Friday, November 25, 2011

The Story of Radio Gan

An Exotic British & American Radio Broadcasting Station on a Lonely Island in the Indian Ocean: The Story of Radio Gan

Some time back, the well known Victor Goonetilleke in Colombo Sri Lanka asked a question. He queried: Do we happen to know when the BFBS station on the island of Gan was closed? OK, Victor, after a spate of interesting research; yes, we do have an approximate answer. This is the story.
The island of Gan forms part of the most southerly atoll in the Maldive Islands. If you take a look at a map showing the the land and ocean areas of the Indian sub-continent, you will note a chain of small islands running south, off the west coast of India. The northern half of this chain of islands belong to India and are known as the Lakshwadeep Islands, and the southern half of this chain of islands form an independent country, the Maldives.
All of these islands are in fact the tops of an underwater range of mountains, rising up from the floor of the Arabian Sea, and the Maldive section of this island chain is more like a double chain of coral atolls nearly 500 miles long. The Maldives is made up of nearly 2,000 islands, most very small, and only 200 are inhabited.
The total combined area of all of the islands is only 115 square miles, the average height above sea level is less than 6 ft, and the highest hill stands at just 80 ft. The total population in the Maldive Islands is around 1/3rd million, and around 2/3rd million tourists flock into the holiday islands each year.
The December 2004 tsunami from Indonesia washed over the islands, devastating the entire nation. Only 9 islands escaped damage; 6 islands were destroyed, and a further 14 have been totally evacuated.
With the slowly rising ocean waters due to global warming, the Maldive government has given consideration to buying a massive property in Sri Lanka, or India or Australia, though nothing tangible has been implemented thus far.
The first settlers in the Maldives came from Sri Lanka and India more than 2000 years ago. They have been ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch & English, and they achieved independence in 1968. The capital city is Male which occupies all of one small island.
The island of Gan itself is situated in the most southerly atoll, it is also the largest island in the Maldives, and it is linked by roadways & bridges to other islands in the atoll. The population in the area is around 25,000.
In 1941, the British Royal Navy established a base at Gan, and they also constructed the nation’s first airstrip. Sixteen years later, the British base was transferred from navy control to the air force. At the height of its operations, there was a total of 600 air force personnel on the island; and in 1972, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain made a royal visit to the island.
In 1976, when the British no longer needed the base, it was handed over to the Maldivian authorities, and it has now been developed into an international tourist facility known as Equator Village.
In order to provide entertainment and information to the base personnel, a small and apparently very low powered volunteer radio station was installed on Gan Island in mid 1963. This station seemed to escape the attention of international radio monitors who were scanning the radio broadcasting bands at their locations in surrounding countries for a period of some 7 years.
In 1970, BFBS the British Forces Broadcasting Service in London, took a look at the
entertainment needs of their personnel on Gan, and recommended that they be provided with access to TV programming, though nothing came of this recommendation. During the following year though, an experienced radio broadcaster was transferred from Singapore to Gan for the purpose of upgrading the volunteer station into a fully fledged official BFBS radio broadcasting station.
Quite soon, BFBS Gan was morphed into a regular radio station, with 250 watts on 1215 kHz. According to monitoring entries in radio magazines of that era, it was Victor Goonetilleke himself who first drew international attention to this upgraded BFBS station.
Three years later, the station equipment was again upgraded, and it was now on the air with 600 watts using a modified 2½ kW transmitter on 1560 kHz, or as monitoring reports indicated 1561 kHz. BFBS Gan was now heard more widely, throughout the Maldive Islands, and in Sri Lanka & India, and occasionally further afield. An FM outlet on 88 MHz was added around the same time, though with the very low power of just 24 watts.
However, with changes in political attitudes, and changes in the areas of international diplomacy, the British no longer needed their base on Gan, and the entire facility was transferred to the Maldivian government on March 29, 1976. Around this same time, the exotic little BFBS radio broadcasting station was also closed, and gone for ever, at the end of its 16 year tenure as a radio broadcasting station; a volunteer station at first and then an official BFBS station.
Over the years, a handful of QSLs were issued to listeners who were actually able to hear the station. One lonely QSL card, a prepared card, signed, rubber stamped and postmarked, is lodged in the Indianapolis Collection. This card verifies the reception of BFBS Gan as heard in Male in the Maldives itself in 1974, and also in Colombo in 1975.
Though this radio broadcasting station is looked upon as an entirely British operated station in its two phases of operation, volunteer & then official BFBS, yet, this is not exactly the case. During the three year period running from 1971 to 1973, the American Air Force was also involved with the British Royal Air Force in the operation of the air force base on Gan.
According to the entries in the World Radio TV Handbook, the BFBS radio station on Gan island was actually a joint operation between personnel from the air force of both countries, British & American, during the three year period extending from 1971 through 1973. Thus Radio Gan is seen as a joint AFRS & BFBS operation during this specific time period.
As far as is known at the present time, only one other forces radio broadcasting station was a joint operation between two countries, and that was the mediumwave station 9PA in Port Moresby, New Guinea back in the year 1944. At one stage, it was a joint operation between Australian & American personnel.
(NWS 126 via Adrian Peterson)
(photo: Royal Air Force Gan Remembered/John Cross)