The three and a half year period I spent in Bechuanaland/Botswana as their
Broadcasting Engineer was one of the most satisfying and fulfilling times in my life.
When we arrived in 1964, Bechuanaland had a small broadcasting station which had
been built by a South African, Peter Nel, the former police radio officer.
The transmitter had an output of around 500 watts and only came on the air during the
evenings on 3356 Khz (a frequency still used by Radio Botswana). It was located in a
spare jail cell in the local police station at Lobatse, a small town close to the South
African border. The antenna was a simple dipole slung between two 40 feet long steel
poles made from water pipe.
The studio was located two miles away in the one and only jail cell at the High Court
(which was vacant as all of the prisoners had moved to a new facility). Many poor souls
had spent their last days in that cell before their appointment with the public hangman. If
only the walls could have talked! As you can imagine it was not built for comfort but
after some modifications it did pass muster (for instance we hung blankets on the wall to
reduce the echo). The audio equipment was homemade and primitive but worked
reasonably well. Our studio audio feed was sent by telephone line to the transmitter at
the other jail. I spent a lot of time in Lobatse jails!
Obviously something more permanent had to be obtained and planning started on
a more up-to-date system which would be installed at the new capital being built at
Gaberones, forty miles to the north. A temporary transmitter site next to the Gaberones
water tower was chosen and we quickly built a small steel shed to house the
transmitter and erected two 85 feet stayed water pipe masts (it was fun getting them
up) and fitted a three wire folded dipole for 3356 Khz between them. An old Lister
diesel generator was pressed into service to provide power as the town power station
was not ready for operation.
Whilst all of this was going on I had managed to scrounge from the South African
Broadcasting Corporation an old Standard Telephones and Cables CS2 high frequency
transmitter which had a rated output of 2 kilowatts. It was pretty ancient but it worked
and, with its higher antenna, it soon covered the country reasonably well. Also we had
been given a room for use as a temporary studio in the Gaberones telephone central office
building and moved our Lobatse studio equipment into it. Again our audio feed from the
studio was linked to the transmitter (which was about a mile away) by a telephone line.
This studio was definitely better than the jail cell, but lacked any sound proofing. I can
well recall the day that a stray dog got into the corridor outside our makeshift studio and
started barking its head off - all through our national news bulletin. I found out later that
the South African Government had a monitoring station which kept an eye on our signals
in case, I guess, we put out anything they didn't like. We heard that our barking
transmission caused a lot of hilarity at their monitoring station on that day.
On another occasion I was sitting at home having my breakfast and listening to the
station and I noticed that whilst the announcer sounded fine, the recorded music was
awful, as it was being played at the wrong speed. I rushed up to the studio to see what was
going on and calculated that our incoming electrical supply was not 50 Hz (most countries
in Africa use 50 Hz) - it was something much lower - around 40 Hz.
So off I went (we didn't have any telephones) to the new power station. When I got
there I found that the station frequency meter was showing an output of 40 Hz and that the
operator was fast asleep at the control console. He was quickly woken up and soon got
more steam into the turbine to bring it up to speed. The station didn't have an automatic
speed regulator at that time, but one was soon installed. If the frequency had gotten any
lower there would have been an awful lot of burnt out refrigerators in town that day.
We then started looking around for a permanent transmitting station site outside of
Gaberones and eventually selected a bush area eight miles north of town, at Sebele. Using
money provided by the British Government we bought and cleared around fifty acres,
built a proper transmitter building, ordered a 10 kW HF transmitter, installed a scrounged
100 kW Caterpillar generator and started to set up vertical incidence transmitting antennas
for various wavebands -- and their associated feeders. It was a pretty busy time.
Dog barking aside, we had to do something about the studio as well and moved the
studio equipment once again into a small theatre next to the government printing shop.
This was going to be our home until we got money to build a proper broadcasting studio
complex. The theatre had reasonable acoustics and we were able to do more complicated
programmes - such as discussions, shows with audiences, choirs and plays (even
Shakespeare's Richard III - or "Dick the 3" as it was called by studio staff!). It was also
the scene of the cow bells caper. As many people know. Radio Botswana has always used
cow bells as the station's identification signal. Well the original tape was getting pretty
stretched and needed replacement. We really didn't have time to go around seeking a
moving herd of cattle with cow bells around their necks and we decided to do the
recording in the studio - minus the cattle of course. A bunch of us went around the studio
pretending to be cows, ringing the bells and mooing from time to time! It was hilarious
and we could hardly contain ourselves from laughing. We used that tape and its copies
until I left in 1968.I suspect that a newer version is in use today.
We intended to expand our educational programming and clearly one studio was not
enough. So we managed to talk the government into assigning a site for our new studios -
right in the centre of town. It was around two acres. We didn't have any money for a
building but we kept hoping. Being a devious sort of person I had a large sign installed on
the site which said, "site for Broadcasting House". The President, Seretse Khama, and his
cabinet all drove past the sign every day on the way to work and it certainly caught their
attention. I really don't think it could be called subliminal advertising!
Well it paid off. One morning I got a call from our member of the cabinet,
Amos Dambe, telling me that as we spoke the President was moving into Government
House, recently vacated by the now departed British Governor. He reckoned that if we
wanted to use the President's ex-mansion as our studio building we would have to
We wanted it and did we move fast? We certainly did. We rushed with saw, hammer
and some nails to our "site for Broadcasting House" sign, cut off the "site for" and nailed
the remaining "Broadcasting House" section on the wall next to the gate of the President's
old place, just as the moving vans were carrying his furniture out. In the afternoon the
minister called again, laughing his head off, to say that the President had agreed that we
could have it. We beat several other departments to the punch, including the police
commissioner who wanted it for his headquarters. I don't think he ever forgave me.
An awful lot of work had to be carried out to make it suitable for broadcasting purposes
but we soon moved on it. Several studios were fitted in the building and a master control
room set up and, at last, some professional studio equipment ordered and installed.
A VHP link was used to carry our programmes out to the transmitter site.
By now our new Marconi 10 kilowatt transmitter and its antenna arrays were in
operation and Radio Botswana (we had got our independence from Britain by then) was
heard clearly throughout Botswana and South and Central Africa, and on occasions in
Europe and the USA. The original 500 watt transmitter was used for standby purposes.
The old CS2 transmitter was dismantled and moved to Sebele, rebuilt and made into a
2 kilowatt broadcast band transmitter which fed a T antenna supported between two
10 foot masts. Also a small 50 watt Redifon FM transmitter was installed. It fed a
directional yagi antenna which sat on the top of one of the 120 foot towers and beamed
FM signals into Gaberones and Mochudi.
Broadcasting was not the only thing we had to worry about. Whenever the police radio
officer went on leave we had to cover his work. We also looked after the ancient aircraft
beacon at Maun, 300 miles away and did the planning for the network of aircraft beacons
about to be set up in Botswana. We were even able to help the United Nations with their
filming of the drought in Botswana at that time.
When Ian Smith's government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) declared their
unilateral declaration of independence I became closely involved with the BBC radio
station set up in Botswana, very close to the Rhodesian border. It had 10 kilowatt HP
and 50 kilowatt broadcast band transmitters and was used to beam news and
programming into Rhodesia as the Smith government had stopped relaying BBC news,
etc. The Rhodesians eventually tried to jam these transmissions, but not too
successfully. We had a lot of fun dodging their jammers. Our listeners had to be rather
dedicated to listen to us!
One never had a dull moment, that's for sure. Improvisation was the name of the game
in Botswana and strong scrounging skills were mandatory. In fact when we visited the
Public Works Department workshops we used to fill in the entrance log giving the reason
for our visit as "Stealing"! Harold Eastwood, the workshops supervisor just shook his
head when he saw that. Money for equipment and staff was a continual problem but after
I left Gaberones the financial conditions improved (just a coincidence!), due to the
discovery of diamonds, copper and other minerals.
Today Radio Botswana has emerged as one of the most professional broadcasting
organisations in Africa and I am proud to have had a small part to play in its success
story. I wish them well.