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volume 23
may 2020

The SS Malolo and Captain Dobbsie


  How an early offshore radio station ended up in Hawaii in 1931
by Jan van Heeren
  For those who have a feeling for the history of radio and more specifically for the history of the offshore radio stations, it is interesting when something emerges from the distant past that has something to do with it, even if it is sideways. This certainly applies to the broadcasts that were made in 1926 from the ocean steamer SS Malolo. Jan van Heeren tells more about it here.
1 Left: Radio presenter Hugh Barrett Dobbs, dressed as his alter ego Captain Dobbsie. Click here for more images.

Back in time. Already in the twenties and thirties of the last century radio programs were emitted from ships. Hans Knot (1993; 1998) described earlier among others the examples of the HMS Andromeda and the MV Kanimbla. We can now add to that list the SS Malolo — a name that appeared in old radio magazines of 1931, such as Broadcast Weekly (1931a; 1931b; 1931c) and Radio Doings (Nunan, 1931). What's this all to do with? For an answer to that question we first make a leap back in time to the year 1926. Ocean steamer/ cruise ship SS Malolo is launched in Philadelphia. It is a very luxurious ship that sails the route San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu and contributes to the popularity of Hawaii as a tourist island. Soon after entering service, in 1927, the ship collided with a cargo ship, causing damage similar to that of the Titanic fifteen years earlier. Due to a well-functioning compartment system, the ship was able to safely enter the port under its own power, albeit with 6,000 tons of seawater on board.

It was not only the Malolo that saw the light of day in 1926. The radio programme "Ship of Joy" also started in that year at broadcaster KPO, daily between eight and nine o'clock in the morning, with the exception of Sunday. It is, apart from KPO, also heard by a large number of other broadcasters in syndicated form on the West Coast of America. "Ship of Joy" is an imitation of an already existing popular program: "Maxwellhouse Show Boat". The new program is presented by Hugh Barrett Dobbs. He already has radio experience, especially as a presenter of a morning gymnastics program. Those gymnastics broadcasts, sponsored by Quaker Oats, were very popular. "Ship of Joy" also became a sponsored program. Initially the company Del Monte was a sponsor, after that it became Shell, which changed the name to "Shell Ship of Joy". The program was broadcast via the NBC Pacific Coast network.

  The popularity of the program was shown by the salary Dobbs received. It was said to be more than President Hoover's. (In the period 1929 to 1932 he collected almost a quarter of a million US dollars through Shell). Another indication of his popularity was that Dobbs received almost two million letters from listeners in six years. The listeners of "Ship of Joy" were called "shipmates" or "happytimers" and Dobbs himself became Captain Dobbsie.
2 Right: The luxury ocean liner SS Malolo

By ship to Hawaii. The two events of 1926, the launching of the SS Malolo and the start of the radio program "Ship of Joy", would come together a few years later. At the beginning of 1930 a top man of Shell, E.H. Sanders, thought it would be nice to have the programme "Ship of Joy" actually broadcast from a ship for once. It took almost a year and a half before everything was complete in terms of technology, permits and finances. But finally, on Friday July 11, 1931, the SS Malolo left at the Golden Gate of San Francisco in the direction of Honolulu, Hawaii. During this voyage Captain Dobbsie would take care of his morning program "Shell Ship of Joy" every day from the ship.

The ship was shown off by thousands of listeners. On board were among others Captain Dobbsie, two radio technicians, twenty artists and a large number of fans of the program. A temporary radio studio was set up on the ship. The 200 Watt shortwave transmitter received the call letters WIOXAI and could broadcast on 9670 and 6020 kHz. The transmitter had already been tested during an earlier voyage. The transmissions would be relayed over the entire NBC Pacific Coast network. At the time, the press reported that it was the first time in the history of radio that a seafaring radio station provided regular broadcasts during a voyage across the Pacific Ocean, with these broadcasts being distributed via a network of radio stations.

  On July 16th the ship arrived at Hawaii. There the mayor welcomed Captain Dobbsie and handed him the key to the city. From Hawaii the broadcasts continued, but not, as one would have liked, from the Malolo, but simply from land. Yet again, this was not so commonplace, because it was another first: these were the first broadcasts from Hawaii aimed at America. The Friday evening that they stayed in Hawaii, not only the morning program "Shell Ship of Joy" was broadcasted there, but there was also a special evening broadcast with local artists. The 18th of July the return journey was accepted, with the ship again being waved off by thousands. Also on the way back the program "Ship of Joy" was broadcasted daily.
3 Left: Captain Dobbsie aboard the SS Malolo

How did the story end? The Malolo was thoroughly rebuilt in 1937. During the Second World War it was requisitioned and later returned to the shipping company. In 1948 the last trip to Hawaii was made with the ship which came into Italian hands. In 1977, on a Greek shipbreaking yard, the demolition started of the Queen Fredrica, a name that it bore since 1954 and that was named after the then queen of Greece. (Coincidentally, the name of Radio Caroline's first ship, the Fredericia, is often wrongly written as "Frederica").

All the companies that sponsored the programs of Dobbs about ninety years ago still exist today, which is quite remarkable: Quaker, Del Monte and Shell. With Shell there is immediately a Dutch/British connection to the early broadcasts from the sea.

  After the broadcasts via the NBC Pacific Coast network, Shell "Ship of Joy" was broadcasted for a period of time by the Columbia West Coast network and then by KOMO Seattle. At the end of each broadcast of "Ship of Joy" Captain Dobbsie asked the listeners to put their hand on the heart and made the following request: "Send out a wish to somebody — somewhere — who may be in sickness or trouble. Everybody — WISH!" Dobbs was concerned about the health of others, but didn't know his own health was bad. It was in 1944 that the at that time perhaps richest radio presenter in the world suddenly died. Captain Dobbsie was only fifty years old at that time.
  • Broadcast Weekly (1931a), "Shell Happytime to Present Unique Broadcast Series." In: Broadcast Weekly, 28-6-1931, pp. 4-5. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from www.americanradiohistory.com.
  • Broadcast Weekly (1931b),"Shell Happytimers Making history." In: Broadcast Weekly, 12-7-1931, pp. 4-5. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from www.americanradiohistory.com.
  • Broadcast Weekly (1931c),"Captain Dobbsie Captures Hawaii." In: Broadcast Weekly, 9-8-1931, p. 5. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from www.americanradiohistory.com.
  • Knot, Hans (1993), Historie van de zeezenders, 1907-1973. Over pioniers, duimzuigers en mislukkelingen. Amsterdam: Stichting Media Communicatie, 1993.
  • Knot, Hans (1998), "De alleroudste zeezenders. Over de oertijd van de commerciële radiostations vanaf zee." In: Soundscapes, 1998, 1.
  • Nunan, Carl T. (1931), "Dope on Dobbs." In: Radio Doings, 1931, 5, pp. 25, 44. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from www.americanradiohistory.com.
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