Monday, November 22, 2010

Fordlandia Radio

This is one of those enticingly arcane experiments in radio that I've researched fruitlessly for years. Fordlandia was in Brazil, but it was as American as apple pie. In 1928 Henry Ford was making an attempt to become independent from the British as a supplier of rubber. The rubber came from Malaysia and the price of the raw materials was effecting his supply chain. It's called "vertical integration."  He wanted to control all the raw materials that went into the making of his cars.
Ford built what was in one sense the last big company town, and in another sense the first of the maquiladoras.  The Ford Motor Company built a whole manufacturing center, a power-plant, sawmill, radio station, and hospital all to serve the workers of the rubber plantation. It 10,000 square acres, that's four times the size of Rhode Island.  His engineers tried to make it into Henry Ford's vision of America. The property included golf courses, swimming pools, schools, hamburgers, ID badges, boy scouts, square dances and even radio. To his credit he planned on holding elections. He dreamed of it as a utopia and named it Fordlandia. More here.

When I find references they are often vague, or brief, or both.  The book Bulldozers Come First indicated the radio station was located in the Ford Administrative offices there surrounded by a park. In the book Fordlandia: the Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City author Greg Grandin wrote
"Mulrooney thought it was funny that he could turn on his radio and listen to American music patched in from the United States via relays in Managua, Nicaragua and Santa Maria, Columbia. One night he and his wife danced to a Rudy Vallee concert broadcast live from Greenbay, Wisconsin."
It's a struggle to imagine what it was like, this lone outpost of artificial Americana. And every account is so short on details when it comes to the radio station. The trade rag Economic Geography listed radio stations, plural. "there are over 1,000 buildings of all types on the two sites [Fordlandia and Belterra]. These include radio stations, powerhouses, refrigeration and water purification plants, hospitals, schools..." It was written also that the radio station kept in contact with the company offices at Belem. Belem was not in America, but a Brazilian port city. Fordlandia was a city unto it self with it's own satellites to communicate with the outside world. The single description of the relays in Nicaragua and Columbia tell me that the programming was carried on shortwave. The local retransmission may not have been.

Henry Fords interest in broadcasting began very early. In 1922 his first station WWI-AM began broadcasting at 360 meters with a respectable 250 watts. Ford employee Fred Black built the first transmitter, he may later have been the man that built the units used at Fordlandia. WWI launched in May of that year right in Dearborn. By October he was publicly announcing that he wanted 400 more. He set up an inter-plant wireless at 1,713 meters (a LOWFER). It started with local talent, then began importing talent. They had bands such as the Ford Dixie Eight, and the Ford Hawaiians. They also had more practical programs on health and sanitation. They shared some facilities with KDEN-AM. But Ford was practical, competition in Detroit with WWJ-AM would be expensive and adhering to FRC regulations rubbed him the wrong way. He closed the station in 1926. The Edison Institute Radio Club continued to use the facility for amateur radio into the 1930s. The towers were torn down in 1942. For Henry Ford it was just a cost/benefit analysis.When he built Fordlandia, there was no competition, and there was no FCC. He tried again.

In 1930 Fordlandia workers rioted and destroyed everything breakable. Their reasons were many, and the destruction was widespread. They dumped vehicles in the river, smashed time clocks, windows, burned paper records, slashed tires, and vandalized the sawmill, garage, office building and even smashed the radio station. The Ford managers fled into the jungle and hid for days while the Brazilian army put down the uprising. In 1934 Ford exchanged part of Fordlandia for another tract about 85 miles down river trying to find better land. This tract was named Belterra. It did not exactly prosper either.

In 1945, synthetic rubber was developed crushing the profit margins of the Ford projects in Brazil. Demand dried up before he had even produced the first tire. His grandson, Henry Ford II sold Fordlandia and Belterra at a loss of more than $20 million. The jungle city was abandoned, the radio stations vanished into the undergrowth. Today it's hard to even find a picture of where the radio station might have been. Visible in the undergrowth are the hospital, the sawmill, the water tower and the workers homes.. but the administrative office, wherever it was, is gone.