Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Go Ahead ‘n Ask: Happy Station Returns from Radio Heaven By King Daevid MacKenzie

There’s a certain romance to the idea of watching a classic silent movie, say Nosferatu, by using an old 8mm print projected against a silver screen, or listening to Enrico Caruso’s records on a ‘20s-era Victrola. I was going to include watching The Buggles’ video clip of Video Killed the Radio Star on MTV, but we all know MTV hasn’t run videos for most of this century, so on that count you’re stuck with an old VHS or Betamax videotape in your mom’s collection.

Starting Wednesday evening (aren’t you glad you read this on the Observer blog instead of just waiting for the print edition?), you can experience a similarly antiquated entertainment through a similarly antiquated medium, when Happy Station returns to the shortwave radio dial after a 14-year retirement.

Shortwave, or “world band” as some radio marketers have dubbed it in the last couple of decades, used to be a primary source of global information and entertainment as recently as the 1990s, when the world first learned of the attempted coup that killed off the Soviet Union via a news program on Radio Moscow. In the earliest days of commercial broadcasting, several major pioneering stations (KDKA Pittsburgh, WCFL Chicago and CFRB Toronto among them) broadcast to the world on shortwave as well as their own locales on AM.

Arguably the most popular program on shortwave in those days was something called Happy Station, the Sunday offering of Philips’ Netherlands-based station PCJJ starting in 1928. Interrupted only by the Nazi occupation of Holland, Happy Station ran from then to 1995, ending its 47-year run as the last entertainment program on the schedule of Radio Netherlands. The content of the show was always a mixture of friendly conversation and pop music. The original host, Eddy Startz, retired in January 1970 and was replaced by Tom Meijer, who in turn left the show in 1991. The last four years of the original run were handled by Radio Netherlands staffers Pete Myers and Jonathan Groubert.

And reach the world, they certainly did. Even Bing Crosby, whose records were frequently played on the show, was a regular listener and sent a taped oral greeting to Startz during the 1960s, which was itself also heard on the program. A Yahoogroups email list continues to connect listeners today, 14 years after the original version’s run ended.

Wednesday at 6:00 P.M. Arizona Time (0100 Thursday GMT), a brand new biweekly edition of Happy Station returns to the shortwaves, and the weeknight scheduling is not the only difference from the original edition. The new station the program is on isn’t Dutch, but American WRMI, Radio Miami International from Florida (on 9955 kHz in the 31 Metre band); although Radio Netherlands has given the okeh to use the program name, they’re not otherwise connected with the new edition. The new host is Canadian-born Keith Perron, whose resume includes previous jobs with Radio Canada International, Radio Havana Cuba and China Radio International. (Tom Meijer will make occasional contributions as well.) And, rather than Hilversum, Holland, the production base of the show is now Taipei, Taiwan.

Although the program will also be streamed on WRMI’s Internet feed and podcast, those who crank up their shortwave sets to listen will have a unique opportunity to upgrade their own facilities. A special message will be aired, broadcast only on the WRMI shortwave signal, before the main program, and those folks who send Perron a reception report via snailmail detailing that message will receive a special QSL Card certifying their listenership. And Sangean, one of the world’s leading radio manufacturers, has provided two brand new shortwave radios that will be awarded to two of those filing reception reports of that special message during a lucky draw.

Pieces of the original Radio Netherlands Happy Station run featuring Tom Meijer will be podcast by me in a couple of days through and are available in the files section of the Yahoogroup email list if you join it.

So, if you still have an operating Zenith Trans-Oceanic portable (I wish I still had mine, on which I heard the original Happy Station over in the 1970s), or some other such unit, here’s an even better reason to forego Guy Atchley or Heather Rowe’s supper-hour blues.

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