Se Ke Seromamowa Sa Botswana

Something better than shortwave

While we waited for our new shortwave transmitters and the Selebi-Phikwe Voice of America medium wave facility we paid some attention to the higher quality offered by VHF/FM. There were powerful VHF transmitters just across the eastern border in both South Africa and Zimbabwe and of course quite a lot of the population were within range - particularly in the electrically quiet rural environment. Because these countries were also the source of most of the radios sold in Botswana almost everyone had MW/SW/VHF multiband sets - quite a change from my previous experience in the UK where despite years of propaganda from the BBC there were still millions of listeners who could only use long wave and medium wave. Ted, Kinnear and I realised that we would need help if we were to plan an expansion of the VHF service outside Gaborone and so I asked the International Telecommunications Union for assistance. They sent out a couple of experts who soon agreed with us that we did have a bit of a problem.
Although it was fairly easy to identify the main centres of population (see the map, right) the most difficult task was getting programme to any transmitters we installed. Remember this was the early 1980's in a developing country. You were lucky to get one satellite earth station per country. The Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (or Bottel Corp as we rudely referred to it) had only just installed its first microwave "backbone" along the line of rail and it had barely enough capacity for telephones, let alone music broadcasts.

I was by that time a member of the National Telecommunications Commission and it was made very clear that we'd have to pay the full capital cost of any expansion of the "backbone" to carry our programmes - the figures looked horrendous. So we asked our ITU experts - one of whom, incidentally, owned his own vineyard in Switzerland! - to do the hard work of analysing the local topography and getting the best value for money out of any site that we might manage to put in. We had all kinds of wild schemes for the programme feed which ranged from rebroadcasting from one transmitter to the next in a chain of dubious reliability, to asking the local Information Officers to climb up the local hill and retune shortwave receivers twice a day.

population map and programme distribution ideas

Population map of Botswana, c.1978, showing some early programme distribution ideas
(Click for a larger image)

Demonstrating at Gaborone Trade Fair

Kingsley Reetsang - now Head of Studios - on stand duty at the Gaborone Trade Fair. The demonstration ran on a BBC microcomputer; the "monitor" was a colour TV chassis mounted in a wooden box. (Click to enlarge)

We specified that any possible transmitter sites should be surveyed ready for television broadcasting if it ever arrived. By the time they'd finished at least we knew the places we'd start with. I included their findings in National Development Plan documents and even wrote a computer program (with animated graphics!) showing how the coverage might develop, which we ran on our stand at the Gaborone Trade Fair.
When I'd arrived in Gaborone way back in 1974, the only VHF transmitter in the country was an ancient valve 50 watt model which should have been retired years before. The mast was about 90 feet (30m) high in the grounds of Radio Botswana - hardly an effective main transmitter!

That ancient setup was replaced with an all solid-state unit around 1980 but we took the opportunity a couple of years later to buy a much better Rohde and Schwarz 5 kilowatt unit and resited the aerial a lot higher at the Sebele transmitting station where all the new shortwave development was taking place. The intention eventually was to build a completely new VHF site on very high ground about 30km from the capital. Along with similar transmitters further up country it was to pave the way for the commercial second service and ultimately television which arrived in 2000. But that's a whole other story . . .

30m mast in the grounds of Radio Botswana

Silhouetted against a November sky, a single folded dipole sits above three link transmitter aerials. It carried VHF programmes for Gaborone in the 1970s but the signal barely reached the outskirts of the capital. (Click for full picture)

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