Broadcasting from the Bottom of the World

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A collapsible organ, a piano, and a man who could do “double tremolos on the harmonica.” If you guessed a 1930s evening by the radio listening to Major Bowes and his Original Amateur Hour you would be wrong. These amateur musicians worked not for a Major but for an Admiral– Admiral Richard Byrd, the famous polar explorer. They broadcast their syncopations not from a studio in Hollywood or New York but from the frigid South Pole — the bottom of the world.

Admiral Richard Byrd first attacked the frozen wastes of Antarctica in 1928-29, when he established a base camp called “Little America” on the Antarctic continent. He then flew his plane, the Floyd Bennett, over the South Pole, matching his 1926 flight over the North Pole, which he flew as co-pilot alongside the late Floyd Bennett.

The Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition, in 1933, was financed in part by the National Geographic Society, Edsel Ford, Col. Jacob Ruppert(New York Yankees owner) and private donations from American citizens. Admiral Byrd also sold radio rights to the CBS network and to General Foods whose Grape Nuts Flakes cereal sponsored the radio shows from the South Pole.

Since no radio station existed in Antarctica, the expedition packed their own when they loaded equipment aboard the S.S. Jacob Ruppert and the S.S. Bear of Oakland. The two ships sailed from Boston Harbor on October 11, 1933. Broadcasting initially from the cabin of the Jacob Ruppert, with the call letters KJTY, Byrd hosted his first program on Saturday, Armistice Day, November 11, 1933. When the expedition reached Wellington, New Zealand, on December 5, the program originated from a local radio station where it was sent by telephone wire to the transmitter onboard the Jacob Ruppert, then relayed to the CBS stations in the United States.

After the expedition’s arrival at Little America on the Ross Ice Barrier, they hauled the 1,000-watt transmitter and the entire studio from the ship, setting up the new station, KFZ, on the polar ice. Announcer-director Charles J.V. Murphy remembered: “At noon on Monday, KFZ was nothing but a pile of crates, boxes, and loose gear on the deck of the S.S. Jacob Ruppert. Thursday night it was in communication with New York and Saturday it was broadcasting.” The program included, oceanographers, geologists, the aforementioned “Antarctic Antics” and the Admiral himself.

A few months later Admiral Byrd created true drama when he ventured out to spend the Antarctic winter(March to August) alone in a tiny hut 120 miles from the base camp. A faulty heater nearly killed him from carbon monoxide and frostbite. Byrd was in radio contact, but the isolation, the primitive conditions, and the carbon monoxide affected his mind causing him to launch into incoherent “on air” rambles. The Admiral eventually returned from his isolation and regained his senses. The last broadcast came on January 6, 1935, when the Second Byrd Antarctic Expedition ended.

In 1939-40, Byrd made another trip to the South Pole; this time NBC aired the show, which took the form of mail readings to and from the expedition members. In total, the Admiral made five notable trips to Antarctica before his death in 1957. In today’s world of phony television survivors, Admiral Byrd remains a true survivor whose explorations increased our knowledge of our planet and of ourselves.