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Short Wave, Long Reach: NBC International Division Broadcasts Beyond Borders

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Collection is the largest and most used collection in the holdings of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress. In it are more than 40,000 hours of NBC radio broadcasting programs beginning in 1934, nearly all of it aimed at audiences in the United States.

But a small, surviving fraction was made for overseas audiences in Europe, North Africa, the Caribbean and Central and South America. These programs, and countless others that are now lost to us, were produced by NBC’s “International Division” and beamed abroad via short wave from 1936 to 1948.

Transmitter located in Bound Brook, NJ. “NBC Transmitter,” October 1941. (Recorded Sound Section)

Shortwave broadcasting can transmit radio signals more than 10,000 miles by bouncing high frequency waves off of the Earth’s ionosphere. From its earliest days to the present, shortwave technology had an international user base of amateur operators communicating with each other, but it came into its own as a professional tool as commercial radio developed in the 1920s. NBC, founded in 1926, was invested in it from the beginning, with powerful transmitters at a 54 acre broadcast facility in Bound Brook, NJ, about 35 miles from New York. For many years, it was used primarily to simulcast some of NBC’s regular programming to properly equipped listeners overseas, especially its symphonic and opera broadcasts.

NBC’s overseas correspondents used it in the opposite direction, most dramatically during England’s Abdication Crisis of 1936. Beginning on December 3, commentator Alistair Cooke, the NBC London correspondent, and others on the scene reported the story of King Edward VIII and his American fiancé, Wallis Simpson. They broadcast almost hourly until the evening of December 11, when Edward announced his abdication over the BBC and international short wave. Foreign leaders visiting the United States also used shortwave to make speeches to their home countries.

By this time, European nations with state radio services regularly employed shortwave’s international potential, using it to send news, entertainment and outright propaganda around the world. Unlike most other nations, the United States had no  government radio broadcasting. The commercial networks liked it that way, along with many in Congress, and throughout the 1930s several bills proposing government shortwave broadcasting were defeated.

After a number of sporadic transmissions in 1936, NBC inaugurated a shortwave schedule of Spanish and Portuguese programming for South American on January 1, 1937, and occasional shortwave broadcasts to Europe, such as an interview in German with boxer Max Schmeling on June 2. Schmeling was in the United States to demand a match with heavyweight champion James J. Braddock who had been contractually obliged to fight him, but who instead opted for a more profitable bout with Joe
Louis, whose only loss to date had been to Schmeling. After Louis’s victory over Braddock, he dealt
Schmeling a brutal one round knockout in 1938, which was heard in Germany via shortwave.

Max Schmeling and Joe Louis at the weigh-in for their rematch, June 22, 1938. “New York-World Telegram.” (Prints and Photographs Division)

On July 26, 1937, NBC officially launched its International Division, broadcasting in English, French, German, and Italian primarily to Europe, and Spanish and Portuguese to Central and South America, with some English and French programming also beamed to the Caribbean. General Electric and Westinghouse were also in the short wave business at this time, and rival network CBS would start its own international short wave operation in 1939.

Though they wished to keep the government out of the broadcasting business, NBC still sought to promote American interests overseas, and their South American broadcasts were very much in keeping
with the Roosevelt administration’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” Germany and Italy made regular shortwave propaganda broadcasts to South America, but the NBC International Division’s “non-editorial” approach in its four daily 15-minutes Spanish news programs and its two daily 15-minutes Portuguese news broadcasts proved a welcome alternative to the bombast of Axis programming. Other offerings included NBC Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, with Spanish and Portuguese commentary. Programs about American popular music and fashion and translations of President Roosevelt speeches were also popular. One surviving program beamed to Brazil in the summer of 1939 featured Carmen Miranda soon after her arrival in New York for her American debut on Broadway in the summer of 1939.

In its effort to keep the government out of radio, NBC still found itself embroiled in politics. When it was found that Dr. José Antonio Encinas, a Peruvian educator and advocate for indigenous people, had been exiled by Peru’s government, his talk was cancelled. NBC’s first German announcer, Ernst Kotz, was forced out of his job and the country in the spring of 1938 when he was found to have been distributing German government propaganda outside of his work for NBC. His eventual replacement, Ernst Erich Noth, was a German novelist exiled by the Nazis.

The winter of 1938-1939 was highlighted by a more constructive and a less contentious venture. Under program director Guy Hickok, an American journalist and intimate of Ernest Hemingway who’d worked out of Paris from 1918 to 1933, the International Division co-produced a 30-week series about the United States for French Radio[1] with French film director Henri Diamant-Berger, who logged some 20,000 miles around the US making field recordings everywhere from iron mines to football games. He was accompanied by Arthur S. Deter and John Barrett, who would host Portuguese and Spanish versions of the program, augmented with their own interviews with Portuguese and Spanish speaking US residents[2].

By 1939, there were estimated to be some 40 million shortwave sets throughout England and Europe, and another 2 million sets south of United States borders. Ultimately, NBC did hope to make money from its shortwave broadcasts. From 1939 to 1941 it sold advertising on its original Latin American shortwave programming. The United Fruit Company, a powerful and often controversial North American presence in Latin America, sponsored, with script approval, a nightly 15 minute Spanish news broadcast translated by NBC from Associated Press filings. Government regulations, however, limited sponsorship to underwriting announcements similar to those on PBS today, not the kinds of overt promotion familiar in stateside network broadcasts of the time.

In 1940, NBC provided blow-by-blow coverage of Joe Louis’s two 1940 bouts with Argentine contender Arturo Godoy through more than 100 subscribing South American radio stations. Standard Oil sponsored the first fight, which ended in a controversial split decision for Louis over Godoy. The second bout, in which Louis solved Godoy’s unorthodox style and knocked him out in the eighth round, was appropriately sponsored by a South American aspirin company.

NBC International Division staff, 1941: Frank Nesbitt, English Section: Francisco Lara, Spanish; Ary Moll, Portuguese; Natalia Danesi, Italian; Fernand Auberjonois, French; Alan Nelson, German. “Broadcasting Magazine,” July 29, 1941.

1937 to 1942 was the heyday of NBC’s International Division. Its hosts were well known to their target audiences and were an exceptional group of personalities that included Swiss journalist Fernand Aubjerjonois (father of actor René Auberjonois), Italian reporter and publisher Natalia Danesi, and Eli “Buck” Canel, the Staten Island raised son of a Spanish father and a Uruguayan mother. Canel had the longest broadcast career by far, and after his days in the International Division he became America’s top Spanish language baseball announcer. Canel, who died in 1980, was well known for his catch-phrase “No se vayan, que esto se pone bueno!” or “Don’t go away, this is going to get good!”

After the United States’ entry into World War II, advertising was dropped and NBC was soon broadcasting regularly in Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish, with occasional broadcasts in other languages. Programming was not 24/7, but generally limited to daily news broadcasts and one or two other offerings of entertainment or propaganda. The news broadcasts of NBC, CBS and the BBC were a vital lifeline in Axis occupied countries, where listening was punished severely, even at times with death. President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech was heard widely in translation on January 6, 1942, and a few weeks later the residents of Nazi-occupied Denmark heard the program, “The President Knows.” In February, 1942, Czechs heard a production entitled “V for Victory” featuring Jan Werich and Jifi Voskovec[3], two political satirists driven out of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis. On December 15, 1941, when all three American networks aired the program, “We Hold These Truths,” a dramatic salute to the Bill of Rights, Spanish and Portuguese versions also aired over short wave.

“FOREIGN TONGUE broadcasters on NBC’s short-wave stations WRCA and WNBI, members of the NBC international division, discussed programs with Fred Bate, manager of the division, in recent afternoon conference Standing are (l to R) George Andre Droulia, Greek; Carl Watson, English; Adam Morch Lunoe and Niels Bonnessen, Danish; Mr. Bate; Mario Cardoso, Portuguese; Einar Thulin, Swedish; Osman Antepligil, Turkish; Shirley F. Woodell, manager of international sales. Seated: Maurice English, head of the editorial section; Eli (Buck) Canel, director of Latin-American programs; Esther Traversari, Italian; Herminio Traviesas, head of the traffic section; Ernst Erich Noth, German; Georges Bernier, French.” “Broadcasting Magazine,” July 20, 1941.

Following the establishment of the Office of War Information in 1942, the NBC International Division, as well as CBS’s shortwave service, functioned largely on its behalf, and after the war served as the platform for the “Voice of America” shortwave radio service started by OWI. The division was officially disbanded on October 1, 1948, with some NBC veterans such as Guy Hickok staying on at VOA, which acquired the Bound Book, New Jersey facility. It was an ironic fate for a venture NBC had undertaken partly to keep the federal government out of the international shortwave business. In fact, the success the NBC International Division enjoyed during its early independent years may have served as the proof- of-concept for Voice of America itself.

 

Interested in learning more about the NBC shortwave radio broadcasts? Don’t hesitate to contact the reference librarians at the Recorded Sound Research Center . (Have a question? Use our Ask-a-Librarian service form.

Bibliography

[1] Walters, Larry, “Life in America is Recorded for French air Show,” Motion Picture Herald, May 6,
1939, pp. 17-18.

[2] U.S., “Axis in Short Wave ‘War’ for Latin-America,” Motion Picture Herald, May
6, 1939, pp. 17-18.

[3] Voskovec eventually settled in the United States and appeared in many television programs and
films under the name “George Voskovec.”

 

One Comment

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    March 22, 2022 at 9:50 am

    This is a fascinating story — thanks to Matt for sharing it!

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