British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Ian Kennedy
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!

Radio Bechuanaland/Botswana
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!

Radio Bechuanaland/Botswana
Seretse Khama
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 move fast.

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.

Radio Bechuanaland/Botswana
ITN Report on Francistown Transmitter
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.

Colonial Map
1955 Map of SE Bechuanaland
Colony Profile
Bechuanaland Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 95: April 2008


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