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1000 Miles fom Anywhere

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In this section:

Botswana 2
Botswana 3
Botswana 4
Botswana 5
Botswana 6
Botswana 7

Dave Harris Dave Harris, the author of our series about Radio Botswana, recently visited Radio Netherlands. We took the opportunity to ask him about some of the issues raised in these articles, about the infamous "no QSL" policy which many shortwave listeners still remember, and about Radio Botswana's unique interval signal.

Radio Netherlands: Was Radio Botswana very different from what you had imagined it would be like?

Dave Harris: "When I actually got into the studios, I found that the equipment was a bit primitive. When I started to maintain the equipment, I found that they were using the amplifier which they put in ice cream vans to give the sound of chimes. They were using it as the main amplifier for quality monitoring, so I wasn't too impressed with that. I have to say that the first couple of weeks I was a little bit disappointed. I had expected it to be a little more up-to-date. But there was change in the air, and there was some money around. From a technology point of view, it was 1000 miles away from anywhere. That meant long trips in the car, and often no chance to see things before you bought them, so it was a little bit of a gamble every time you bought something."

Radio Netherlands: Were you very much conscious of government control of Radio Botswana?

Dave Harris: "On the technical side, we just got on and did what we thought was the right thing. Actually, I found that we were very much leading the government. In fact I was a civil servant, so I was part of the government, if you like. But it was very much accepted that if you could make a case for something, you got it. Money was not really that much of a problem. On the political side, there was very little interference at all. It's often said that Botswana is like a little bit of Switzerland in the middle of Africa."

Radio Netherlands: Botswana hasn't had television until very recently. What percentage of the population listened to Radio Botswana?

Map of Botswana Dave Harris: "Radio Botswana was a lifeline for communication in the country. Most people listened to it at some point during the day. There would be a radio in almost every household. The problem was that we couldn't get radio to everybody. The country is the size of France, and yet when I got there we had two 10 kW shortwave transmitters, and a 50 kW mediumwave transmitter which covered, I suppose, 200-300 km. It was completely inadequate for the country. So we got reports from all over the place saying 'we can't hear you'. Schools broadcasting couldn't function because they couldn't pick up the broadcasts. I'm glad to say that by the time I left, that situation had quite dramatically improved. We had a very important decision to make, as to whether we should put more money into shortwave broadcasting, or try and perhaps go the more modern route of television and FM radio. We made that decision at the end of the 1970's, and decided we would still go down the route of shortwave broadcasting. I think it was the right decision."

Radio Netherlands: This problem led to your famous "no QSL's under any circumstances" statement to shortwave listeners. Perhaps you'd like to give your side of what happened.

Dave Harris: "When I got there I found that a lot of time was being taken up because people in the middle of Scandinavia or Alaska would have heard the faintest whisper of one of our domestic shortwave transmissions, and would promptly send floods of postcards telling us how we were readability two, strength one in the middle of Greenland. It really wasn't very much use, but it was taking up an awful lot of time answering them. And the only way I could eventually stop these was to put a The QSL card that Dave stopped sending outcomplete ban on replying. I got hate mail for years afterwards! But it was the right decision at the time. After I left, Radio Botswana relented a bit and started again. The point was, there was no intention on our part to broadcast beyond our immediate locality. I knew we would have a certain amount of spill into Europe and America. I could do nothing about it, and I wasn't interested in it.

Radio Netherlands: Radio Botswana is also famous for its interval signal. A lot of people used to think it was live recordings of farm animals. But we've heard there's another explanation.

Dave Harris: "That was some of my technicians, actually a few years before I arrived. They had sat around in a studio with some cowbells and gone 'moo' a few times, and they came out with a very long interval signal. They actually did it for about half an hour and just looped the tape. It was indeed a very distinctive interval signal. It was probably one of the reasons why we got so many reception reports, because people did unfortunately recognise that interval signal".

Radio Netherlands: During your time at Radio Botswana, you put a lot of investment into training. Has that investment paid off?

Dave Harris: "Most definitely. You had a country of one million people, and there was a fair bit of money floating around because they'd discovered diamonds and minerals. The main problem with development was not money, but the people to do it. Up to that point there was the feeling that you had to develop with the lowest possible technology, perhaps 20 years out of date with the rest of the world, otherwise they wouldn't be able to maintain it. I turned that on its head, and said that I thought the best way to proceed in Botswana was to take a few key people, train them extremely well, and make sure that you kept them.

National Crest of BotswanaSo we took a fairly difficult decision around 1980, to train well over half of our technical establishment, which was about 30 people at that time. We put them all through higher education, and they ended up somewhere around degree level, but all with a training which put them a little ahead of the other government departments at that time. It gave them something to get their teeth into. We gave them high technology, and the shortwave transmitters we put in were pulse duration modulation from Siemens, which was definitely state of the art at the time. We were running a fairly major transmitting operation with perhaps 20 staff - a lot fewer than you would perhaps expect. Many of the people we trained are still working there. It's something I'm very proud of".

© Radio Netherlands 2000. All Rights Reserved.

To be continued


 © 24 November 2000

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