Radio without borders
How far could radio waves travel? This was the central question occupying amateur radio enthusiasts during the early 20th century. Receiving confirmation of your transmission from another radio operator was just as important as the transmission itself. The farther your signal could reach, the better.
Engineers at Philips Laboratories strove to create a signal strong enough to reach all the way to the Dutch colonies. In 1927, they finally succeeded, ushering in an era of unique radio broadcasts from the Netherlands to the other side of the world. Philips christened the new station PHOHI: the Philips Holland-India Broadcasting Station (Philips Omroep Holland-Indië).
In this two-part series, we’ll explore a fascinating slice of history from the Sound and Vision collection: the PHOHI transcription discs (‘gesneden platen’). Part one will focus on the PHOHI broadcasts themselves. Made in the Netherlands for the Dutch colonies overseas – the Dutch East Indies, Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles – these broadcasts covered a wide variety of everyday topics. In this section, we’ll also discuss the political wrangling that went on behind the scenes over this powerful new communication medium, which was in the hands of a private company rather than the government...
Part two of our story will turn the spotlight on radio personality and showman extraordinaire, Eddy Startz. The voice of PHOHI, Startz brought ‘Peace, Cheer and Joy’ in seven different languages to airwaves around the world.
PHOHI at Sound and Vision
In 2000, the Philips Company Archives donated its collection of PHOHI broadcasts to The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. The collection consists of 1,046 gramophone records, mostly from the period between 1937 and 1940. Around this time, Philips began recording certain broadcasts on transcription discs for studio use. Prior to this, they had hired recording studios to provide transcription services, but unfortunately few of these recordings have survived. The transcription discs contain spoken commentary and special reports. Live news broadcasts and musical programmes were not generally recorded at that time.
The uniquely ordinary PHOHI broadcasts
A glimpse of life in the Netherlands from 1927-1940
What are those two (replica) shortwave antennas doing in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable roundabout in the Dutch town of Huizen? And why does the town have a street known as Phohistraat?
The answer: because from 1927 to 1940, Philips dominated the world’s airwaves with its pioneering radio station, PHOHI, which was broadcast from Huizen. For Dutch citizens living and working on the other side of the world in the colonies, particularly in the Dutch East Indies, the broadcasts were a marvel of technological ingenuity.
One listener in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) described how much the station meant to him:
In a sense, the Philips Holland-India Broadcasting Station (Philips Omroep Holland-Indië, or PHOHI) was the forerunner of Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which began broadcasting in 1947. But how did this global communication medium come to be in the hands of a private business? And why did it cause such melancholy among Dutch citizens living abroad in the East Indies?
Radio in the 1910s and 1920s
Until well into the 1920s, radio was largely the domain of amateur operators. In 1919, Dutch radio pioneer Hanso Steringa à Idzerda of The Hague became the first person to regularly broadcast music programmes. His broadcasts had a decidedly commercial slant: they were intended to boost sales of radio equipment and parts manufactured by Idzerda’s company, Dutch Radio Industries (NV Nederlandsche Radioindustrie).
In this, he had a stroke of good luck: the range of his transmitter turned out to be much greater than expected. As a result, the signal could be picked up as far away as England, where his programme became so popular that the Daily Mail began to sponsor him.
In the mid-1920s, Idzerda was forced to stop broadcasting, though he continued to supply the Ministry of Colonial Affairs with radio components, as he had done since 1916. He also corresponded with engineer C.J. de Groot in Bandung about the future of radio in the Dutch East Indies.
Early Dutch broadcasters
In the meantime, radio broadcasting in the Netherlands continued to take shape. Starting in 1923, Dutch broadcasting associations began to emerge, often in connection with existing social or political institutions in the Netherlands. They included the AVRO, NCRV, KRO, VARA and VPRO. The Dutch Signalling Apparatus Factory (Nederlandsche Seintoestellen Fabriek), or NSF, in Hilversum produced the equipment that was used.
The Ideezet radio valve
Philips was initially unimpressed by radio as a new medium. At Hans Idzerda’s request, they did begin manufacturing ‘Ideezet’ transmitting valves in 1919, which vastly improved the reception of radio signals. But it wasn’t until 1925 that Philips began to focus on radio in earnest, with the founding of Philips Radio. One year later, Philips also acquired the NSF.
Ready-built radios for consumers
With the founding of their new radio division, Philips’ belief in the power of the new medium grew quickly. Initially, the company focused on manufacturing components for amateur radio enthusiasts and broadcasting professionals. But in September 1927, Philips introduced ready-built radios for consumers.
The Philips Radio Laboratory set about refining and improving the company’s radio components, which included the Ideezet radio valves, speakers and rectifiers. In addition, they conducted experimental broadcasts that were intended to generate interest in their radio sets. The Dutch territories overseas were viewed as a particularly promising new market.
On 12 March 1927, Philips engineers made a major breakthrough: their shortwave radio station PCJJ succeeded in broadcasting over a distance of 10,000 miles. The head of the radio services in the Dutch East Indies, Dr C.J. de Groot – who, as mentioned earlier, also corresponded with radio pioneer Idzerda – initially couldn’t believe that he was actually listening to a Philips broadcast. But soon, messages began to pour in from as far away as Australia and South America, congratulating PCJJ on the successful broadcast.
Royal seal of approval
After that, things really took off: on 1 June 1927, Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana of the Netherlands addressed their subjects in the Dutch East Indies via the PCJJ transmitter. The response was overwhelming. The Dutch press announced triumphantly: ‘Thanks to the ingenuity of a Dutch firm, the Mother Country and her Colonies have drawn closer together than ever before.´
A station with a fresh, modern feel
On 18 June 1927, the Philips Holland-India Broadcasting Station, or PHOHI, was born. It was founded by Philips, along with seven other firms with commercial and cultural interests in the Dutch East Indies. After receiving a broadcasting permit and conducting a series of test broadcasts, PHOHI began regular programming on 22 January 1929. The shortwave transmitter was relocated from Eindhoven to Huizen and the signal was boosted in order to compete with local radio stations in Batavia (now Jakarta) and Medan. PHOHI was up and running, though the rainy season in the colonies continued to present technical challenges: broadcasts were often disrupted by monsoons.
PHOHI primarily offered listeners relaxing, light-hearted programming. The focus on entertainment and the lack of moralising or religious and political propaganda lent the new station a fresh, modern feel, making it popular throughout the colonies.
‘After a day of strenuous toil, workers in the tropics...desire relaxation. […] Radio brings pleasant music into their homes. The man who spends his days in the cane fields, labouring under the scorching sun; the busy broker who, between nine o’ clock in the morning and five-thirty in the evening, scarcely knows a moment without the telephone pressed to his ear; the young housewife who, with endless patience, attempts to solve the problems presented to her by a troublesome ‘kokki’ [cook]; they all have need of light music and dance music. And for those who suffer from the dreaded affliction known as “homesickness”, radio provides as powerful medicine the sweet tinkling of the bells of the Palace on Dam Square, played by the capable hands of Mr J. Vincent.’, wrote Philips’ press department, Industria.
Peace, Cheer and Joy
The enthusiastic voice of radio host Eddy Startz also contributed to the station’s popularity with its listeners. Startz came up with his own interpretation of the station’s call sign, PCJ, claiming it stood for ‘Peace, Cheer and Joy: The Happy Station’. His exuberance and joie de vivre made him immensely popular with audiences for many years. But more about him in the next section...
Nostalgic for the Netherlands
Radio was one of several technological advances that benefited Dutch citizens in the colonies. Air travel and improved shipping routes drastically reduced the travel time between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. Telegrams and telephone lines made it easier to keep in touch with family back home. And the extensive news coverage provided by the Dutch East Indian press allowed colonists to keep abreast of developments in the Netherlands and Europe. For many people in the Indies, PHOHI was first and foremost a means of staying connected to the Netherlands. Or, as one listener so aptly put it:
‘With PHOHI, I am now convinced that one can, indeed, bring the world into one’s home, as promised in the advertisements. Not a day has gone by that we have been unable to hear your voice; not one single day. If I were a stenographer, I could have sent you a word-for-word account of your broadcasts. Why, then, do you call PHOHI the “rimboe radio” (“backwater broadcaster”)? I tell you sir, it is more than that! PHOHI symbolises Holland; nay, it is Holland! Such is the feeling it inspires in me. The fourth dimension?’
1929 - 1934: PHOHI is silenced by ideological squabbles
From the late 19th century onwards, Dutch society was divided into several strictly-defined social groups, or ‘pillars’, based on religious and political affiliations. This situation, known as ‘pillarisation’, was much less pronounced in the colonies than in the Netherlands. In his dissertation on radio in the Dutch East Indies, René Witte theorises that this was because Dutch citizens abroad could not afford to separate themselves into factions. But despite its efforts to remain independent, PHOHI soon became embroiled in domestic broadcasting politics. Each of the Dutch ‘pillars’ demanded its share of air time. Philips was prepared to allow this – for the right price – but PHOHI’s Dutch East Indian partners demanded that the left-wing broadcasting association VARA be excluded. After two years’ deliberation, the Dutch Radio Council (Radioraad) decreed that VARA must also receive air time. However, PHOHI refused to serve as a mouthpiece for VARA’s anti-colonial views, which it felt could lead to revolution. In March 1929, a Dutch East Indian newspaper described the problem:
‘In the Netherlands, five groups are engaged in an ongoing struggle for control of this radio station. We wish to hear Dutch voices telling of our nation’s culture, bringing us messages of unity and not of discord.’
As a result of this conflict, the station ceased broadcasting altogether. It would be several years before PHOHI took to the airwaves once again, in 1934.
1934: A new beginning under the programme committee
Ultimately, PHOHI gave in to the demands of the various pillars in order to resume broadcasting. A programme committee oversaw the broadcasts and ensured that they remained free of religious sectarianism and party politics. The Catholic broadcasting organisation KRO was closely involved in PHOHI’s programming decisions, while the independent AVRO granted the station rights to Han Hollander’s famous sport broadcasts:
Listen to the sound of PHOHI
Much had changed by 1934, including some important technological advances. Starting in 1937, Philips began recording its radio broadcasts on special gramophone records known as transcription discs (‘gesneden platen’). In total, more than 1,046 transcription discs were made. Intended for studio use, the majority of the discs date to the period from 1937-1940. Before this time, Philips hired recording studios to provide transcription services, but unfortunately few of these recordings have survived. The transcription discs contain spoken commentary and special reports. Live news broadcasts and musical programmes were not recorded at that time.
Local billiards prodigy
Most of the surviving special reports are the work of roving reporter L.G. Wybrands Marcussen, known to his listeners simply as ‘Wybrands’. Wybrands had a nose for what people living in the colonies wanted to hear. He travelled around the Netherlands in his broadcast van, describing the latest fashions, visiting the racetrack in Zandvoort, revealing which rowing club had won the Amsterdam Bosbaan regatta, or interviewing a young billiards prodigy.
Wybrands wasn’t the only reporter whose voice was heard on PHOHI. Fred Rombach, Jr was another regular contributor. The son of a prominent physician, Rombach taught history and geography in addition to reporting. In 1925, he published a three-volume series entitled Landen en volken der vreemde werelddeelen in woord en beeld [‘Countries and Peoples of Foreign Continents in Words and Pictures’]. The book later sparked riots in the Dutch East Indies because it contained an image of the prophet Muhammad. One of Rombach’s more memorable broadcasts was a live report of a festival known as Hartjesdag (‘Day of Hearts’) in the Amsterdam Dapperbuurt neighbourhood in August 1938. From his post in the Wagenaarstraat, he somewhat nervously describes how people around him are setting off fireworks. ‘They’ve no money for food,’ notes Rombach, ‘but they’ve got money to buy fireworks.’ The police are occasionally forced to intervene, and blows are exchanged.
Stock market reports, neutrality, and unease
News commentary and stock market reports were recorded daily so as to remain current. The time difference between the Netherlands and the colonies and the time-sensitive nature of these segments meant that PHOHI had to record them as close to the actual broadcast time as possible, in order to ensure they were still accurate.
G.P.J. van Overbeek hosted a segment called Gesprekken van de Dag (‘Conversations of the Day’), in which he discussed developments in domestic and foreign politics from his office in Amsterdam. Recordings of this programme exist for the period between 2 June 1939 and 31 March 1940. They convey an increasing sense of unease about the war looming on the horizon. Despite coming from the left-wing VARA, Van Overbeek was by no means the political agitator that PHOHI directors had feared back in 1930. He supported the party line taken by Prime Minister De Geer and other Northern European leaders, who urged neutrality.
The financial markets proved to be another popular subject for listeners in the Dutch East Indies. S.G. van Appeldoorn, editor-in-chief of the Amsterdamsch Effectenblad, a leading Dutch financial newspaper, hosted a segment on stock market prices. His insightful market analyses were highly regarded and were often printed in the newspaper. In April 1939, Van Appeldoorn announced that in all his many years of following political, economic and financial news, he had never seen a situation as unstable as the current one other.
The recordings preserved on the transcription discs bear witness to a turbulent period in world history, revealing ripples of events that would lead to World War II. Significantly, the broadcasts are a form of one-way communication. The programmes were created in the Netherlands in order to give Dutch listeners abroad a glimpse of life back home. What they wanted, and what PHOHI provided, were scenes of everyday life in the mother country. Life in their new home, the Dutch East Indies, was rarely touched upon.
An explosive end to PHOHI
In 1937, the Dutch government established a radio commission for international broadcasts. Among other things, this commission advocated the creation of a single public broadcasting organisation. However, the Minister of Water Management was reluctant to challenge the various Dutch broadcasters and their political backers. As a result, the power exerted by the individual broadcasting companies grew still further. This was bad news for PHOHI. Philips’ primary goal was, and always had been, to sell equipment: thanks to PHOHI, the name ‘Philips’ rang out over the airwaves around the world. Unlike other broadcasters, PHOHI had no defining ideology or rigidly defined support base, and it was precisely this that had made the station so successful. But PHOHI’s decision to distance itself from the other broadcasters now meant that its future was uncertain. Fortunately for PHOHI, the battle for the airwaves was a long, protracted one. While the debate raged on, the station remained on the air. But on 12 May 1940, backroom politics were interrupted by cold, hard reality: on that day, the radio transmitters in Huizen were blown up in an attempt to keep them out of German hands.
Sadly, the attempt was unsuccessful: the German occupying forces quickly reconstructed the transmitters. Regardless, PHOHI was off the air. A number of station employees, including Wybrands, began working for the new national broadcasting association established by the Nazis. Others, such as Eddy Startz, remained off the air until the war ended.
An inaccurate impression
One could argue that the recordings preserved on the transcription discs give a rather inaccurate impression of the types of programmes normally broadcast by PHOHI. It was a commercial station and primarily offered light entertainment. But the types of broadcasts that were selected for transcription were the more serious reports and current events.
From a historical perspective, these are also the most significant, as they provide a view of the events leading up to World War II. Listening to the reports of everyday life in the Netherlands, the growing unrest, the increasing numbers of concerning incidents, our modern ears can clearly discern the warning signs of the war that was to come.
The PHOHI recordings are very different from those of other Dutch broadcasters from the same period. Domestic radio stations in the Netherlands tended to cover official events: inaugurations, grand speeches by mayors and important businessmen, and formal lectures. But PHOHI was unique in its focus on ordinary, everyday life. There were interviews with the common man on the street, speaking off the cuff rather than from a prepared speech. The interviews are still quite a bit more formal than what we’re used to today: the ‘common man’ spoke courteously, with a clear awareness of class differences (‘yes sir, no sir’). But the spoken language we hear on the PHOHI discs is much closer to modern usage than what can be heard in the radio programmes of other broadcasters from that time.
PHOHI bridges the gap
In the 1920s and 1930s, PHOHI bridged the geographical gap between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies, connecting the colonies to the mother country. The station also helped to bridge the emotional distance felt by Dutch citizens living abroad. But from a historical perspective, it is PHOHI’s role as a powerful bridge through time that is truly significant. The recordings in our archives transport us back to another world; a world in which the storm clouds of war were gathering and the decolonisation of the Dutch East Indies was about to begin.
Eddy Startz & The Happy Station
DJ to the World’s Largest Happy Family
“Keep in touch with the Dutch!” Eddy Startz famously reminded listeners during his radio broadcasts on The Happy Station. Radio was a medium for building bridges between the Netherlands and the rest of the world.
Startz began his international broadcasting career in 1928, to great success. Before long, his programme, ‘The Happy Station Show’, had become a worldwide radio phenomenon. It would remain on air for more than half a century. Startz himself also became a well-known figure in the world of shortwave radio. His many affectionate nicknames – ‘Don Eduardo’, ‘Sir Edward’ – are a testament to his popularity with listeners around the world. But just what was it about Don Eduardo that kept his listeners glued to their radios?
Eddy Startz, citizen of the world
Edward Startz was born in 1899 in the former European microstate of Moresnet, which was located on the border between Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany from 1814 to 1920. He grew up in the Dutch town of Vaals, near the ‘Four-Country Point’, where the borders of four countries met. After finishing secondary school in 1923, Startz set off for America, where he lived for five years, working as a dishwasher, waiter, and travelling salesman while attending university. In 1925, he began working as a sailor, which took him to ports throughout South America. Along the way, in places like Uruguay and Brazil, he picked up both Spanish and Portuguese.
The Happy Station
In November 1928, Startz returned to the Netherlands and found a job at Philips as a translator. His superiors soon realised that Startz had an even greater talent for languages than he had let on, and made him an announcer on Philips’ new experimental shortwave radio station, PCJ. Startz, who was known for his jovial nature and playful way with words, dubbed PCJ the ‘Peace, Cheer and Joy’ station. The PCJ transmitter was used to broadcast the radio station known as PHOHI (Philips Holland-India Broadcasting Station), which served the Dutch colonies in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Suriname, and the Netherlands Antilles. It was on PHOHI that Startz began hosting his Happy Station Show.
Right from the start, Startz’s programme focused on bringing people together. Initially, the programme consisted largely of greetings to his listeners around the world. Startz strove to give The Happy Station a warm, inviting feel. An example of this was his ‘PHOHI song’, sung to the tune of the Dutch children’s song In Holland staat een huis (‘In Holland there’s a house’): ‘In Holland there’s a house / A house that stands in Huizen / In Huizen we send the broadcasts out / All the Indies cheer and shout / Let’s stay in tonight / Ohhhh, let’s stay in tonight!’.
How far could radio waves travel?
In addition to greetings, Startz filled The Happy Station with light music and his own lively commentary. A fully-fledged DJ before the term even existed, he described events in the Netherlands for his listeners. Philips decided that PHOHI programming should steer clear of overly serious or political topics, so Startz limited himself to pleasant chit-chat. During each broadcast, he also invited his listeners to provide feedback on the station’s signal quality and range. Philips engineers wanted to know how far radio waves could travel, in order to gauge how effective their broadcasts were. In May 1940, the transmitter station in Huizen was destroyed, and both PHOHI and Startz disappeared from the airwaves for the next five years.
A Nice Cup of Tea
After the war ended, Startz resumed broadcasting on the newly-created Radio Netherlands Worldwide network, founded in 1947. His programme retained its familiar, light-hearted feel. Startz played music from around the world, accompanied by explanations of the different musical styles and the countries they came from: ‘I was playing sambas and rhumbas before anyone here had ever heard of them.’ And just as he had before the war, Startz told about the Netherlands, drank ‘a nice cup of tea’ on air, and answered questions sent in by listeners.
The Happy Station’s cheerful, breezy tone was no accident. ‘A friendly and happy approach is a language universally understood’, explained Startz in one of his books, Hoe je ‘t ziet (‘How You See It’). His enthusiasm endeared him to his many fans around the world. Startz described himself as ‘just an ordinary guy who shares his feelings’. The lively, upbeat feel of his show was intended to make listeners everywhere feel welcome. Startz was motivated by the Christian principle of brotherly love. To him, the purpose of The Happy Station was to broadcast ‘friendship over the airwaves’. It was, in the words of Startz’s famous catchphrase, ‘the world’s largest happy family’.
A knack for languages
By his own account, Startz could speak half a dozen languages, ‘and a dozen half’. He was fluent in English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. This allowed him to present The Happy Station in multiple languages: in 1953, there were four Happy Station broadcasts per day, each geared toward a different international audience. As a result of this multilingual approach, it was no surprise that Startz had a huge following of listeners from around the world.
The many letters that Startz received from listeners proved that radio could be an interactive medium. Startz not only encouraged his audience to write in, but also responded to them personally – both in writing and live, on air. Startz’s papers, which are housed in the Sound and Vision archives, are full of letters from listeners. During Startz’s PHOHI days, before the war, the station encouraged listeners to send in reception reports. As a result, his letters from this period largely consist of messages about the wavelength, reception and any interference problems encountered during the programme.
World peace is possible
After the war, the letters also included requests for particular songs or for personal on-air greetings, as well as submissions to Startz’s write-in competitions. In 1947, shortly after the war, Startz challenged his listeners to describe in 200 words or less how international shortwave radio broadcasts could contribute to world peace. The prize for the best submission? An all-expenses-paid trip to the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the lucky winner’s name and country of origin have been lost to the mists of time. In other letters, listeners simply told about themselves, where they came from, and what their daily lives were like. Startz wove their stories into his radio programme:
Keep in touch with the Dutch
The funfair in Laren, colourful tulip fields, the taste of pickled herring: Startz discussed these and other topics relating to the Netherlands during his programme. Although only a few examples of his programme exist in our archives, it appears that Startz primarily focussed on typically Dutch customs, which he presented with his customary light touch. In addition, he occasionally treated his listeners to Dutch language lessons: ‘Foreigners love knowing how to say “Good evening!” in our little-known language’. Startz not only described his own experiences in the Netherlands, but also those of his listeners from abroad. During one broadcast, an unknown listener shares the highlights of his vacation in the Netherlands, including a visit to the milkman.
In addition to describing Dutch culture over the airwaves, Startz also undertook goodwill tours to destinations around the globe, including Japan, the United States, and Indonesia. He believed that these tours were the ideal way to keep in touch with his listeners. Many called him a true citizen of the world. But to Startz, travel was ‘just a way of popping around to visit my listeners’. He also took his listeners on imaginary voyages around the world with his Happy Station Cruises. In 1967, ‘Captain Startz’ embarked on a virtual Mediterranean cruise, taking Happy Station listeners along to Marseille, Majorca, Corsica, Naples, and other exotic destinations. At each ‘stop’ on the tour, Startz told listeners a bit about the area and played local music. His descriptions of the voyage were so realistic that listeners really felt as if they were seeing it unfold before them.
The Worlds largest happy family?
For Eddy Startz, The Happy Station was proof that radio could bring people of all cultures together. Startz showed real interest in his listeners, spoke to them in their own language, and shone a spotlight on their lives. His upbeat approach and his one-on-one contact with listeners, both in writing and in person during his travels, made his programme a truly interactive experience. Startz was forced to stop broadcasting in 1970, but The Happy Station carried on with other presenters at the helm until 1995.
Did The Happy Station truly contribute to friendship around the world? It’s difficult to measure the impact the programme had, but given its immense popularity with listeners around the globe, there’s no denying that Eddy Startz succeeded in creating a worldwide dialogue.