V. of the Voyager
VOICE OF THE VOYAGER:
Thanks to Chris Lobdell for the off air recording 6220 Khz 4:57-6:05 utc 11/5/78
Remembering the Voice of the Voyager
by Harry Helms W5HLH
December 25, 2007 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the first broadcast by the shortwave pirate radio station known as the "Voice of the Voyager." While it wasn’t the first shortwave pirate broadcaster, there is no question it was the most influential—it’s no exaggeration to say most shortwave pirates since then have followed the "template" created by the Voice of the Voyager. If there is ever a Hall of Fame for pirate radio, the Voice of the Voyager will have to be the first station voted in! The Voice of the Voyager first came to the attention of the DXing community in the February, 1978 edition of FRENDX, then the title for the monthly bulletin of the North American Shortwave Association (NASWA). DXers in the Minneapolis area reported hearing it on 5850 kHz with weak signals and some hum in the audio. Those DXers reporting the station didn’t discover it by accident or through patient tuning. Instead, they had been alerted by the operators of the station because those operators were DXers (and NASWA members) themselves. Interestingly, the name of the station was intended to be Voice of the Voyageur, after the Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota. However, the first FRENDX reports used "Voyager" and the name stuck.
The Voice of the Voyager operation was headed up by a young SWL who called himself "R. F. Wavelength," and he was assisted by a rotating crew who used similar colorful pseudonyms: A. F. Gain, Disco Dan, Pygmy, Slow Joe, and Ms. Scoop Bop Bee Bop. I interviewed R. F. Wavelength in 1979 for my book How to Tune the Secret Shortwave Spectrum, and he told me their motivation for operating the Voice of the Voyager was not the "free speech" issues which consumed some later pirates. "I began to get a crew of people who liked to broadcast just because it was fun, not because their Constitutional right to free speech had been taken away," said R. F. Wavelength. "They saw the Voice as way of just having a little fun on the weekend."
By the spring of 1978, the Voice of the Voyager had improved its signal and was regularly broadcasting on Saturday nights. Their transmitter was a vintage Hallicrafters HT-20 that delivered about 100 watts on 5850 kHz into a half-wave dipole. This modest setup was adequate to put a good signal into most of the North America. Each broadcast opened with R. F. Wavelength’s enthusiastic declaration, "From one mile north of nowhere, this is the Voice of the Voyager, champions of bootleg broadcasting!" This was immediately followed by the song "We are the Champions" by the English rock band Queen. R. F. Wavelength described their programming this way: "To us, it was all one big party!" And that was an accurate description; listening to their broadcasts was often like eavesdropping on a frat party. Remarkable things happened on the air, and I think they were in direct proportion to the amount of booze consumed in the Voyager "studio." Once the station left the air abruptly when the tipsy operators accidentally shut the transmitter off and were too drunk to get it on the air again. On another occasion, one of their tape machines broke, and an angry (and drunk) R. F. Wavelength smashed it to bits while live and on the air. And there was even an on-the-air fistfight between two drunk crew members broadcast live; fortunately, both combatants passed out before any serious blows could be landed. The Voice of the Voyager also pioneered the use of pre-recorded skits, with a favorite being "Bobby Bootlegger," a satire of the pirate radio scene and DXers. While there’s no way to know the size of the Voyager’s audience, I suspect that it eventually had a larger group of loyal listeners than most government-run shortwave broadcasters of the era!
Another Voyager "first" was the airing of telephone calls from their listeners. To do so, the station made use of "dial-around loops." Dial-around loops were "pairs" of telephone numbers widely used by AT&T in the 1970s and 1980s for testing purposes. For example, one dial-around loop pair could be the numbers 222-0077 and 222-0079. For a telephone connection to be made, one party to the call dialed 222-0077 while the other party rang 222-0079. The Voyager would call one "side" of the loop (such as 222-0077) and ask listeners to call the other side (222-0079 in this case). The Voyager operators would remain connected to their side of the loop, and callers to the other side would be abruptly "picked up" without ringing. The big advantage of dial-around loops was that it made calls difficult to trace (which is why drug dealers and organized crime often used them). For added security, the Voyager crew used dial-around loops in New York City and San Francisco instead of local Minneapolis pairs. Even with cheap after-midnight long distance rates, the Voyager staff quickly ran up long distance bills of over $70 per month. (To give you an idea of how much that would be in today’s dollars, gasoline was about 50¢ per gallon in 1978.)
Being DXers themselves, the operators of the Voice of the Voyager knew how important QSLs were. But they couldn’t announce their mailing address without risking a raid by the FCC. The first Voyager QSLs were sent to those reporting reception in various DX club bulletins (I received my first Voyager QSL in that way). In other cases, the Voyager took the addresses of callers and sent them QSLs. To avoid detection, QSLs were mailed from Ann Arbor, MI, by a friend of the operators. Later, a maildrop was established in Michigan where written reports could be sent for verification.
While the Voice of the Voyager was a big favorite among SWLs, it was a big headache for the powers-that-be in several DX and SWL clubs. Many club leaders in 1978 were conservative, law-and-order types who found the very notion of a pirate radio station—especially a pirate radio station apparently operated by members of "their" club—deeply repugnant. Heated debate raged in some clubs, such as the American Shortwave Listeners Club (ASWLC), over whether reception of stations like the Voice of the Voyager should even be reported in club bulletins. A few bulletin section editors, such as Glenn Hauser of NASWA and Ken Compton of the Society to Preserve Engrossing Enjoyment of DXing (SPEEDX), defied considerable pressure and printed news about the Voyager and other pirate stations. Columnists in other clubs caved in and ignored pirate operations. Even clubs that printed pirate loggings had debates over whether pirate QSLs should count toward club contests and awards. Eventually, such intra-club tensions resulted in the creation of a loose group of pirate radio supporters known as the Free Radio Campaign and culminated a few years later with the founding of the Association of Clandestine Radio Enthusiasts (ACE).
During the summer of 1978, hundreds—if not thousands—of North American SWLs made "Saturday night with the Voyager" a listening habit. But, as R. F Wavelength later remarked, "Everyone knows that every party must end." At about 1:00 pm on August 28, 1978, R. F. Wavelength and A. F. Gain were in the Voyager "studio" putting together that night’s planned broadcast. A yellow car pulled into the driveway of their house, and two official-looking men got out and walked up to the front door. "What if they’re from the FCC?" wisecracked A. F. Gain.
The joke was on the Voyager operators. The two men flashed credentials identifying them as being from the St. Paul, MN office of the FCC. Since R. F. Wavelength held a ham license for the address, he had no choice but to admit the men to the house. At first, he denied all knowledge of the Voyager but it soon became clear the FCC knew all about the station and had definitely traced it to that location. R. F. Wavelength finally admitted to being behind the Voyager, and with that confession the atmosphere immediately changed. The FCC agents became quite friendly, and told the operators how they managed to track down the station. The Voyager operators were surprised to learn the FCC had planned to bust the station during the previous weeks broadcast, but that plan was aborted when the Voyager left the air earlier than usual. A special monitoring van had been brought in from the FCC’s Chicago office to help trace the station’s location.
The FCC agents actually seemed a bit thrilled to meet the Voyager operators; they requested, and received, Voice of the Voyager QSL cards for themselves and other FCC employees. But the levity ended when the agents strongly warned against any future Voyager operation; they even raised the possibility of seeking criminal sanctions if the station returned to the air. If the operators agreed to keep the Voyager off the air, the agents said they would let the matter drop with a warning. R. F. Wavelength quickly agreed.
R. F. Wavelength tried to keep his word. The station stayed silent, and R. F. Wavelength went even further: he wrote an article under his real name for FRENDXdescribing the history and purpose of the Voyager. Soon the actual names of the Voyager operators and the station’s location (the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal, MN) were widely known throughout the DX hobby. (I haven’t used the real names of the Voyager operators in this article because they haven’t been active in the DX hobby for decades, and I’m not sure they would want the world to be reminded of their youthful frolics.)
But the urge to broadcast again was too much for the Voyager crew. They wanted to give the Voyager a decent burial, so the word was quietly circulated in the SWLing hobby: the Voyager would return one more time for a "final tribute" broadcast on November 4, 1978, but this time on a new frequency of 6220 kHz. The broadcast was a big success and was widely heard; the accompanying illustration shows the QSL card I received for it. And, as you might suspect, the Voyager operators couldn’t stop after starting again. They resumed regular Saturday night broadcasts, but this time made no attempt to hide their true location or names—in fact, R. F. Wavelength even identified the station using his ham license call letters!
The killing blow for the Voice of the Voyager came on January 14, 1979. This time, it wasn’t the FCC that put the station off the air, but instead their ancient Hallicrafters HT-20 transmitter. It failed, and the Voyager operators were unable to repair it. Word quickly spread, and soon the Voyager was flooded with mournful letters from their fans and supporters. In a farewell letter circulated in the DXing community, R. F. Wavelength wrote, "But, my friends, do not cry for that spirit of the Voyager still lives—that drive within us all to freely create, to be who we really are. Someday another Voyager will be created; you never can tell what those people who are touched by 100 watts of total insanity will do!"
R. F. Wavelength was also a poet, and he wrote the following to express his feelings when the Voyager finally went silent:
be silent when you enter my world.
Waves slowly beat against rock.
All is dark,
only the moon shows a faint glow.
In the far distance
a loon cries
On the far shore
to the sky limit.
Rain begins to fall
I must leave now, nut
your world is just awakening
to find mine.
I really thought the Voyager crew had said farewell for good in early 1979. But some members of the original Voyager staff returned to the air in January, 1982, on 6840 kHz. By this time, the pirate radio scene had moved beyond the Voyager’s "party on the air" programming; compared to other pirates then on the air, the reactivated Voyager sounded amateurish and sloppy. Back in 1978, there was something daring and revolutionary about operating a shortwave radio station without a FCC license, but in 1982 they were just another shortwave pirate. Their audience was only a fraction of what it had been back in 1978, and few DXers were upset when the FCC raided and closed the station on May 9, 1982. This time the FCC slapped a $3000 fine on the operators, and the bust, and fine, killed off any remaining enthusiasm they had for pirate radio. And so the Voice of the Voyager fell silent forever.
The Voice of the Voyager was the product of a rare confluence of circumstances—such as a relaxation of FCC enforcement efforts, youthful enthusiasm for shortwave radio, a vibrant SWL club scene, etc.—that we are unlikely to ever see again. The average age of participants in the DXing hobby has significantly increased, meaning there are fewer young daredevils today ready to take to the air in defiance of the FCC (pirate radio broadcasting isn’t very compatible with mortgages, families, careers, and other adult concerns). Moreover, today’s young people are infinitely more interested in internet-based media (such as MySpace, chat rooms, etc.) than any type of radio; if they are interested and want to broadcast, they can via internet streaming to a potentially worldwide audience. In 1977, the Voice of the Voyager looked like an idea whose time had come, but in 2007 there are myriad outlets for creative young people. Would the Voyager crew even have been interested in radio if such outlets had been available in 1977?
I often wonder what the Voyager crew, especially Michael and Scott—oops, I mean R. F. Wavelength and A. F. Gain—are up to these days. I hope they are still as creative and passionate in their interests as they were three decades ago, and I also hope they are aware of how, without intending to, they managed to define the shortwave pirate radio scene in North America. For a few months in 1978, they captured lightning in a bottle, and that was no small accomplishment.