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Friday the 13th became my lucky day
Nailing Tonga

by Mika Mäkeläinen

This would be the time, I thought. If it ever was possible to catch a station from the South Pacific, today Friday, November 13th 1998, the conditions seemed ideal. The steady flow of Alaskan and Hawaii stations indicated that the path over the North Pole was open. Russian Far East stations on shortwave were unusually strong. I began browsing through selected frequencies until a weak signal on 1017 kHz caught my attention.

Mediumwave stations from the Pacific have always been among the most valued targets for Finnish DXers. My first 18 years of DXing had netted me 16 verified stations from Hawaii and 3 from Australia - until the dawn of November 13th 1998.

The last full day of the DXpedition LEM121 began with below average conditions to North America during the night. Sunrise in Lapland was typically the best time to receive stations from the Western hemisphere, and on this lucky Friday I was able to identify a couple of U.S. stations including KTOP on 1490 kHz. I also logged some nice Europeans, such as Sud Radio on 819 kHz and RNE Monforte de Lemos with regional programming for Galicia on 972 kHz.

But as conditions soon deteriorated, I resorted to shortwave DXing, and ended up recording the closing of the regional Tikhy Okean program from Khabarovsk on 7210 kHz. Incidentally, the name of the program means Pacific Ocean. At 0900 UTC Tikhy Okean was replaced by the national Vesti newscast and it was time to move on.

Keyword North

The AM band was mostly quiet, hardly anything from the Western hemisphere. Still, roughly 15 Alaskan stations were audible, as well as several Hawaii stations. This was unusually many stations from there, but still I found nothing new for me. I also noticed that not only Khabarovsk, but other Russian Far East shortwave stations were coming louder than on any previous day. All of this had one common feature; the direction of the signals, as they were coming over the North Pole, a difficult route, which is very often silenced by magnetic disturbance. The day was exceptional also in that sense; in just one day, the A-index shot up from just 1 to a staggering 44.

All of this led me to try the impossible - hunt other, more distant AM stations from the Pacific. I wandered through the AM band, which on 9-kiloherz intervals only seemed to offer some weak European stations. I checked the WRTH for potential South Pacific frequencies until on 1017 kHz I heard music which immediately gave me the shivers in a positive sense. These kind of songs I had previously heard on the provincial shortwave stations of Papua New Guinea!

I quick check with the WRTH revealed no PNG here, but Tonga instead. It was 0935 UTC. I alerted my fellow listener Jim Solatie. Both of us were still more or less in disbelief, but Jim began to look for other stations in the area, while I began recording the weak signal, which occasionally became totally inaudible but regained power even after a long absence.

A3Z QSL card

I thought of other possibilities, including Taiwan, which had fooled me to follow its programming for quite some time during an earlier DXpedition, but none of the other stations listed on the frequency fitted to what I heard. The language of the female announcer on the air reminded me of Pidgin. As I later learned, the language was Tongan, not really related but with some common features. I recognized a few English words, but other than that the talk was total gibberish to me.

At 0945 the music program gave way to a talk program, which I initially thought would have been some type of news or current affairs program. As I learned much later from a telephone conversation with the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, it was actually personal messages connecting people living on different islands, very much like the well-known comunicados of the Andean stations in South America. I was later told that the messages were read by former chief announcer Ms. Mele Heimuli, who retired in 1999. This continued over the top of the hour without any recognizable station identification. Music programming resumed, again of the type I had learned to expect from Pacific stations. The signal was more or less audible until around 1030 UTC, after which it no longer surfaced.

Nothing else from the region

Most of the time I used two receivers and two tape recorders, just in case. The signal was best audible with my 800-meter-long Far-East antenna pointed at about 45 degrees. The antenna straight north to Alaska gave an even weaker signal, other antennae were totally useless. I was still in doubt; much seemed to support my theory of Tonga, but with no station identification, I didn't have much concrete evidence to brag about. However, I had enough recordings for a tentative reception report, which I sent as soon as I returned back home from Lapland.

Meanwhile, Jim had no luck. Some stations in the area had obviously already signed off, and others were just not audible. But somewhat later in the day, after 1245 UTC, I caught KTWG from Guam on 801 kHz, quite a rare catch, and another indication of the very unusual reception conditions favoring the Pacific that day. Also some Japanese and Philippino stations were identified, but nothing really sensational.

Report lost in the Ocean

My first reception report sent in express mail probably got lost on the way to Tonga. Unlike the other major catch of the day, KTWG, which sent a QSL-card along with a kind letter confirming my reception of their program titled Turning Point. The turning point of my QSL-hunt was however still to come. I became anxious, not knowing if I really had nailed Tonga or not.

A3Z QSL card

I sent a tape to a fellow DXer Paul Ormandy in New Zealand who tried to get some sense of the tape by contacting Tongan-speaking people. No luck.

In March 1999 I sent a follow-up report and later an inquiry by telefax. This finally prompted Chief Engineer Sioeli Maka Tohi to send his kind confirmation letter by telefax. Later by mail I also received their traditional QSL card featuring call-letters A3Z.

Sioeli Maka Tohi was able to confirm the report as all the details matched their program rundown. Later he also told me that they had recognized the announcers on the tape. Finally! The station had never before been heard in Europe on AM. For me Tonga became the 200th verified country according to the conservative count of the Finnish DX Association. A fitting reward indeed.

The nation and the station

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa (photo by Bob Padula, July 2004)

Tonga is a parliamentary kingdom of 110 000 inhabitants scattered over dozens of islands totalling 750 square kilometers. The capital Nuku'alofa is located on the main island of Tongatapu. Like most smaller Pacific nations, Tonga is relatively poor - for example Finland's per capita GDP is eight times higher.

A3Z Radio 1 on 1017 kHz, with a power of 10 kilowatts, is the only AM transmitter in the country. Both the public broadcaster Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) - known as the Call of the Friendly Islands - and its private competitors have transmitters on FM. Until now only private companies have ventured into television, but TBC is planning to set up a TV station. Originally the deadline was November 1999, but it has been postponed, says Chief Engineer Maka Tohi.

Until 1992 TBC used to operate also a 1-kilowatt shortwave transmitter, which was never heard in Finland. The transmitter has broken down, and there are no plans to fix in the near future, because AM easily covers the entire nation.

TBC contact information listed in the World Radio TV Handbook is valid. In 2000 the station briefly had its own website, complete with samples of their station identifications and a chance to shop for TBC souvenirs, but unfortunately it has been gone since early 2001.

Antenna tower of TBC
The antenna tower of TBC in Nuku'alofa (photo by Bob Padula, July 2004)

Tonga Broadcasting Commission has a staff of 60 people to run two radio channels, both nearly 18 hours a day. Broadcasts are in Tongan and English, with relays from the BBC, Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand. Interestingly, the station is not financed by license fees or through the state budget, but by advertising revenue and profits from a retail radio shop, which is owned by the TBC!

A3Z was established in 1960 to provide a link connecting the people of the different remote islands. Even after the arrival of telephone, linking the people is still a primary function. Broadcast time is given to various churches, community and civic organizations, as A3Z is the only station that covers the entire nation - and, as it seems, occasionally reaches much beyond!

Reception best in broad daylight

The distance from Lapland to Tonga is approximately 14500 kilometers, much more than to Hawaii (about 9800 km), but still less than to New Zealand. For example, an AM station from Wellington more than 16000 km away has been logged in Finland. Tonga however is located much further north if you think of the true direction from Lapland, and therefore may require different reception conditions.

A closer look at the time of reception may be helpful when planning other conquests in the Pacific. Theoretically it seems that Tonga and the surrounding countries could be audible even much earlier than 0930 UTC. In fact, sunset in Tonga in mid-November is already at 18.57 Tongan time, equal to 0557 UTC. Theoretically, again, this sounds very good as the entire path from Finland to Tonga is in darkness, as compared to 0930 UTC, when Lapland is already in daylight and the signal has to pass in sunlight for hundreds of kilometers.

However, what makes 0930 UTC a much better time than the earlier hours is that around 0600 UTC signals from West Europe are still very strong and even with a directional antenna, it would be difficult to avoid European interference. On the contrary, at 0930-1030 UTC the sun shines over entire Europe and interfering signals are weaker than at any other time of the day - thus allowing the truly far-away and weak stations to be heard. Keep this in mind next winter - who knows what other island nations can be heard across the globe!

And a wish for the future: It would be fantastic to actually visit Tonga, some day.

(published on September 13th 1999, last update on March 19th 2001, photos added on October 7, 2004)

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