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Glória: RFE’s Portuguese Launchpad Over The Iron Curtain

Within two months of Radio Free Europe’s (RFE) first transmission in July 1950 via the 7,500kw mobile shortwave transmitter affectionately known as “Barbara,” the executives that established RFE were already discussing the possibility of setting up a second, more powerful line of transmitters, possibly in France or Portugal.

Within two months of Radio Free Europe’s (RFE) first transmission in July 1950 via the 7,500kw mobile shortwave transmitter affectionately known as “Barbara,” the executives that established RFE were already discussing the possibility of setting up a second, more powerful line of transmitters, possibly in France or Portugal.

[For more about Barbara, read Barbara: The Original Voice Of RFE]

In 1951, an agreement with the Portuguese government, founded on mutually beneficial goals, was concluded by creating an independent Portuguese company, the Sociedade Anónima de dio Retransmissão or RARET. RARET was given a 10-year operating license and quickly made significant contributions to both the local Portuguese communities and to Radio Free Europe listeners worldwide.

For the Portuguese government of longtime ruler Antonio Salazar, RARET would be a tangible demonstration of its commitment to supporting the American government. But Salazar insisted on a key demand — no regular radio programs could originate from Portuguese territory, meaning RARET’s operations had to be set up to receive transmissions from different countries.

For the National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) and RFE, the location of the RARET complex would provide a vital “remote” shortwave transmission capability to gain better reach into RFE’s target countries. RARET’s transmitters were able to utilize the “skywave” properties of the Earth’s ionosphere to “bounce” shortwave signals into the target area and complicate Soviet efforts to jam RFE’s signals.

Glória – Maxoqueira — Lisbon

The first step in establishing RARET was locating suitable locations for a shortwave transmitter base. The Portuguese government dispatched Engineers Manuel Bívar and Henrique Leotte to scout locations for the transmitters. The engineers settled on a 184-hectare plot of land (455 acres for the U.S. audience) located about 54 km (34 miles) north-east of the capital, Lisbon near the town of Glória do Ribatejo. This would become the home for several high-powered shortwave transmitters, along with their directional antennas.

[READ this detailed survey of RARET and its “Installations & Facilities,” completed in March 1952 for RFE’s New York office]

Because of the remoteness of the Glória site, RARET built an entire self-contained community around the transmitters that would include family housing, a visitor’s “hotel,” a restaurant, a school, a medical clinic, a waste treatment facility, and a recreation center complete with a swimming pool.

And so, on July 4, 1951, after being driven across Europe with her six-vehicle caravan from Lampertheim to Glória, the mobile Barbara transmitter was once again operational as a solo transmitter sending RFE broadcasts into Eastern Europe.

In time, Glória became Radio Free Europe’s largest transmitting site. In early 1952, Barbara was joined by four 50kw transmitters, with another four being added to the complex by the end of the year. Two years later, an extension of the Glória base would house an additional four 100kw transmitters; bringing the total number of broadcasting transmitters to twelve, with sixteen antenna systems.

By 1971, the Glória complex would host a total of eighteen transmitters and twenty-four antenna systems. Critically, the antennas were able to swing through a radius of plus-or-minus twenty degrees, sweeping North to South across the target countries. This “aiming” characteristic; their high power, changeable frequencies; and the ability to bounce signals off the atmosphere, combined to pose serious challenges to Soviet jamming – and ensure the message got through.

To support shortwave transmissions from Glória, and satisfy the government’s demands concerning program origination, another location, slightly closer to Lisbon outside the small town of Benavente, was identified for a radio relay site. This location – Maxoqueira – received programs produced in Munich via shortwave signals sent from Holzkirchen, or directly from New York, and relayed them on to a studio complex in Lisbon.

The Maxoqueira site accomplished this by installing multiple, physically separated, directional antennas pointing towards Holzkirchen and receiving the shortwave transmissions with “Triple Diversity Receivers” (TDR). The clearest signal could be selected from one of three sources for onward transmission. This innovation, along with frequency changes, would compensate for degraded reception due to atmospheric conditions or jamming attempts.

The Lisbon studio complex consisted of two recording studios, five edit-monitoring studios and five on-air (also called “air-shift”) studios, and a Master Control. Programs would be relayed from Munich, from twenty to sixty minutes before airtime, with duplicate recordings being made. This would allow them to ensure it was of the best quality, that jamming wasn’t substituting the program content being produced in Munich, and, if necessary, to produce last minute updates.

A dedicated edit-monitoring studio was used to create such updates, that would in turn be queued-up at the appropriate point in the Munich broadcasting schedule in the on-air studio for transmission from Glória. The studio complex also had the ability to relay programs directly into the on-air broadcast stream if needed. Approximately twenty percent of RARET’s personnel were native broadcast-language speakers employed to perform these duties.

On The Road To Glória

Getting to Glória as described as going on a safari. Across the landscape were agricultural villages connected by dirt roads. The 184-hectare tract had no reliable infrastructure and the local government lacked all but the basic support functions. Despite its proximity to Lisbon, Glória was truly in a depressed region of Portugal.

This did not deter RARET or the station’s staff. By the end of February 1952, a modern transmitter building had been completed along with the support utilities needed by the new community, and the family housing buildings were ready for occupation by late November 1952. This milestone was marked by an opening ceremony attended by Portuguese Minister of Communications, General Gomes de Araújo, and featuring the unveiling of a monument bearing a replica of RFE’s World Freedom Bell symbol, and a dedication from Prime Minister Salazar:

“A large number of European countries, threatened in their life and freedom, have now counted on the assistance of the United States and with the assistance of others to defend their public heritage. It seemed difficult in such circumstances to be absent.”

The renewal of RARET’s 10-year license in 1961 was fraught, marking perhaps the most existential moment in RFE’s existence prior to the post-Cold War era of the early 1990’s, when the U.S. Congress decided the future of RFE/RL. Cooperation between the U.S. and Portuguese governments was strained, and renewal was not guaranteed. The loss of RARET and Glória’s transmission capabilities would have had a devastating effect on RFE broadcasting in general. RFE, frankly, had no other capability to overcome Soviet jamming until the 1976 merger with Radio Liberty, which opened the possibility of using its’ seaside Playa de Pals transmitter site outside of Barcelona, Spain as an alternative broadcasting location.

But beyond the sophisticated operations, technical capabilities, personal professionalism, and the demonstrated humanity they had for far-off nationalities, RARET’s managers and staff also showed a profound determination to improve the lives of their fellow Portuguese.

RARET contributed to the construction of a modern road into Glória do Ribatejo paying 40% of the costs. They provided local employment and, for free, opened their medical clinic, maternity ward, ambulance service and the RARET Industrial School to the local population; further improving lives for generations. Many of the young students are pursuing carriers based on that education.

Because of the significant electrical demand of the Glória transmitters, Hydro Electric of Alto Alentejo brought in dedicated high voltage power lines from the Central Electric Dam of Castelo do Bode 63 km (39 mi) away; fully financed by RARET. Feeder circuits from these lines would bring immense improvement to the local inhabitant’s standard of living.

In 1966 the Parish of Glória do Ribatejo was established with extensive support and assistance by the RARET staff. The first President of the Parish Council, José Augusto Catarino (October 16, 1966—December 22, 1969), was a RARET employee and a 1951 “immigrant”. The establishment of a governing parish vastly improved the Glória region’s financial condition and allowed residents to be self-governing.

RARET was not simply a far-flung, re-transmission operation. RARET was the backbone of RFE’s shortwave distribution network and was integral to the success of Radio Free Europe. A tremendous debt of gratitude is owed to the hundreds of men and women that made up the Sociedade Anónima de Rádio Retransmissão. Without RARET, RFE’s grand experiment in surrogate broadcasting may not have happened – and millions of listeners behind the Iron Curtain, and thousands of Portuguese residents, would not have been able to reap its benefits.