Some time in November 1975, I was home from school and in something I think we can call a funk. My older brother Robert and I shared a bedroom. I was 10. On this day he showed me what the funny looking metal thing with the vacuum tubes was all about. It’s a 1937 Stromberg-Carlson Model 250 broadcast receiver, capable of getting AM and shortwave. He introduced me to the world of international shortwave radio. From our little bedroom in our house in South Central LA, I could hear voices from around the world. It was love at first listening. The geek in me loved the thought of radio waves traveling such enormous distances: from Cuba, from Canada, from England, from Australia, from Japan, from India, from Holland, from Germany, from China. And my soul was deeply enriched by hearing those other voices, voices I would never have otherwise heard and viewpoints I would have otherwise never known. I would not have developed my international perspective at so early an age had it not been for my twiddling with dial of my old radio at all hours of the day and night.
Shortwave radio is the godfather of the Internet. Radio frequencies between about 1700 kHz and 26,000 kHz have the ability to bounce off the ionosphere, a high level of the earth’s atmosphere, and return to earth where it may bounce off the earth’s surface and off the ionosphere again, and so on. All this bouncing about carries the signal great distances, much greater than standard AM or FM signals can travel. And all without satellites. In the 1920s, governments put this then-nascent technology to use to broadcast radio programs to distant lands, typically to their colonies. The Dutch were one of the first, creating Radio Station PCJ to broadcast to their then colony the Dutch East Indies — or as we know it now Indonesia. Holland to Indonesia, not bad.
By the 1970s, when I started listening, there were scores of nations on the radio dial broadcasting news and propaganda to the globe, especially propaganda — this was during the Cold War, after all. The US’s shortwave service is the Voice of America. But we also operated Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which aimed transmissions and programs specifically towards Eastern Bloc nations. To counter this, the Soviet Union had Radio Moscow and Radio Peace and Progress. Trippy stuff. More objective news could be found from BBC World Service or Radio Australia.
But my main station was from the country that helped start it all. Radio Nederland Wereldomroep, or Radio Netherlands Worldwide, used to have a Sunday program called “The Happy Station.” It was started in 1928 by an Edward Startz, who worked for the aforementioned PCJ. It was a variety show with music and chatter, programs about Mr. Startz’s travels, listener letters, etc. The show came to an end during the Second World War. After the war, in 1947, Radio Netherlands was founded and Mr. Startz was invited back to continue The Happy Station, which he did until his retirement at the end of 1969. A new young fella by the name of Tom Meijer took over. That’s who was doing the show when I started to listen to it. I liked Tom. He was fun and quirky and could spin yarn after yarn for as long as the broadcast lasted whether it be an hour or two hours. He retired in 1992 and the show itself was retired by Radio Netherlands a few years later. (Happy Station was recently been revived, with Radio Netherlands’ blessings, by Keith Perron who’s based in Taiwan.)
One of the shows broadcasted in my early days of listening was a recipe show, featuring Dutch delicacies. I can’t remember all of the dishes, but one has remained a standard for the past 33 years: Honey Cake. I wrote to the station and they gladly sent the recipe along. I excitedly asked my mom permission to bake it, and she said “Of course!” and gathered all the ingredients for me: honey, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, eggs, coffee. The only ingredient she didn’t allow was cloves. She hated cloves. She said it reminded her of the toothache medicine she had to take as a child. So we ditched the cloves. Otherwise, I made the recipe as proscribed and out came a yummy coffee cake like treat. Apparently the Dutch eat honey cake as a coffee cake year round, but I got into the habit of making it for Christmas. That’s when I made the first, for Christmas 1977. I was 12. Everyone loved it.
The hardest honey cake to make was for Christmas 1996. Mom had been gone for six months by then. But I did something impish, to lighten the mood a bit. For the first time, I included cloves — just a dash, as the recipe said. I don’t think it made that much of a difference in the flavor. I guess only Mom would have noticed. Moms notice everything, you know.
Shortwave radio has been dying a long slow death for the past couple of decades. First fiscal belt-tightening put the squeeze on many international broadcasters — shortwave stations are hella expensive to operate. The transmitters usually use upwards of 250 kilowatts of power and require tons of oil and stuff to run. That adds up. And of course, the internet arrived. It’s much easier to hear and see the world now than it was in 1975. I can listen to Radio Netherlands easier now via podcast than I can on my radio — you know, the funny looking thing with the vacuum tubes. My dad restored that radio, by the way, in 1968. Still works. My prediction that it will likely outlive shortwave itself may well come true, alas. Though shortwave radio is still important in the developing world where the internet and satellite radio are still cost prohibitive.
There. I just took the 34th Annual Honey Cake out of the oven. Smells like Christmas has arrived. These days I usually bake a couple, one for here and one to send to family and friends in LA. For those of you who want to try it, look below the fold for the recipe. 73s and Merry Christmas.