A voice from outside of town: Radio Euskadi, the voice of the Basque underground

The shack from where Radio Euskadi broadcast in Venezuela
The shack from where Radio Euskadi broadcast in Venezuela

To mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Radio Euskadi, Media Network presents an in-depth investigation into the history surrounding the Basque clandestine radio station, which is now a legal public broadcaster in Spain’s Basque Country.

Producers: Eric Beauchemin & Jonathan Marks

Broadcast: February 27, 1997


A voice from outside of town, Radio Netherlands Media Network reveals the mystery of the voice behind the Basque underground. The programme is narrated by Jonathan Marks and Diana Janssen.

JM: Indeed, in the next half an hour, we’re going to dig deep in to the history surrounding a clandestine radio station, which is now a legal public broadcaster. Like Radio Netherlands, this station is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

DJ: Radio Euskadi is the public broadcaster in the Basque Country of Spain. The Basque language branch started broadcasting in 1980, when the Basque Country achieved the status of an autonomous region within Spain. The Spanish-language station was officially established two years later. But, in fact, the roots date back half a century and have clandestine radio connections. Recent research in the French and Spanish parts of the Basque Country by Radio Netherlands’ Eric Beauchemin reveals the full story of how the Basque underground fought for an independent voice in Spain.

JM: The Voice of the Basque underground has a colourful history, spread over two continents. If you’ve ever heard of the name Radio Euskadi before, it could be because you came across a shortwave signal in the late ‘60s or early ‘70s when the station broadcast from Venezuela. The Venezuelan operation went off the air 20 years ago this week, on February 28, 1977. But the first clandestine Basque broadcasts came from southern France.

DJ: The origins of Radio Euskadi date back to 1939 when General Francisco Franco came to power. His army had defeated the forces of Spain’s legitimate government, the left-wing Popular Front.

JM: Franco’s repression was brutal. Trade union leaders and intellectuals were relentlessly persecuted as were the nationalist movements in Catalonia and the Basque Country. Both regions had obtained a good deal of autonomy during the Popular Front’s rule, and both the Catalans and the Basques were loath to give it up.

DJ: Franco’s repression was particularly harsh in both areas, and many Catalan and Basque leaders and intellectuals fled abroad. Among them was Joseba Rezola who became the exiled Basque government’s information and propaganda director. He was keenly aware that since the Basques only had one source of information, the Spanish government-run media, they might eventually start believing Franco’s propaganda. Rezola got the green light from the Basque government in exile to purchase a surplus transmitter from the American military. José María Lasarte, a member of the Basque government in exile, who was on a visit to the United States, was asked to take the transmitter back with him in his luggage. Inaki Durañona was Mr. Rezola’s personal secretary, as well as a member of the Basque nationalist party.

The problem was how to get the transmitter into France because a shortwave transmitter isn’t exactly something a typical family carries along as luggage. So, shortly before the Basque minister arrived, our president in exile sent my brother with his diplomatic papers to the French port of Marseilles. My brother spent two days trying to get the proper authorizations, and it worked. When José María Lasarte disembarked with his luggage, my brother spoke to one of the customs officials, showed him the diplomatic identity card and there were no problems. In fact, when Mr. Lasarte’s luggage went through the customs area, the French official shouted “Spanish embassy! Spanish embassy!” And ironically, that’s how the transmitter got into France in 1946, as if it belonged to the Spanish embassy. `

JM: The Basque government in exile chose the town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz in southwestern France as the clandestine station’s programming headquarters. It’s just over 10 kilometres from the border with Spain, but it was a world away at the time. The Spanish authorities kept the border closed and heavily guarded. There was also a practical reason for choosing the town.

In Saint-Jean-de-Luz, there already was a Basque government office. Mr. Rezola lived in Ciboure, which is a twin town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. So, it seemed logical to set up an office there. But Mr. Rezola chose another location for the transmitter, a hilltop village near Bayonne, called Mouguerre. He knew a priest who, although French by birth, had Basque nationalist sentiments, and the priest agreed to help us.

DJ: The transmitter was first set up in the priest’s house by a young Basque engineer who had previously lived in London. During the Spanish civil war, he had been responsible for the radio link between the Republican forces in Bilbao and Bayonne in France.

JM: During its eight years in France, Radio Euskadi operated on a shoestring budget. The station received a news bulletin every day from the Basque government information’s office in Paris. That bulletin was based on news from travelers leaving Spain, as well as information gathered through the Basque underground and relayed out of the country by Morse code. Sometimes, news was also carried by messengers who illegally crossed the border into France.

DJ: The news bulletin was mailed in Paris and, most of the time, it only arrived the following morning in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Mr. Rezola prepared the rest of the transmission using commentaries he wrote himself, as well as outside contributions. Two people presented the half-hour programme in Spanish, which also included a four-minute segment in Basque, a language that was only spoken by about 30% of the Basque people. The first broadcast was at 8:30 in the morning.

Since I was the youngest, I had to take the script to the studio. I took the bus from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to Bayonne, about 20 kilometres away. It was a long way from the offices to the bus stop, and I often had to run because they didn’t finish the script until the last minute. I’d take the bus at 7:15 and arrive in Bayonne at 8. One of the announcers would come down from Mouguerre on his bike to meet me, and then he’d ride back to the studio with the script.

JM: The small team was enthusiastic about the transmissions. But despite the short distance that separated them from the Spanish Basque Country, reception in Spain was weak, and initially few people heard them. But a daring stunt on Easter Day, the Basque national day, in 1947 would have a far greater impact on Basque public opinion.

DJ: The Basque underground decided to launch an unprecedented attack on the state-controlled Spanish radio. José Joaquín Azurza, a 19-year-old engineering student and nationalist, decided to break into a studio link that ran between the regional Spanish radio studios in San Sebastián in the Basque Country and the transmitter site.

JM: In those days, the 5 kilowatt medium wave transmitter was the most powerful one in the Basque Country and could reach all the main cities in Euskadi, the name the Basque use for their country. The goal of the operation was to broadcast a Basque nationalist statement over the Spanish regional station on the Basque national day.

DJ: José Azurza, better known as Joe, takes up the story. Although he speaks fluent English, he underwent an unsuccessful operation on his vocal chords 20 years ago. We’ve dubbed his voice to carry his emotions better.

So, on the Thursday before Easter Sunday, at 10:30 or so in the evening, we went with a bicycle each – three of us – to the telephone pole. One of us climbed. I stayed on the ground and told him what to do: put the crocodile clips over the telephone lines. There were bare wires in those days, no insulation, but we didn’t know which pair of wires they were using for the studio signals. There were about four possibilities. The crocodile clips were connected to two long, thin wires, and down below I sat with my ear pressed to a small earphone that I had hidden in my pocket. We fiddled with various combinations until I heard music in the headphones. And then, we knew that we had the right pair of wires. We fixed the wires to the wooden telephone pole with nails, and we went home.

Three days later, it was Easter Sunday. We had a really tense morning. We had to wait till lunchtime. Just before 2 o’clock, when families used to sit around the radio to hear the official newscast, which was broadcast by the Spanish government station, I remember they were playing violin music. It was about 5 past 2. The violin concert was being broadcast from a scratchy old 78 record. By this time, we were back at the telephone pole with a microphone and an amplifier that I had made especially for the purpose. We connected the wires, and I flipped the switch, and I said the following in Basque: this is the Basque underground. Today is the national day of Basque Country. Long live the free Basque Country. We are talking to you from the

underground, but soon we are going to be able to speak to you openly. Again [Basque]. Later, we found out that the fellow who was in charge of the sender was out on the transmitter building balcony at the time. It was a nice day – a bit hazy but sunny. And that is good in the Basque Country in Spain because our climate is often quite cold, and it’s certainly changeable, often rainy, very humid. Just look at this grass. It’s always green. So the fellow who was out on the balcony, when he heard our resistance message, he dashed inside to shut down the main transmitter. Bum. But then, he slipped on sort of a rug or something that was near the door, and of course, he fell to the floor. It took him a few seconds to get up again. Otherwise, he would have cut us off much sooner. Of course, in the message that I wrote and checked with my superiors in the Basque resistance, it was designed in such a way that if only the first words went out on the air, our goal would have been achieved. Anything extra was a real bonus. The whole thing – my transmission 0 was designed to last possibly no more than 30 seconds, and about 25 of those actually went out on the air. It was the main topic of conversation on the streets.

DJ: The climax for the operators came the following day when the BBC Spanish service for Spain reported the clandestine proclamation of Basque nationalism on Spanish radio.

JM: International recognition encouraged them to repeat the operation on two other occasions: in 1948 and ’49. But this time, the tactics were different. Joe constructed a compact 50 Watt transmitter, which could be carried on a bike rack. Then he and his team set up an antenna in a safe house in San Sebastián. On Easter Day 1948, they cut the 13,000 Volt power line, which fed Radio San Sebastián’s transmitter site and then flipped on their own 50 Watt transmitter for a very short period. Joe carried out a similar operation in 1949, but despite the false rumours spread by the underground to distract attention, the Spanish police finally caught up with him.

We spread the news that these broadcasts may have been from a French boat. It was accepted even at high level as a possible excuse. It was good for the Spaniards because they could not do a thing about a French boat operating 6 miles away from the coast and transmitting just in front of San Sebastián. So it was an explanation, and there was no police action for a while. But finally I was arrested under suspicion, and I spent 24 hours in prison. Lots of people pleaded for me, and in the end, the police believed my fishing boat theory.

DJ: Once released from detention, Joe took refuge in France. He decided to finish his engineering studies in Paris and was eventually called upon to provide technical support to the clandestine station still operating in southern France.

Well, it became a part time job for me. Coming on the train from Paris every six months or so because something went wrong and they didn’t know how to fix it. Later, we moved it to a better location in Ciboure. The World War II vintage transmitter was originally made to be carried on the back of a truck. The antenna was tunable, but it was inefficient and it was short, too short for the wavelength we were using. But when we relocated the transmitter and we cut properly matched antennas for 49 and 31 metres, it became much more powerful in Spain. The power was only half a kilowatt, but now it was audible and that bothered the Spaniards. The proof came when they established jamming transmitters in all the important towns in the Basque Country and elsewhere in Spain as well.

JM: The Franco government was quite blatant in its jamming operations. Telephone books even listed the Radiated Interference Service complete with address and phone number. The Spanish authorities were keen to have Radio Euskadi closed down, but the French simply turned a blind eye.

DJ: After all, in 1946, the French president at the time, Georges Bidault had given the Basque president in exile José Antonio Aguirre his verbal authorisation for the clandestine radio broadcasts.

One day or rather one night, we were summoned to Bayonne to the DST, that’s the French domestic counter intelligence agency. Three of us went: a technician, our driver and myself. The French police questioned us all night long. I think they already knew where the station was more or less, but they wanted to know its exact location. In the end, they extracted the information they wanted, and the next morning they let us go back home.

DJ: After this incident in 1949, Mr. Rezola and the Basque government in exile decided to move the transmitter to Ciboure, a town near to Saint-Jean-de-Luz. From there, the station broadcast for another few years.

Times were changing, and Spanish television made an arrangement with French television to coproduce popular television programmes with musical stars. Spanish TV could make them cheaply, and they’d be broadcast at prime time on French TV. People like Luis Mariano, the Basque singer, were popular in France at the time. French government television made a deal to buy the programmes, but the Spanish authorities said they’d be happy to complete the deal only if Radio Euskadi was closed. François Mitterrand, who was the interior minister then, agreed and the transmitter was silenced in 1954.

JM: 11 years later, Radio Euskadi would resurface, this time from the other side of the Atlantic, from Venezuela, which by then was home to over a million Spaniards who fled the civil war and the brutal Franco regime.

DJ: Among them were about 2000 Basque families, including Joe Azurza. He became president of the Basque club in the Venezuelan capital Caracas in 1963. He and about 20 other young Basques decided to resume clandestine radio operations.

JM: It was decided that the radio production work would take place in Caracas, but it was only after months of searching, they found the location for the transmitter and the antenna. They chose the town of Santa Lucía, about 20 miles outside Caracas in the Tuy Valley.

It wasn’t a very rich place, about 2000 inhabitants, plus some surrounding settlements about a mile away with probably another 2000 people. Through friends we came into contact with Luis José García. Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to restart. His land was a bit out of town, and he let us build a house on his property. There was a pond, actually a sort of small lake about 150 feet in diameter. Sometimes, during the rainy season, it would burst its banks. Normally the only visitors there were cows and horses coming down from the mountains to quench their thirst. We bought a British Perkins diesel generator capable of producing 30 kilowatts of electricity. We could buy fuel because it was used for tractors, and we purchased two shortwave transmitters of 4 kilowatts each that we bought as scrap from an oil company. It was rather old fashioned with old-fashioned tubes for the 1960’s.

DJ: Joe and his colleagues used the natural vegetation to set up their antenna and camouflage it from the curious. They constructed former telex supports to hang the Rhombic antenna wires amidst the branches of the surrounding trees, which were about 30 metres high.

JM: It all worked quite well and after some tests, the clandestine station’s first transmission from Venezuela was on July 10th, 1965, almost 11 years after the operation in France had been forced off the air.

I bought a small xylophone in a toy shop. It was broken. It was missing one or two notes. I said nothing.” How much does it cost?”, I asked. “Oh, just take it”, said the shopkeeper. I took it away, but it did have enough notes to make that interval signal, which was the beginning of our national anthem.

JM: Radio Euskadi from Venezuela had only even transmissions beamed back to the Basque Country: two broadcasts in the winter, three in the summer. The format of the half-hour broadcast was the same as the one which had come from France: two 7-minute commentaries in Spanish, followed by a 4-minute commentary in Basque, and then what the station regarded as the most important segment: the news in Spanish at the very end of the transmission.

Telling the truth was revolutionary in Spain, as it probably was in Russia. Listening to our radio and other foreign stations was frowned upon by the police. The fact that we were breaking through that information gap was enough. We were in political exile. Even if we only whistled songs, that was good enough.

DJ: But on several occasions, Radio Euskadi served as an important source of information for the Basque Country, for example, during the notorious Burgos trials in the early 70’s, when five members of the Basque terrorist movement ETA were sentenced to death for attacks they had carried out.

JM: The trial was broadcast live on French radio and relayed by shortwave to France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean. The three French 50 kilowatt transmitters came in loud and clear in Caracas. So Joe recorded excerpts of the broadcasts off the air at home and took the cassettes to the studio, where the extracts were broadcast on Radio Euskadi. In an age when direct broadcast satellites still didn’t exist, it made the station sound professional, credible and informed. It was Radio Euskadi’s finest hour.

DJ: The coverage of the Burgos trials also helped confuse listeners who were trying to pinpoint the exact location of the clandestine station. Radio Euskadi did everything it could to maintain the confusion and the secret. Reception reports had to be sent to a post office box in Paris and the QSL cards, verifying reception reports featured a medium wave transmitter located on a snow-covered mountain in the Pyrenees. It was a crude photo montage because the transmitter tower wasn’t straight and would have come crashing down had it really existed.

JM: Throughout the Venezuelan period, Radio Euskadi tried to create the impression that it was broadcasting from Norway, a country which would have been a logical location for the station because of Norway’s strong and continued opposition to the Franco regime.

DJ: The station used a variety of presenters during its 12 years in Venezuela. Basque nationalists and students were frequently used as were the wives and girlfriends of the founders.

JM: Basque priests would also frequently go to the studios in downtown Caracas after their morning services to present programmes in Spanish and Basque. It was crucial that the presenters had a Castillian accent from Spain so as not to give the game away.

DJ: One of the presenters was Iñaki Anastagasti, who today is the spokesman for the Basque nationalist party in the Spanish parliament.

It was a total change for me. People couldn’t understand why I left a good job, but I thought the work would be interesting. My life changed completely. I wrote the scripts and coordinated the presenters. We had access to the major international news agencies, but it was hard to get information about what was going on in Spain. So we just added a bit of imagination, and it sounded credible.

JM: Various methods were devised to keep Radio Euskadi’s existence a secret. Station staff put up a sign near the transmitter site, which gave any passerby the idea that the antennas were part of an international ionospheric experiment conducted by the ITU. The frequencies of 15080 and 13625 kHz were only nominal. Sometimes it was a bit higher or lower to avoid Spanish jammers. At one time, they drifted too low, and the American embassy complained of interference to the standard time and frequency station WWV on 15 megahertz. Euskadi moved.

The financing was normally obtained with a lottery or sweepstakes based on the weekend football games in Spain. There was a large community of Spaniards living in Venezuela by the 60’s, maybe a million people. We, Basques, used shortwave to receive football results from Spain. We sold carefully prepared lottery tickets that brought in quite a lot of money. Jokin Inza was the treasurer of the group. We were never prosecuted. It was very popular, and people didn’t know what it was for.

DJ: Radio Euskadi was fairly cheap to run. The main expense was buying diesel oil for the generators. Every couple of days, they would drive a Volkswagen Beetle out from the transmitter site and go to the petrol station in Santa Lucía about five kilometers away. They’d fill four 5 gallon cans with diesel oil. But Iñaki Anasagasti says it was really running on ideals and enthusiasm.

There was a great deal of comradeship because we were a clandestine station after all, and we had to keep it secret. The pay was minimal, and hardly anyone knew about our work. But we did it out of love for the profession and the cause. I’ve never seen people who were literally as unselfish as those who worked at Radio Euskadi in those days. It was a very warm spirit, one of resistance.

JM: The Basques in Caracas finally decided to take the clandestine station off the air in 1977. Franco had died two years earlier, and the dictatorship had made way for democracy, embedded in one of the most liberal constitutions in Europe. Censorship no longer existed in Spain. For the first time in 40 years, the Basque nationalist party could once again speak publicly in the Basque Country. By then, most of the people who had helped set up the station and produced the programmes in the early years had moved on or had returned to Spain. The only person who remained throughout the clandestine operation in Venezuela was the man who lived out at the transmitter site. For 12 years, the man had lived alone with his dog in the hot, humid Venezuelan jungle, surrounded by horses, snakes, ticks and many empty beer cans until the final transmission on February 28th 1977.

DJ: Radio Euskadi is now back on the air from within the Basque Country. In a future programme, we’ll look at how they are presently trying to reach Basques abroad. But today, we give the last word to Joe Arzuza, who now, at age 69, is still working as a professional engineer in San Sebastián.

I think it was worthwhile because, as I said before, the fact that there were enough Basques abroad willing to make that effort in terms of time and money, who were enthusiastic enough to make the programmes, just the fact that we were there, it was a banner. I am a patriot. It was my duty.

A voice from outside of town was a Media Network special presentation…

† José Joaquín Azurza Aristegieta died on October 7, 2006 in Donostia-San Sebastián.