A History of Cuban Broadcasting
By Manuel A. Alvarez
Cuba is a small island of 111,111 square kilometers located on the Caribbean Sea at a very short distance from the US. It is the largest island of the Antilles and was one of first countries in America to have broadcast radio stations.
It all started in January of 1922 when American Telephone and Telegraph (ATT) announced their interest to enter the blossoming radio industry in the US. At that time ATT owned the telephone company of Cuba, known as the Cuban Telephone Co.
ATT got a license from the US Federal government on April 29th,1920 to operate the radio station WBAY, located at the ATT long lines building, Walker –Lispenard Building, at 24 Walker St., New York.
ATT purchased three 500 Watt AM transmitters from Western Electric Co.; one to be installed in 24 Walker Street in New York, the second transmitter to be installed in the Cuban Telephone Co. in Zulueta and Dragones St. in Havana, and the third to be installed in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Eventually, a group of engineers from Western Electric headed by F.T. Caldwell (his assistants: J.L. Taylor and H. Steward) moved to Havana in order to install what they believed was the first radio transmitter to operate in the island.
On October 10th, 1922, PWX the first commercial broadcast radio station was inaugurated. The president of the republic Dr. Alfredo Zayas, from the Presidential Palace in Havana, inaugurated the transmission of PWX delivering his speech in English. He saluted the people of the United States since the inauguration ceremony was also broadcast by WEAF from the Walker-Lispenard Building in New York.
Two important achievements happened at once, the first local remote broadcast, as the president was speaking from the Presidential Palace a few miles away from the PWX studios, and the first time a telephone link using overseas long lines was used to send a signal to a foreign radio station.
ATT and the Cuban Telephone Co. sent a team of Cuban Engineers to Key West, where they installed a radio receiver with "speakers" in the Club San Carlos in order for the "tabaqueros of Cayo Hueso" (the Cigars makers of Key West) to hear the inauguration ceremonies. (It is important to know that Key West and Tampa were cities with large populations of Cubans at that time - emigrates from the Cuban 1868 and 1895 War of Independence against Spain.)
The first voice heard on PWX was of Raul P. Falcon, the first commercial radio announcer, which in introducing the presidential speech, made the first PWX ID: "PWX of the Cuban Telephone Co, in Havana, Cuba. We are transmitting on the 400 meters wavelength with a power of 500 Watts". The inaugural program started at 4:00 PM, with the National Anthem performed by an orchestra directed by Luis Casas Romero, Director of the Band of the Army, followed by the presidential address and a program of classical and Cuban music.
On October 14th, Robert E. Hollingsworth president of the American Radio Club of Havana, was speaking again to the people of Cuba and the US in the name of the American residents in Cuba He thanked ATT and the Cuban Telephone Co. for bringing this new invention to the island.
In reality this was not the first radio station operating in Cuba. As early as 1920, a community of radio experimenters (amateurs) had introduced radio on the island with a few low power transmitters.
Frank H. Jones, an electrical Engineer, went to Cuba to work in the Sugar Industry and by 1912 installed and operated a 2000 W spark cw transmitter. Then, early in 1922, he operated an experimental radio station from the Sugar Cane Mill, Tiunicu. His ID was a cuckoo bird and his voice "If you hear the CU of the CUCKOO you are tuned to Central Tiunicu." Other pioneers were Luis Casas Romero, a young man who F.T. Caldwell chief Engineer of PWX sent to Key West to supervise the installation in Club San Carlos (after discovering, during the installation of PWX, that an experimental radio station was on the air in Havana), and my father Manuel A. Alvarez Alvarez* in Caibarien, Las Villas province in the central north coast of Cuba.
By 1923, a total of 30 radio stations were in operation on the island with a total radiated power of 2625W. The majority of the stations were running 10 watts, and the government prohibited advertisements.
STATION OWNERSHIP AND LOCATION
Other stations on the air at that time waiting issuance of call letters were:
Lorenzo Zayas, Dr. Miguel Saaverio in Havana, Dr. Ernesto Valdes Figueroa & Jose R. Ponte in Matanzas and Baltazar Moa in Santiago de Cuba.
Politics and Baseball:
Politics has always been a favorite subject for the Cuban people, and during the years of 1930 through 1933 radio was an important factor in the overthrowing of President Gerardo Machado Morales, an elected president who had decided to stay in office, against the will of the people and the Constitution.
The World Series was more listened to in Cuba than any other country in the Latin American region. Our passion for baseball was moreso than for politics: the New York Yankees and the Saint Louis Cardinals had as many fans in Cuba as in the US. Cuban radio stations used to monitor the World Series and re-broadcast the play by play. At the time, the only other way to do it was to wait for the teletype to send the information, sometimes delayed as much as 30 minutes. Most of the small stations did not have the money to pay for the service, but the World Series was heard all over the island through the voices of Cuban narrators full of color and excitement.
By 1939, the industry had experienced tremendous growth. A total of 65 stations were operating on the island (only 625 in the US) and the total radiated power reached 75,000 Watts. (maximum power of a single station was 2000 Watts).
After WWII, the Radio Broadcasting industry took off again and the country was covered rapidly by 4 national networks. First linked by telephone lines and later in the 50’s by microwave and FM., this was quite some progress for a country of only 6 millions inhabitants. By 1958, 1 of every 5 inhabitant had a radio receiver (2nd Place in America). 160 radio stations were operating on the island.
Television was inaugurated in October 1950 and expanded rapidly through the island. In 1958, 23 television stations were operating in the territory, composing of 3 national networks and 7 independent local stations in Havana and Camaguey Province. One of them a full color television station, Telecolor Channel 12 in Havana (3rd in America). One in 18 inhabitants had a television set.
In 1959, the Marxist government of Cuba started the process of seizing radio and television stations, a process that ended in late 1960 with all radio and television channels under the control of the government. That was the end of freedom for the radio and television industry in Cuba.
Radio and television in Cuba today will be the topic for a future article.
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Manuel A. Alvarez, CEO of Beam Radio Inc, is author of the book "Presente Pasado y Futuro de la Radio, Television y Comunicaciones en Cuba.
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