May 26, 2006

Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles


(This is an updated version of a Tower Site of the Week originally presented February 14, 2001. It's being brought out of cold storage now because these pictures date from my honeymoon in June, 1996 - and yes, that makes today the tenth wedding anniversary for your editor and Mrs. NERW. Imagine that: she was shanghaied into visiting a transmitter site on our honeymoon, and she's still speaking to me. Not bad, eh?)

Welcome to the sunny Caribbean island of Bonaire, a tiny speck of land just north of the Venezuelan coast, known for its diving, its wildlife -- and for the signal it sends forth on 800 kHz.

Yes, this is Trans World Radio, otherwise known as PJB. Or, more correctly, this was Trans World Radio as it appeared in the spring of 1996, when the five towers shown above (and yes, they're straight in real life; what you see above is a montage of two photos) were still sending out 500 kW, the highest-powered medium-wave signal in the Americas.

A lot has changed at TWR in the five years since these photos were taken. When I visited, shortwave broadcasts from TWR-Bonaire were already a thing of the past. The room in which the SW transmitters had been housed was being converted into a power plant to supply the needs not only of TWR but of the rest of the island.

I visited during the middle of the day, when the 800 kHz signal was silent. At the time, TWR was on the air in English in the morning, using a non-directional signal to serve the entire Caribbean. It then signed off for the day, returning later at night in Spanish and Portuguese on directional signals aimed, respectively, at the Caribbean and at Brazil.

Visiting at an off-hour meant Mrs. NERW and I had the chance not only to see the Brown-Boveri 500 kW transmitter, but to actually walk through it. The transmitter, I was told, had come from Africa (I want to say the 702 kHz Bophuthatswana station, but I don't recall for certain.)

One thing you won't see here is a huge phasing unit. That's because only the tall center tower was actually actively fed from the transmitter.

The other four towers, arrayed in a shallow parallelogram around the main tower, were used solely as parasitic elements, as it were, phasing out portions of the signal directed at undesired areas. (This put me in mind of the other 500 kW North American signal of days gone by, the WLW transmitter at Mason, Ohio, which once included a similar parasitic tower across the road to block radiation toward adjacent-channel CKVM in Ville Marie, Quebec.)

But just as WLW eventually powered down, so, in time, did Trans World Radio. A few years after I left, I'm told that the 500 kW unit was shipped off the island, replaced by a lower-powered transmitter (I've heard both 100 kW and 50 kW). I've also been told that the towers are now configured as a more typical phased directional array.

Before leaving you with some more gems from the photo album, a few quick notes on the other things your intrepid correspondent saw on his day on Bonaire:

TWR's transmitter is located at the south end of Bonaire, adjacent to the salt flats that once provided most of Bonaire's exports. With nothing but salt pans between the transmitter and the ocean, it's no wonder this signal got out as well as it once did! (There's also a fabulous pink-sand beach just down the road from the transmitter gate...)

The TWR studios are located mid-island, just north of the only real town on the island, a little place called Kralendijk. There's a very large performance studio and several production rooms, along with a master-control area that feeds TWR's religious programming to the transmitter -- and to a satellite network that feeds hundreds of local stations across Latin America.

Speaking of local stations, you'll see two of them below: "Voz di Bonaire" on 94.7 FM and "Bon FM" on 102.7. I'm told that there are now something like six FMs serving the few thousand people who live on Bonaire. (There's also a local TV station, "Flamingo TV.")

And there's one more station on Bonaire I've yet to mention:: keep driving north from Kralendijk towards the nature preserve at the north end of the island and you'll soon see the mammoth curtain antennas belonging to Radio Nederland.

Sometime when it's cold and snowy outside, I'll put up some more Caribbean radio pictures from that 1996 trip, taking you inside local stations on Aruba and Curacao.

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