In 1206, two Viking warriors, Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukk, donned birch-bark leggings to ski through the silent Norwegian winter and rescue the kingdom’s child prince. In doing so, they imprinted their names on history: They were the Birkebeiners, Norwegian for “birch bark leggings.”
Some 750 years later, Birkebeiner descendents in Hayward, Wisconsin paid tribute to their heritage and created the American Birkebeiner, a 34-mile cross country ski race. And people around the world, from Wisconsin to Oslo, could hear about it thanks to a unique new radio station.
Michael Poulos, a lawyer and journalist from Evanston, shared the story of the American Birkebeiner with the world in his report “Birkie Fever.” Poulos described it as “a state of mind where you compete, instead, with yourself, just to impress yourself.” This broadcast typified a new, intriguing way to broadcast on shortwave radio. This was Radio Earth.
The show was the brainchild of Poulos and three aspiring media entrepreneurs: Jeff White (president), John Freberg (chief engineer), and John Beebe (marketing consultant). Traditional FM radio can only broadcast locally due to shorter wave frequencies, but in the late 1970s, shortwave radio – a form of broadcast that could transmit across continents and over oceans because of higher wave frequencies – attracted about 200 million daily listeners worldwide. But it was dominated by propaganda and God-speak. The Radio Earth team saw an opening in the waves during the tail end of the Cold War: There was a need for unbiased, worldwide radio news. Someone had to step up.
“We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the earth?” Poulos says.
The concept of Radio Earth began at Northern Illinois University in the late 1970s, where Beebe, White and Freberg worked on a public radio program together. Beebe and White decided to create an international shortwave radio station after meeting with Beebe’s father, a media advertiser, who affirmed the idea’s viability. As multinational companies expanded, he explained, so too would the international advertising market.
They founded Radio Earth, promising “objective news, information, music, and feature reports to … the world community, on the shortwave bands.” White says the program attracted broadcasters from state-run stations in search of free reign and creative opportunity.
“We had segments from people from all over the world,” White says, “some of whom worked in government stations but felt really stifled with the programming they were allowed to do there.”
“We had a point of view, but our point of view was to not have a point of view,” Poulos says. “There were people here in Evanston reaching out to a world that was still very much divided. Climbing over the walls and climbing over the Iron Curtain. Touching people and showing them that there is a way to live where you’re not opposed to other people. Instead, you’re in it together.”
Preparations for the first broadcast began in the early 1980s. In his spare bedroom, Freberg spent his nights working past 2 a.m. building a portable studio that followed Radio Earth around the world, and eventually returned to Sherman Avenue. There, the Pouloses continued recording until the early 1990s.
There was just one problem: The FCC prohibited U.S.-based shortwave radio stations to broadcast to the U.S. They had to find a different home.
Radio Earth’s vision finally came to fruition when a Hilton opened its doors on a Caribbean island called Curacao, and they subsequently received financial support from the minister of finance and tourism organizations (An airline flew the tapes to Santa Domingo for transmission in exchange for promotional opportunities). Freberg then sent broadcasting equipment to Curacao, where White oversaw assembly of a recording studio inside the Hilton.
“All the work we were putting in in advance of getting this thing on the air, it all seemed kind of nebulous, sort of surreal in a way,” Freberg says.
On June 1, 1983, two weeks after the first shipment of equipment to Curacao, Freberg tuned into shortwave radio and heard White’s voice on the other end, along with fellow Northern Illinois graduate Matt Bell.
There was Radio Moscow. There was Voice of America. There was religious radio. And now, there was Radio Earth. Broadcasts opened with, “Radio Earth presents: the world.”
Radio Earth told human interest stories and even ad-libbed their broadcasts, a far cry from scripted state-run stations. “It gave it a very live feel,” says Suzanne Poulos, the secretary treasurer of the company. Still, the founders weren’t certain of this new method’s impact. Two weeks after that first broadcast, though, the hotel secretary called them into her office; she had something important to show them.
“There was a big, gigantic mailbag there, and she said, ‘All these letters here are for you,’” White says. “Everybody loved [our programming], we had letters from all over the world. And so [we knew] the concept worked.”
From the tiny island in the Caribbean, the group’s soundwaves rippled across the blue waters of the Atlantic. At its peak, according to a Chicago Tribune article, Radio Earth attracted over 600,000 listeners weekly. A 1984 Review of International Broadcasting study concluded that its lead program “The World” had the number two daily program behind “BBC World News.”
But Fredberg and White note that these numbers were hard to quantify to advertisers, and were a key reason for Radio Earth’s eventual decline. A lack of Arbitron ratings (think Nieman ratings for radio) scared ad agencies away. Despite the interest of major companies, there wasn’t enough market research to ensure profitability.
“Advertising is a business where advertisers want to understand the value they’re getting from the advertisements,” Freberg says. “It was clear we were not getting the advertising response we needed. At a certain point, it was like ‘we’re all paying for this out of our own pockets.’”
Despite financial struggles, the programming had tremendous reach. The team received letters from British naval officers at sea, where Radio Earth was the only station they could pick up. Poulos, who ran for Illinois State Representative in 1984, remembers going door-to-door in Evanston, where voters recognized his voice from the broadcasts.
“From the get go, it was casting a broad net,” Poulos says. “You didn’t have a concentrated audience. What happened was the program immediately had an impact on the international broadcasting community.”
Listeners could tune in to hear about life thousands of miles away from recognizable broadcasters who weren’t trying to convince them to support Communism or believe in God. Instead, these broadcasters enthusiastically reported on issues and events that moved them, which in turn moved listeners.
The international community realized the importance of audience relationships as listeners. Radio Sweden even ran a formal study that concluded it needed to produce more broadcasting like Radio Earth’s.
“Radio Earth, even though it was not a financial success, really did give my wife and me a chance to reach out and touch people everywhere,” Poulos says. Once White and Bell moved on from Radio Earth, the Pouloses took over production and broadcasting responsibilities, setting up the portable studio in a small room of their legal office.
In 2018, Radio Earth no longer broadcasts on shortwave, though a couple posts survive on YouTube. The other founders moved on over the decades, but the Pouloses still work in the office on Sherman Avenue, nestled into an unassuming office space that still dons the Radio Earth sign.
While the original team remembers Radio Earth as a representation of all that is possible in youth, it is perhaps Poulos’ conclusion at the end of “Birkie Fever” that best sums up Radio Earth’s goal of letting both the Earth, and its people, speak for themselves. “It is a race where its total is greater than the sum of its parts, but where the final meaning is found in the individual,” Poulos said at the time. “With determination and inner strength, everybody can win the Birkie, regardless of ability. Perhaps the final lesson of the Birkebeiner is with that same determination and inner strength, everybody can also win at life.”