Monday, January 28, 2013

Focus on Africa

Radio Broadcasting in the Land of the Mountain Lion

As we have mentioned previously here in Wavescan, we are planning to present many topics throughout this year 2013 as part of our project, “Focus on Africa”.  We would like to encourage the shortwave scene in Africa, broadcasting as well as listening and DX clubs, and our opening feature today is another interesting topic about radio broadcasting in one of the countries of Africa. 

            The title for this feature is “Radio Broadcasting in the Land of the Mountain Lion”, and if you have already guessed that this country is Sierra Leone, you would be correct.  It was a Portuguese explorer, Pedro da Cintra, who visited coastal Africa in the year 1462 and he gave the name Sierra de Leao in Portuguese to this territory.  Some time subsequently, the territory name was changed to the Italian version, Sierra Leone, which means of course, Lion Mountain.

            The country of Sierra Leone is located towards the bottom of the western bulge in the continent of Africa.  It is in the shape of a rough circle about 200 miles across, with an Atlantic coastline of 250 miles.  The capital city is Freetown, and the Freetown Harbour is listed as the world’s 3rd largest natural harbor.

            The total population is around 7 million, made up of 16 different ethnic groups, though English is the national language.  Their major natural exports are diamonds, titanium & gold.

            Somewhere around 500 BC, the earliest settlers to migrate into the area were African tribals; and a thousand years later, this area became a major slave center for the Portuguese, Dutch, French & British empires.  However, on March 11, 1792, England established the colony of Freetown for freed slaves from the British Empire.  Sixteen years later, the settlement was annexed as a British Crown Colony.

            Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961, and 10 years later it was declared a republic.   However, a disastrous civil war broke out in 1991, and this catastrophic era lasted for eleven years, ending only quite recently, in 2002.

            The radio broadcasting scene in Sierra Leone began in the earlier part of the 1930s as cable radio, or as it was known at the time, a rediffusion service.  The newly appointed governor, Sir Arnold Hodson, had recently transferred from the Falkland Islands, where he had already established a similar system. 

            The new cable radio for Freetown was inaugurated on May 7, 1934 at 7:00 pm when Governor Hodson spoke into a microphone at Wilberforce Memorial Hall and declared the system open.  This was the 1st cable radio system in West Africa, and subsequently Governor Hodson established his 3rd rediffusion service in Accra in the Gold Coast soon after he was transferred there to serve as governor.

            The cable radio system in Freetown was distributed by wire to the residents and the daily programming was mainly a relay of BBC programming received on shortwave, with occasional local inserts.  At the height of its success some 20 years later, the Freetown Rediffusion Service with 2300 subscribers was described as healthy & vigorous, though it should be noted that reception by cable in the homes could be variable, particularly during the rainy monsoon season.  Freetown cable radio came to an end in 1963, soon after independence by which time radio broadcasting was somewhat regularly in service. 

            Actually, the first wireless station in Sierra Leone was activated somewhere around 1921, when Morse Code spark equipment was installed in Freetown.  This facility, under the callsign VPU, was installed in the cable terminal of the African Direct Telegraph Company in Freetown.

            Then, in December 1947, a new shortwave communication station was installed in Freetown, with a 1 kW voice transmitter, a Marconi SWB-8E from Chelmsford in England.  This station, under the callsign ZHV5, was established for inter-African communication with Bathurst Gambia, Lagos Nigeria & Accra Ghana.

            Station ZHV5 was logged in Australia on 8125 kHz, and the station was noted requesting reception reports on its transmissions.  Initially, this new shortwave station was on the air on Monday mornings only.

            As far as the radio broadcasting scene is concerned, consideration was given to this matter in 1949 when the British government allocated a large sum of money to expand the radio studio at the cable radio station and install a radio transmitter.  Two years later, experimental broadcasts went on the air from a 300 watt transmitter on 9630 kHz in Freetown.  We could guess that this was in reality a series of test broadcasts from the communication transmitter ZHV.  However, after a few weeks on the air, this radio broadcasting service was terminated in July 1951 due to lack of funding. 

            Four years later, another financial grant from London enabled the construction of a new radio studio at Pemba Road, New England, Freetown, together with a 5 kW transmitter at Hill Station on the edge of Freetown.  This new radio broadcasting service was inaugurated in 1956, with the station under the jurisdiction of the government Public Relations Department, the studio & transmitter under the Posts      & Telegraph Department, and programming mainly taken from large recorded discs from the BBC in London.

            Very soon after this station was inaugurated, with 5 kW on the familiar 3316 kHz, it was heard in Sweden for which a QSL letter was issued.

            At this stage, a radio man from England was installed as the Director of Broadcasting, and that’s where we take up the story of radio broadcasting in Sierra Leone next time.
(AWR Wavescan/NWS205 via Adrian Peterson)