisfied that all is as it should be, he’ll take the wings off again and pop the tail wheel in the back of his car for the tow out to a private grass airstrip north of Kalamazoo where he also keeps his vintage Cessna 170. Rohrstaff says his neighbors have long since gotten used to the sight of an airplane rolling down their street. After the final assembly, he’ll have a fully aerobatic biplane capable of flying at 95 miles per hour with a climbing rate of 1,500 feet per minute. The Stampe will be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration as an “experimental” airplane. That means a licensed aviation mechanic doesn’t have to inspect it before its maiden flight. For his own safety aloft, Rohrstaff depends only on his years of experience restoring these airplanes. Where he might have been “tender” before, once the restoration is complete, Rohrstaff says he’ll be ready to “strap on the parachute a bit tighter and have at it”. No one doubts his love of aerobatic flying.

Keeping fabric-covered biplanes in flying trim isn’t entirely a lost art but Rohrstaff warns that “it’s getting ‘loster’ all the time”. Building on a boyhood passion for airplanes, he started his first restoration project in the mid-1960s after returning to Michigan from Colorado where he attended college. He got personal instruction from a veteran of the art: Willie Benedict of Wayland, Michigan, who’s now in the process of recreating a 1930s “Unlimited” racing biplane from scratch. Benedict showed Rohrstaff how to do right what he had been doing wrong and the pair have been close friends ever since.

You don’t find “airport kids” anymore. Youngsters generally don’t hang around airfields like they did in the 1930’s and ‘40s, hoping to catch a ride with one of the regular pilots. Even so, Rohrstaff and other EAA members are actively involved with young people, trying to get them interested in aviation. This fall, Rohrstaff will teach the first ground school class for Parchment High School students interested in earning their wings. He also has neighborhood kids building model airplanes in his basement – kids who one day may build or restore the real thing. “Aviation is a great hobby that can turn into a way of life,” he says.

The best way to learn how to restore an old airplane is to meet those who’ve already done it. They tend to be members of the EAA. There are local chapters of the organization in Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek, Grand Haven, and Saint Joseph. The EAA’s national office is in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It has manuals and other information that restorers can consult and there are even videotaped guides for members living in remote areas too far away from the nearest local chapter. Some local groups like the one at Reynolds Airport in Jackson, Michigan, have their own hangars and joint restoration projects.

By the time he’s ready to fly the Stampe again this summer, Rohrstaff will have spent several thousand hours restoring it. He admits that finding the time isn’t easy. His two oldest children are avid soccer players and the family spends a lot of time traveling around the state. Once he used to finish rebuilding a plane each year but that pace has slowed. Even if there isn’t a soccer game around the corner, “There are so many things that get in the way of going out to the garage: a television set, a soft chair, a nice glass of wine”. But those won’t get in the way too long because in the end there is a big reward: flying an airplane rebuilt with his own hands. Rohrstaff confesses a love for flying open-cockpit planes like the Stampe.

“There’s no sensation like landing in the evening when the sun is just going down. You land at the strip with the fresh smell of grass coming up to meet you”

He also keeps an eye out for the deer and fox that occasionally wander across the runway on summer evenings.

If it’s done in time, Rohrstaff will have the Stampe lined up on the runway with other vintage aircraft at the High on Kalamazoo airshow. But he won’t rush because that wouldn’t be doing the job right. Already some other aviators have tried to pry his prize away from him, offering to buy it “as is” in pieces. But Rohrstaff politely turns their offers aside, looking forward to the not-too-far-distant day when, like Charles Lindbergh, he’ll be alone with his machine in the air where it belongs.


This one actually was published (for free, unfortunately) in the fourth quarter 1993 issue of ICAS News from the International Council of Air Shows. It describes my involvement with the Air Show Radio operation over several years during the then-annual High on Kalamazoo airshow. I miss the airshow and I miss Air Show Radio, even though it involved a ton of work and headaches.

ICAS_News_Cover.jpgWhether they’re travelling the north/south or the east/west expressways or on city streets, visitors motoring to the High on Kalamazoo Air Show are greeted by highway signs that read, “For Air Show information, turn to Radio Station 89.9 FM”.

The party starts with a flip of the dial. Miles out, incoming spectators hear the noise of the crowd. The whine of jet engines mixes with traffic updates, parking tips, and interviews with airshow stars. Even before they join the line of traffic lumbering into the parking lot, they’ve arrived. The business of ticket taking is mere formality.

Psyching up the crowd wasn’t the original reason for Kalamazoo’s one-of-a-kind Air Show Radio. It was designed as a critical part of the overall traffic control and emergency procedures plan. It’s the airshow’s direct link with the outside world – the first hello and the last good bye. In the event of an accident or a weather emergency, Air Show Radio can turn the tide of traffic away from the site. So far, it’s been lucky: it has only been called upon to welcome people in.

An early version of Air Show Radio occurred in 1986 when High on Kalamazoo organizers asked the staff and students at WKDS, Loy Norrix High School’s radio station on 89.9 FM, if they would broadcast traffic reports and direct visitors around detour routes. Unprecedented congestion was expected because the FAA required that I-94 be closed in both directions during performances by the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. Closure of the main route between Chicago and Detroit would be at midday, Friday through Sunday. The timing was mid-July – the height of Michigan’s tourist traffic.

I helped revive Air Show Radio in 1988 when a friend in New Zealand sent me a cassette tape of a dedicated air show radio station there. That special temporary station was set up to provide spectator information in lieu of an on-site PA announcer. New Zealanders who wanted to know what was flying had to take a radio to the air show or miss out. I suggested a similar service to Kalamazoo airshow organizers. Because of its obvious advantages as part of the emergency procedures plan and their positive experience two years earlier, they said “Yes”. And the staff at WKDS again agreed to lend the use of their facilities.

This time was different, though. Professional broadcasters from several area radio stations largely replaced high school students as volunteer on-air personalities. The students handled the traffic reports while the “pros” provided directions to the airport, conducted live interviews, and gave advice about what to bring and how to dress. When the flying got underway, they became “color commentators”. While the professionals gave the broadcast a more mature and business-like format, the students kept actively involved in the newsgathering part of the operation.

Air Show Radio has been on the air every year since. The “acid test” came in 1990 when the “Blues” were joined by two Soviet MiG-29s in their first U.S. appearance. People from six states and Canada streamed into Kalamazoo to be a part of history in the making as glasnost came home to roost. Record crowds caused traffic back-ups that stretched for miles in four directions.

Listeners called WKDS from cellular phones to say how much they appreciated the service while they waited in the traffic jams. Thousands were still trying to get to the parking lot when the planes started to fly. Callers still stranded in traffic reported that they could follow what was happening in the sky by listening to Air Show Radio. It wasn’t as good as being there but it was pretty close.

Early fears that the broadcasts would cut paid attendance never materialized. In fact, the opposite may be true. Some listeners said they decided to buy a ticket to Sunday’s show after getting pumped up listening at home on Saturday. Some spectators stay tuned on portable radios even after they arrive on the airshow grounds.

The secrets of Air Show Radio’s success are the availability of a station willing to carry the program and the willingness of local broadcast professionals to volunteer. Several are veterans, original volunteers since 1986. Bob Kucera and Kris Kirkpatrick, the two adult staff members at WKDS, have lent the project enthusiastic support from the beginning.

Airshow_Radio_logo_1990.jpgWKDS operates on the FM frequency of 89.9 MHz with a power of 100 watts. Its signal is heard more than 20 miles from the transmitter that is located less than a mile from the Kalamazoo airport. From September until early June, WKDS trains high school students in the art of radio broadcasting. It goes off the air during the summer break – except during the airshow weekend. (The station is still licensed to the Kalamazoo Public Schools but is operated by Kalamazoo’s Public Media Network and is on the air year-round. Students are still involved but so are volunteers from the community. – AR) Commercial stations simply don’t have the down time to carry a specialized, non-revenue program.

This year (1993), Air Show Radio changed its format by pre-recording much of the “routine” information like directions to the airport and in-depth interviews with performers and participants. Announcers who, in previous years, were fatigued after nonstop talk-a-thons that began at 8 a.m. and continued past 5:30 p.m., went on “live” for five-minute interviews and updates about three times an hour. Without diminishing the quality or usefulness of the program, the strain on volunteers was eased considerably.

Getting the program audio from the remote studio at the airshow back to the station has been a challenge. For the first two years, a local commercial station lent Air Show Radio a “Marti” UHF remote transmitter and receiver that allowed great audio quality. Today, a special telephone circuit is installed and dedicated to the broadcast. We also use cellular telephones provided by Century Cellunet for internal communications and to get traffic reports back to the main studio.


What! More Records?

Record Albums Can Further the Enjoyment of Shortwave Listening

This article appeared on the valiant but short-lived monthly International LIstener in April 1976. Out of all the LPs mentioned I still have just one: the Kashmir disc. I'd dearly love to have the rest. I describe how useful music recordings could be to shortwave listening. Ironically, it was shortwave radio that got me interested in listening to this sort of thing. I still appreciate the classical music of the Indian subcontinent; in more recent years I've fallen in love with the Saharan "desert blues" of musicians like Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen as well as classically-Persian influenced ensembles like Ghazal. This article is of its time. It was written by someone still only a few years into college, with all of the certitude and attitude that implies. This may have been the first time I got paid for writing something, though. The cartoon was drawn by someone at the magazine.

IL_cover.jpgSome time ago, one of the hobby bulletins ran several articles about records of interest to shortwave listeners in the pursuit of their pastime. Most of the discs reviewed were collections of national anthems. While these are very useful listening aids, there are other kinds of recordings that can be as, or more, helpful.

To be specific, the compleat listener ought to have a few recorded examples of music from places in which he or she is interested. One way this can be done is to record the stations that you hear, however this isn’t very useful if those stations and their locations are unknown. A better way is to buy discs available commercially recorded in countries the listener wants to hear or learn more about. These can be very useful when reception conditions are marginal (that is, when the music is the only intelligible part of the program) or hearing the sign-off announcement and national anthem isn’t possible. In North America, this applies especially to Asian stations.

Here are some of the discs that I have found particularly useful:

From OCORA (Office de Coopération Radiophonique), the broadcasting assistance agency set up by France for its former colonies in Africa, there are many records of African “tribal” music. For example, Musiques du Gabon (OCR-4) has music performed by members of the Fang, Kota, Masango, Ndjabi, Obamba, Pounou, and Pygmée tribes in that country. OCORA almost certainly has music recordings from all African countries that use French as an official language, although Musiques du Burundi is the only other one I’ve seen. Most OCORA records were produced in cooperation with national radio broadcasters in the countries involved. Don’t be surprised if, when listening to an African station, you hear a song that’s in your record collection – chances are that the station has the very same disc!

The OCORA records have explanatory notes in English and French but the captions of the photos of local instruments are in French only. These notes cover the country and its people in general, and their music in particular. They explain the ritual significance of the music to the tribe, if any, and also get into its structure.

Another useful source of such recordings is the Anthology of Music series put together by UNESCO. There are a number of these, mostly of music from “Third World” countries, and they are organized more or less geographically.

IL_cartoon-1.jpgI have two UNESCO discs: The Music of Laos (BM-30-1-2001) and The Music of Chad (Kanem) (BM-30-1-2309), and I’ve found both to be useful. This series has an extensive set of notes in French, English, and German, as well as a number of photos illustrating local instruments. Here’s an example of how this kind of record can help the shortwave listener: the Laotian disc came in handy for me during last winter’s “DX Season”. After listening to an unknown station on 6,130 kHz, I heard the unmistakable music produced by the khene, or Laotian mouth organ. Able to recognize this instrument having listened to the UNESCO recording, I identified and logged the station as the rarely heard (in eastern North America) Radiodiffusion Nationale Lao in Vientiane.

There are two major U.S. labels that deal in music from other countries. They are Folkways, familiar to fans of American folk music, and the Explorer series from Nonesuch Records.

Folkways has a recording of music from the island of Suluwesi (Celebes) in Indonesia (FE-4351). While this island has a big shortwave voice in Radio Republik Indonesia-Ujung Pandang  on 4,719 kHz that is not too hard to hear, this disc should give the listener a feel for indigenous music from other parts of that far-flung island nation.

Two of the recordings in the Nonesuch Explorer series are The Gauguin Years (H-72017) with music of Tahiti and Kashmir: Songs and Dances (H-72058) featuring performances recorded on location in Srinagar.  These records have a few explanatory notes on the back of the dust jacket but they aren’t very complete. The Folkways disc, like all of that company’s recordings, has a very comprehensive booklet inside.

Technically, the quality of all of these records is very good. Most were recorded with professional equipment on location. The UNESCO recordings are probably the best. Made in West Germany by Bärenreiter Musicaphon, they are gems of the vinyl recording world. Playing these on inferior turntables is not recommended as that will quickly destroy the high quality engineered into them.

Most of these records should be available in any larger town or city at record dealers with extensive selections of foreign music. The overseas labels like OCORA and UNESCO will be more expensive (five dollars and up) and harder to find than the domestic ones. Latin American music should not be too hard to find anywhere, especially in areas with large Spanish-speaking populations.


Jamie Rife, Glass Artist

This appeared in the November 13-20th, 1980, issue of the Kalamazoo News. I gloried in the title "City Desk Editor" at this alternative weekly, although that didn't mean very much. It was a very small, grossly undercapitalized operation and everyone pitched in to do everything. It was nominally a paying gig but the checks grew ever more infrequent as time went on. It was fun even so and I don't regret a minute that I spent there.

Jamie_Rife-1.jpgOn Locust Street, it’s a long way from the cathedrals of Notre Dame and Canterbury, but all three have something in common: stained glass. In fact, on Locust Street you can watch Jamie Rife fitting pieces of colored glass and other materials together to make stained glass windows. At the cathedrals all you can see is the finished thing, stunning as those magnificent windows are.

Kalamazoo’s first stained glass emporium, the China Blue Glassworks, came into being shortly after Rife’s return from Boulder, Colorado. He was introduced to the art there unemployed in 1976.

“I was smoking, drinking a Coke, and reading the newspaper while driving home when I saw an ad at the bottom of the page that said, ‘Stained Glass Artist Wanted’”.

Rife found himself apprenticed to Randall Beaver, who had been working with stained glass for a decade.

“He pretty much started the whole stained glass thing in Colorado.”

During his stay out West, Rife designed several windows that were later featured in Stained Glass Vistas, a book by Barb McKee.  Returning to Kalamazoo to study glass blowing with Drew Krouse, an art instructor at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Rife wound up opening the Glassworks last fall as well. Although he thinks Kalamazoo is a bit behind the times appreciating modern stained glass, he lets on that business is brisk with the holiday season barely around the corner. While being interviewed he fielded two orders by telephone as well as one from a customer who walked in the door. A brisk business indeed!

It may be that artists are born but stained glass artists are made. When pressed about the influences on his work, Rife first mentions his father, Corwin Rife, the former curator of the Kalamazoo Public Museum.

“He had an MA in theatrical design and I grew up wielding a brush, painting props and backdrops.”

In Colorado, the younger Rife discovered the “Art Noveau” period of stained glass exemplified by Louis Tiffany and John LaFarge between 1880 and 1920, as well as the work of contemporary artists like Narcissus Quagliata and Paul Marioni. Most influential of all, though, is the environment around him.

“I don’t try to consciously copy others but I draw a lot of inspiration from nature. I like conceptual ideas that make people think about a piece as well as look at it.”

According to Rife, the stained glass medium is one of the few artistic disciplines where innovation is still possible. “It’s one of the most exciting mediums today,” he says, “because there are many things yet to be explored in glass.”

Rife likens working in glass to painting and calls his large selection of glass a “palette”. He says that stained glass lends itself to creating moods and feelings with color and light.

“Besides color and design, there’s a new factor involved and that’s light. It makes the art form that much more magical.”

Jamie_Rife-2.jpgIn creating his glass designs, Rife likes to use bits of two-way mirrors, sand-blasting the three-dimensional pieces to make them “come alive”. He’s also fond of a technique called “double glazing” that involves sandwiching two pieces of glass together, often with fabric or feathers in between.

“There are things that I’m experimenting with in glass that I haven’t seen anyone else doing at all,” Rife says. And he has a few new techniques up his sleeve that he’s keeping secret because patents are pending.

Right now he’s finishing up a window for a local business, planning a new window inspired by the tornado earlier this year, and getting started in glass blowing. Glass blowing?

“When you’re working on a window you always find a spot in it that no ready-made glass can fill. That’s when you have to get down and make it yourself.”

And blowing glass is one way to do just that. Look for a blown glass tornado to grace a window somewhere in Kalamazoo later this year.



The Voice of Guiana: ZFY

This was intended to be the first in a series of historical station profiles in the bulletin of the Great Lakes DX Association, a group I helped start along with several other shortwave hobbyists. If I wrote any others, they have not survived. The image of the QSL card is from the Radio Heritage site in New Zealand.

ZFY_British_Guiana.jpgThe history of shortwave stations often fascinates DXers here in the States, yet the subject is obscure and not often dealt with in the major club bulletins. In this series of articles, we’ll attempt to make up lost ground and look at the history behind some of the stations we hear today.

Radio Demerara, also known as the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation, is one of two shortwave stations in the capital city Georgetown. The country was formerly British Guiana. Though not heard as often as its competitor Action Radio, Radio Demerara is also no stranger to North American DXers. Its schedule can be found in the latest edition of the World Radio-TV Handbook. It currently operates on 90 and 49 meters.

Guyana has had a shortwave broadcast transmitter on the air since 1928. Radio Demerara’s immediate ancestor hit the airwaves in the mid-1930s and was called the British Guiana United Broadcasting Company, Limited. More often it was simply the “Voice of Guiana – ZFY”.

In 1945, ZFY operated on 6,000 kHz with a power of one kilowatt, at least in theory. It seems that Guyana’s tropical climate induced seasonal RF output variations! The antenna system at that time was a simple dipole 80-feet off the ground running northeast by southwest.

The Voice of Guiana signed on at 1245 GMT and, with a few breaks in between, signed off for the night at 0115 GMT. The primary target area for ZFY’s shortwave broadcasts was Guiana itself with secondary coverage of the British West Indies as well as the neighboring colonies of French and Dutch Guiana (the latter now known as Surinam). Reception reports from North America and Europe were also received on a regular basis.

ZFY’s programming consisted of locally produced material along with recorded or relayed programs from the BBC in London. ZFY also used programs produced by the U.S. Office of War Information in Washington. As a final touch, the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission’s West Indian Radio Newspaper was relayed from WRUL in Boston. That station was the forerunner of WNYW Radio New York Worldwide and WYFR Family Radio.

That DXer’s delight the QSL card was forthcoming from the Voice of Guiana for only one International Reply Coupon.


Boord, Kenneth R., “International Short-Wave” column, Radio News, January 1945, p. 58.


The QSL From the Small Broadcaster's Point of View

 This article wound up in the July 1979 issue of FRENDX, the bulletin of the North American Shortwave Association. I was a member at the time. It was based on my extremely limited experience as the person who sent out QSL letters for WYYY-AM. During the time I worked there I wrote exactly one verification letter and it was to a personal friend. For some reason I thought this gave me some special insight into the thoughts of people working at stations thousands of miles away. If you have little interest in shortwave listening, skip to the last paragraph.

FRENDX-QSL_cover-July_1979-1.jpgEver since I've been involved with the organized part of the shortwave hobby, I've known of a guerilla struggle between those who collect QSLs and those who don't. The former group thinks this is the raison d'etre of the hobby while those in the latter feel it is a worthless pastime. These are "classical" positions at either end of the QSL spectrum; the vast majority of listeners are somewhere in between. Fascinating as this infighting is, I'm not going to deal with it here. What I'd like to do is explain the QSL business from the small broadcaster's point of view based on personal experience and a fair amount of extrapolation. Small stations are, after all, "DX".

What do QSLs mean? Are they really "verifications" of reception? Aside from the major international broadcasters, and with some these too, I'd have to say no. I work for a very small, 500-watt mediumwave station and am the veri-signer for the very few reports that come our way. I think my experience can be applied to almost all of the small and medium-sized stations to which a great deal of DX mail is sent.

The distinguishing characteristic of a small radio station is its limited payroll. These few people are asked to perform varied functions, from collecting and reading the news to cleaning the W.C. These people don't have the time to get important tasks done, let alone answer reception reports from listeners far beyond the station's intended range. These reports are of absolutely NO value to the station, in and of themselves, other than any incidental curiosity. Radio Inca or Radio Botswana couldn't care in the least that their signals make it to North America or Europe. Why should they? The director of Radio Botswana put it succinctly: the station can't be adequately received in Botswana on sets in common use there, so of what possible value is it to be told that it was heard in the U.S. on some fancy Collins or Drake set? The answer is: none. The issue of cards and letters by stations like this provides nothing for them in return for the person-hours spent writing replies and cashing in bizarre International Reply Coupons at an uncooperative post office. The only possible interest DX reports can have, and that is only at infrequently-heard stations not buried under DXer mail, is the mild thrill of knowing that your dinky 150-watt Redifon rig can span thousands of miles. Those at the station are perfectly aware that it is some elitist American who wrote them, someone only interested in another piece of paper to hang on their wall, who doesn't understand their language and couldn't care less about the program. How many regular, devoted, and caring listeners do stations like RKIP Surabaya or AIR Srinagar, etc., have in North America or Europe?

This puts it in an entirely negative context that distorts reality, of course. If this were all that was true, there would be no explanation for the fact that many of these small, internationally insignificant stations do verify. Why? Very simply because, when someone takes an interest in you and your organization, you usually feel some compulsion to answer out of sheer courtesy. The novelty of DX reports to rarely heard stations figures in this too. I recently received a long personal letter from a low-power, 120-meter band Brazilian (Radio São Carlos) that expressed amazement and pleasure at being heard in North America. However, after the first few reports, this novelty begins to wear off. And if a flood of foreign reports starts to arrive, the staff can begin to think of answering them more as added work than added fun. At this point the "Courtesy Factor" is the only thing keeping those cards and letters flowing into foreign "wall paper" collections.

Because this courtesy factor is responsible for most of the QSLs that small DX stations send, I doubt that they can be considered true "verifications" of reception in most cases. If a letter to a station is nicely worded and not overly pushy, its veracity isn't likely to be a consideration. This is particularly true of Latin American stations and I suspect of the smaller Indonesian broadcasters as well. You have to look at this from the perspective of the person receiving your report. Why would you be writing if you had not heard their station? The average veri-signer assumes that you would not have bothered if you hadn't and certainly isn't going to repay your interest by calling you a liar in writing. He or she also isn't likely to go rooting amongst old program logs, if they even keep them, to compare the details in your report with the actual broadcast. It's a waste of time, so type up the veri letter, zip it into the mail, and there is one more satisfied gringo (or whomever). Speaking of program logs, I really doubt that most small commercial stations in the Third World, meaning most of the stations we consider "DX", keep them in detailed form. The stringent requirements in this area here in North America are hardly universal, and I've known of more than a few U.S. stations that were rather cavalier about it too. There are exceptions, though. Radio Vila in the New Hebrides and the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service, to name two, are known to keep very detailed program logs, right down to the titles of the records played, to which all reception reports are compared diligently. However, neither of these stations is buried under DX reports and are, in any case, exceptions.

Radio_Nacional_de_Venezuela-1-sm.jpgIf you are a veri-hunter, this means that long summaries of programs and lengthy descriptions of signal quality are just so much extra verbiage. When noting details, the best items are those that will be readily recognized by anyone at the station: the names of advertizers and on-air personalities, the titles of programs, and the exact wording of station identification announcements and slogans. As far as reporting reception quality goes, small stations do not expect to be heard well over great distances so you're not telling them anything new when you say it was "tough copy". Chances are that they have a hard time being heard five miles away, not to say five thousand. If conditions were really unusual, do mention it, but don't lavish praise on the audibility of a station's signal as it only insults the recipient's intelligence.

If, and only if, you have the linguistic skill to intelligently discuss the programs heard, add comments about them. If you understand Spanish or Portuguese, or at least enough to pull out the gist of what is being said, you have a distinct advantage here in North America. If you can accurately quote some part of the broadcast and give reactions to it, if any, they'll love you because they will have done a real service: transmitting information about their country to you. Communication is the reason that radio stations exist, even though some in the shortwave hobby seem to think of them as just sources of nifty souvenirs. QSLs can be a great adjunct to the shortwave listening hobby and are fine as such, but they shouldn't become the sole reason for tuning the bands.

If you do like to collect verifications, you'll sooner or later have to tilt the "Courtesy Factor" in your favor by using it yourself. That means learning enough about the language and culture to understand what is going on. If possible, listen to a station many times to learn something about the people running it and where their heads are at. Before you know it you'll become one of those much-maligned "SWLs" - listening to the programs for their content, not just for details to put in a report. I think collecting paper is like collecting anything else: stamps, antiques, rocks, bugs, or QSLs, it's all the same. But listening and learning is more than just a hobby. It's what life is all about and it is certainly more important than an activity that does nothing to improve the planet or your mind.

Lest I be pegged as just another renegade DXer-turned-subversive-SWL, let me add that there is perhaps one acceptable justification for writing reception reports. They can lead to correspondence with someone at the station or someone who heard your name and address mentioned on the air. I will never forget the young officer in the Pakistani army who wrote to me from the camp where he was interned in West Pakistan. He was from the former East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, and had the misfortune to be stationed near Karachi in the western part of the country when civil war broke out. We wrote back and forth for almost a year, mostly about politics and the relationship between the developed and developing worlds. This was all because he heard my address read over Radio Bangladesh after I sent them a reception report. When he was finally repatriated to Bangladesh his first letter after arriving in the capital Dacca was a joy to read. Equally as heart-rending were his next two letters that were to be our last as his disillusionment with the squalor and corruption in his homeland found expression. He and his nation had fought a vicious war, he said, and for what? I don't know what happened to Lieutenant Feroz Anwar. He may have been imprisoned or killed for publicly expressing his disgust with the new government. I will probably never know but it was an honor and a privilege to have known him for that brief time. Because of our correspondence, that QSL from Radio Bangladesh means a lot more to me than merely the acknowledgement of reception. A human being is the most valuable thing in the universe and through by radio hobby I found such a being and called him my friend.