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By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the January, 1995 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.


Is it Latin America or is it Europe? In the case of Argentina, it's hard to tell. Except for a few fronteir regions, Argentina seems more like Europe than Latin America. It wasn't always this way, but around the turn of the century when the US and Canada were receiving waves of European immigrants, so was Argentina. Nearly half were Italian, but other large groups came from Spain, England, Russia, Poland, Wales, and Yugoslavia, among other countries. In 1914, 30% of Argentina's population was foreign born, and the immigrants changed the character of the country, its food, and its language.

Why did the immigrants come? As in North America, this was a land of opportunity. Beef and grain exports from the Argentine pampas to Europe had created a strong economy. But with one million square miles of area (the world's 8th largest country) there was still land to settle, and there were growing industrial metropolises such as Rosario, Cordoba, and, of course Buenos Aires. Argentina was (and is) an educated nation. Since the 1880s, the literacy rate has been 90% or more, for years better than many European countries. Argentina was democratic with regular elections. As in North America, all these factors spelled prosperity, and in the 1930s Argentina's GNP was on level with Western Europe. Buenos Aires was even the third city in the world to build a subway, after London and Boston!


Argentine professors and inventors began experimenting with radio shortly after Marconi's first successes were announced and ship- to-shore, amateur radio, and similar services developed quickly. And although here in the US we lie snug in our claim that Pittsburgh's KDKA was the world's first broadcasting station, Argentina has a different tale to tell.

Argentine broadcasting began with a group of young entrepreneurs and the Sociedad Radio Argentina in downtown Buenos Aires' Teatro Coliseo on August 27, 1920, nearly ten weeks before KDKA. An empty room housed the homemade equipment, and the antenna was simply a wire strung between the theater and a nearby house. At precisely 9 p.m., the transmitters were turned on, and after a short announcement the station commenced with a live performance of Richard Wagner's opera Parsifal from the theater below. Only about 20 families in Buenos Aires were known to have receivers, so the audience couldn't have been that great, but the next day a local newspaper commented that anyone hearing the broadcast would have thought "those divine notes had come down from heaven." Radio Argentina continued nightly broadcasts of live theater fare, eventually expanding the schedule and moving into recorded programming as well.

Why isn't Radio Argentina considered to be the world's first radio station? Like KDKA, Radio Argentina went on the air solely to broadcast entertainment programs to the general public and maintained a daily schedule from day one. While there are other stations that claim to predate KDKA, those either had very irregular schedules or were amateur or utility stations that did entertainment broadcasting on the side. The lack of recognition for Radio Argentina is probably in part because Latin America is so often ignored in U.S. and European history books and part because Radio Argentina wasn't licensed. While KDKA obtained a license from the U.S. government before going on the air, the Argentine government didn't have any licensing procedures until 1923, when Radio Argentina was granted the fist license on November 19. Does Radio Argentina deserve a share of KDKA's glory? It depends on how important that piece of paper is.

Radio Argentina had the Argentine airwaves to itself until the 1922 opening of Radio Cultura, which claims to be the first station in the world to air commercial advertising (although the author hasn't found any specific support for this). Other stations quickly followed, and by 1925 there were a dozen in Buenos Aires and ten more in interior cities. Broadcasting continued to grow and the 1930s were a golden age of quality live entertainment on Argentine radio, as three networks developed, headed by Radio El Mundo, Radio Splendid, and Radio Belgrano.


The complete freedom that Argentine broadcasting enjoyed in its early years changed in 1943. For years an Argentine Fascist movement had been building in the military among admirers of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. Many officers felt that Argentina, too, could be a stronger nation with a totalitarian military government guiding the way. On June 4, 1943 a key group of colonels acted by seizing all media facilities and other key points in Buenos Aires. General Pedro P. Ramirez was named the new president, but the real power was in the hands of the colonels' junta.

Latin America has had more than its share of military dictatorships, but until this point, rarely had there been more than haphazard light censorship of the press. But the colonels planned to turn Argentina's media into a propaganda machine, as had been done in Germany, Italy, and Spain. Ten days after the coup, the government announced that all radio broadcasts had to be scripted in advance and passed by a government censor. No deviation from scripts or impromtu broadcasting would be permitted. Furthermore, stations were forbidden to relay shortwave newscasts from the US, Canada, and Britain and forced to relay those from the Axis powers. On the other hand, the junta gave Argentine culture a boost by mandating that all stations carry a minimum percentage of Argentine music. That the junta was serious was seen just a few days later when Luis Sandrini, a popular comedian on Radio Belgrano, deviated from a script and joked that President Ramirez's initials PPR stood for "presidente por un rato", or "president for a short while." Hours later, Sandrini was on a plane heading to exile in Mexico.

The colonels consolidated their power and divided their responsibilities and in October one of the group, Juan Peron, was appointed to head the National Labor Department, an unimportant position where he was expected to wither away, leaving more power for the others. Peron, however, had other plans. When urban industrialization had come to Argentina, the Argentine workers found themselves powerless and taken advantage of as in North America and Europe. But labor unions and government regulations had never gained enough force to better the lives of Argentina's working class. Peron saw opportunity here and put together a revolutionary program of social benefits for Argentina's urban workers, including paid vacations, pensions, child labor laws, and accident compensation. On December 2, 1943 he spoke on national radio, outlining his plans and promising a better Argentina. Radio had never seriously been used for political purposes in Argentina before, but Peron's dynamic speaking ability and his golden promises created an immediate power base for him.

At least one of Peron's new fans was not a poor factory worker, but one of the country's most popular entertainers, Evita Duarte. Born to a poor provincial family, Evita ran away to Buenos Aires at the age of thirteen to become an actress. Although just 20 years old, by 1939 she was the co-director of Argentina's leading radionovela (soap opera) production company, producing dramas for Radio El Mundo and Radio Belgrano. A few months after Peron's speech she arranged to meet him "accidentally" while he was inspecting damage in a provincial earthquake. They left the quake arm-and-arm and moved in together soon after that, creating quite a scandal among the upper crust, but admiration among working class soap opera fans. While Evita may have used sex appeal to snag Peron, she had a sharp mind for politics and knew how to use power. Together, she and Peron would become unstoppable.

But, as Peron's popularity grew, the other colonels grew uneasy and in October, 1945 quietly arrested Peron and jailed him on a remote island. But the macho officers hadn't bothered with Evita. After all, what could a woman do?

On October 17, Evita proved that she could be just as dynamic a political orator as Peron. In a fiery speech on Radio Belgrano, she reminded the factory workers of everything that Peron had done for them and called for their help in freeing Peron and making him president. Hours later as 200,000 workers converged on the presidential palace, the junta announced that Peron would be released and that presidential elections would be held in February, 1946. Peron's most vocal opponents on the junta resigned, and those remaining joined his bandwagon. Of course it wouldn't do for a presidential candidate to be living in sin, so Eva and Juan were married a few weeks later.

Peron had no intention of losing the election, and opposition candidates found themselves banned from buying advertising on radios or billboards and from renting halls for rallies. The U.S. embassy tried to throw some covert support to Peron's opponents, but this was exposed and backfired, winning more voters for Peron. Still, Peron squeaked by with just 54%.

Peron followed through on his promises to the workers, and this combined with a strong market for Argentine goods in devasted postwar Europe kept Peron popular. But, it was obvious to any observer that the Fascism that had just been defeated in Italy and Germany had taken root in Argentina. And unlike the junta before him, Peron would not be content to simply intimidate the media. Starting with Radio Belgrano, the licenses of various stations and networks were declared to be expired, and ownership passed to Peron's cronies. In short order the radio industry, while nominally independent of the government, was for all purposes its propaganda mouthpiece.

Together, Eva and Juan Peron were a glamorous couple, the symbol of the new Argentina that Peron had promised. Evita even made the cover of Time magazine. Peron continued to use live radio speeches and film clips shown in theaters to whip his followers into a frenzy. Eva's abilities as a political speaker and organizer were equal to Peron's and with her radio background, Eva kept a close eye on the entertainment media and any actors, actresses, writers, or others who dared to criticize the government were exiled or jailed.


While similar governments in Spain and Portugal kept their politics to themselves and became Western allies in the fight against Communism, Peron's flamboyant style and eagerness to export his politics made him an international political wildcard. And, what better way is there to export politics than via international broadcasting on shortwave?

Early in April, 1949, Peron's government announced that a "Voice of Argentina" would soon take to the airwaves. Broadcasts were to begin on May 1, International Labor Day, but Peron couldn't wait. On April 11, he and Evita opened the station themselves with live speeches. The station's purpose, Peron said, was "to report honestly the results of our hard battle for a better country and for a humanity closer to its essential duties, (and the station would) arrive with legitmate accent, direct, speaking to others as if we were speaking among ourselves." The initial schedule consisted of broadcasts in Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian, and French, including seven hours to Brazil, four to the USA, and two to England, daily. The station made enough of an impact that it was even featured in several New York Times articles. But, despite promises of being unbiased, it was a propaganda machine, pure and simple.

When it seemed as if Peron and Evita would go on forever, everything came to a crashing halt. In 1951 Evita became ill with uterine cancer and died in July, 1952. One half of the team was gone, and Peron lost spirit and direction. Meanwhile, rebuilding in Europe meant less demand for Argentine goods and a slumping economy. In 1955, civilian riots and a military uprising forced Peron into exile in Spain. For the next 38 years, Argentina alternated between repressive military dictatorships and ineffective civilian governments. Peron was allowed to return to Argentina in the 1970s, and was promplty relected president. But he was nearly eighty and did very little before dying in office a few months later.

The next period of dictatorship was the most repressive of all as thousands of government opponents were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Exiled former propagandists from German Nazi radio were even placed in charge of programming at government stations. Then, in a desperate attempt to regain popular support, the dictators launched the disastrous Falklands/Malvinas War with Great Britain. Embarassed by the loss, the military was forced to return to the barracks, and civilian government returned in 1983. But from 1943 to 1983, world economic developments and government mismanagement caused Argentina to slip to the verge of Third World status. As Argentines put it, "We don't know if we're the poorest of the rich, or the richest of the poor." But miraculously, democracy has once again taken hold in Argentina and the economy is stronger than it has been in decades. Argentina seems ready for another golden age.


Although the governments after Peron didn't have the interest in international propaganda that he had, the external service has continued, attached to the Radio Nacional domestic network. A few years ago, my wife and I were in Buenos Aires and visited Radio Nacional and RAE (Radiodiffusion Argentina al Exterior), as the foreign service is now known. They are located about a mile from downtown Buenos Aires in a huge old mansion, complete with chandeliers, ornate woodwork, and painted ceilings, that had been donated to the government. Unfortunately, the antique grace of the building is decaying, and Radio Nacional can't afford the twenty servants that the previous owners had to keep the house going!

The heart of Radio Nacional and RAE is the central control room from which the several program services, either live or on tape, are sent out to the transmitters. The equipment is very old, some of it dating back to Peron's time. "Welcome to radio's prehistory," one technician joked. Outside the window, the base of Radio Nacional's FM tower fills what had once been a small enclosed garden behind the house.

The external service is housed in one mid-sized room filled with tables and chairs and a file drawer for each language department. Postcards and maps sent by listeners cover the walls, and scripts and listeners' letters clutter the tables. With the entire staff working in one room, it can be a very busy place with discussions in several languages at the same time. Like many smaller international services, the announcers have little opportunity for creativity here. The news and most programming is scripted in Spanish in the central Radio Nacional office and then sent to the language sections to be translated before going on the air. Even the music selections are picked in advance. Of course it is difficult to translate and still maintain the style and flow of the original script, which is why many international broadcasters, such as RAE, sound a bit stiff and artificial. Occasionally the English section sometimes fudges a bit on translating certain news items and reads the related article out of daily English language Buenos Aires Herald instead. The only chance the announcers have to create their own programming is during the mailbag features, since each language section reads and answers its own mail.

We met several of the staff members, including Tony Middleton, the current director of the English section. Tony is an Argentine of British parentage who has worked at RAE since 1980. On the side he does bit parts in Argentine movies and acts in local TV commercials. In 1985, he had a small part in Argentina's Academy Award winning La Historia Oficial. Tony invited us to sit in on the live broadcast to Europe at 1800. Yes, live. The English broadcast goes out live to Europe and is recorded for later repeat to North America. The RAE studio, where all external programs are recorded, is actually an unconnected room opening on to a balcony overlooking the central patio and its huge antenna. To enter the studio, one has to walk through the adjacent control room, out onto the patio, and then into the studio. The room is large, and the table, chairs, and microphone for the announcers only takes up one side of it. Along another wall is an old sofa and easy chair - perfect places for guests to sit.

All told, the old mansion is a perfect location for RAE and Radio Nacional. Its decaying grandeur symbolizes Argentina's past greatness, but looking around at the mansion's wonders, one can't help but see possibilities. Just maybe, the best is yet to come.



(This was a sidebox to the main article.)

Tuning in RAE's external service is, of course, the best way to hear Argentina. Check MT's Shortwave Guide for the latest English schedule. In addition, Radio Nacional's domestic service is often heard on 6060 kHz around 0900 UTC, as can the provincial station Radio Nacional Mendoza on 6180, which is usually parallel. As Argentina is in the southern hemisphere, these stations are easier to hear in the (North American) summer than in the winter. The only other Argentine station heard in North America recently small Radio Malargue 6160.6 kHz, where it sometimes manages to squeeze by the Canadian stations on 6160 around 1000 UTC. Finally, some Argentine stations, such as Radio Rivadavia and Radio Continental can sometimes be heard on USB on out-of-band frequencies, usually with sports programming. These are special relays for Argentine military forces in Tierra del Fuego and Antartica.

But, more shortwave from Argentina may be on the way. Several of Argentina's major private stations - Radio El Mundo, Radio Splendid, and Radio Belgrano - used shortwave for decades until the military government prohibited private shortwave broadcasting in the early 1980s. The civilian government has lifted the ban and Radio Belgrano and Radio El Mundo are reportedly planning a return to shortwave.

1996 Addendum: The comments on hearing Argentina remain accurate.

2004 Addendum: Radio Malargue is no longer on shortwave to my knowledge. The external service and Radio Nacional on 6060 continue to be heard widely.


This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

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