Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Focus on Africa - Twin Congos

Focus on Africa: BBC West Africa Relay Station in the Twin Congos

In two previous editions of Wavescan about this time last year, we presented the story of radio broadcasting in the two Congos, French Congo & Belgian Congo as they were at the time, but perhaps better known these days as Congo & Zaire.  The twin capital cities Leopoldville & Brazzaville face each other across the Congo River, and these cities are known today as Kinshasa & Brazzaville.

            Back in the middle of last century two shortwave transmitters were installed on the edge of these two cities, one in each.  Both of these transmitters were American made RCA units at 50 kW, they were both installed at the same time, they were both used for wide area coverage on behalf of their respective governments, and they were both in use as relay stations on behalf of the BBC London, though in very different ways.

            That is our story today in Focus on Africa: the story of the BBC West Africa Relay Stations in the Twin Congos.  

            We begin with Radio Leopoldville, located in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo (Zaire) on the eastern side of the River Congo.  The studios for Radio Leo, RNB, Radio National Belge at this stage were located in the College Albert Cultural Centre in Leopoldville, and the transmitter was located on a site at the edge of town.

            Test broadcasts from the new 50 kW RCA shortwave transmitter at RNB began in early 1943, it was officially inaugurated on May 16, and next day it was taken into full service as a shortwave broadcast station presenting the Belgian story to the world, and also as an official BBC relay station.

            The programs from the BBC London were broadcast from their Daventry shortwave station and received off air in Leopoldville, and rebroadcast to Southern Africa, to North America, and also to South America in Spanish.  When the Leopoldville shortwave station was carrying a relay on behalf of the BBC, the frequency in use was usually in the 31 metre band, variously 9785, 9783, 9745, 9750 or 9763 kHz. 

            In November 1945 for example, the Leopoldville relay of the BBC North American Service was listed in the official BBC schedules for a period of 3½ hours daily, beginning at 8:15 pm EST on 9745 kHz.   However, one listener in the United States heard the BBC North American Service on relay from RNB Leopoldville in the 25 metre band on 11645 kHz on October 8, 1944.  

            During the 1944 winter, the manager of the BBC office in New York stated that consideration was being given to the possibility of using 2 transmitters at Leopoldville to carry the BBC relay to North America.  This would entail the usage of the regular 50 kW RCA transmitter, as well as the lower powered 7½ kW transmitter that was installed in 1940.  However, it is not known whether this suggested additional scheduling was ever implemented.

            The BBC office in New York issued printed QSL cards verifying the reception of the BBC relay from Leopoldville.  It is presumed that this official BBC relay from RNB Leopoldville concluded at the end of the year 1956.

            Let’s cross the River Congo now and go to the scene at Radio Brazzaville, which was located in Brazzaville on the western edge of the Congo River, in the territory that was known in earlier times as French Equatorial Africa.  The studios for Radio Brazzaville were located in town, and the transmitter was located 2 miles out, at M’Pila.

            The 50 kW American RCA transmitter was installed in 1942, and it was officially inaugurated in May 1943.  This station was under the auspices of General Charles de Gaulle, who had initiated a Free French broadcasting service 2½ years earlier via a 5 kW transmitter that he brought into the country from Europe.

            The 50 kW shortwave transmitter was on the air under the callsign FZI, and it broadcast locally produced programming, as well as Free French programming from the BBC in London.  The Free French programming was beamed to Africa as well as daily to North America, and the usual frequency was 11970 kHz.  QSL cards for this service were issued from Brazzaville, verifying the reception of station FZI.

            It is presumed that the BBC relay via Radio Brazzaville was concluded at the end of the year 1945.  Even though station FZI, with its 50 kW transmitter did relay BBC programming from London, yet this station was never considered to be a true BBC relay station in the same way as the other station just across the river at Leopoldville.

            We should remember that both of the these stations, Leopoldville & Brazzaville, also relayed the programming from the Voice of America back then as part of the agreement in providing the two transmitters for use in Africa.
(AWR/Wavescan /NWS 202 via Dr Adrian Peterson)