Radio in the Danger Zone
by Andy Bantock
Chalfont St. Peter, ENGLAND — Radio is, as we all know, a powerful medium. Historically it has been a major force for both good and bad.
In World War II Ed Murrow’s broadcasts from a blitzed London did much to sway public opinion in the U.S. toward the cause of the Allies. We contrast that with Lord Haw-Haw or Tokyo Rose’s propaganda programming from Nazi Germany and Japan. Both sides of any conflict will, even in these modern times of the Internet and wireless communication, turn to radio broadcasting to put over their views. Call it propaganda or truth; for many radio is the delivery medium of choice.
The British Forces Broadcasting Service is the radio and TV arm of the Services Sound and Vision Corp., a charity that provides news and entertainment on contract to British Armed Forces throughout the world. BFBS runs three sustaining radio services from the U.K. (two in English and one for the Gurkhas) and has a physical presence in several countries where local opt-outs are aired.
While the operations in Cyprus and Canada are fairly settled affairs, BFBS’s work in current conflict zones, notably Afghanistan, is more challenging. BFBS arrived in Afghanistan two months after hostilities started and have been there ever since — more than 10 years now. Some BFBS staffers have served there continuously over that period, longer than any serving member of the military.
According to David Ramsay, SSVC head of overseas broadcast technology and deployments, the obvious major complication in places like Afghanistan and other trouble spots (other than people shooting at you) is the extremes of climate.
This brought new challenges for the BFBS team, he explains, with simple things like having to relearn how to deal with transmitter feeder cable. You can’t lash it to the mast, it is a big radiator and you have to watch your bending radius. “We have had instances where cables with reasonable bending radius have had the inner core melt through the dielectric and short on the screen.”
BFBS has standardized on Eddystone-sbs transmission equipment and Lawo digital studio mixers, all of which need to keep going in the extreme heat. The watchwords are cool, covered and clean. In addition to the severe heat comes the choking dust. Ramsay says he still has trouble convincing people who have not experienced it just how all-invasive the Lashkar Valley (Afghanistan) dust is. It is extremely fine and, when it rains, instantly turns to sticky slurry.
BEST LAID PLANS
BFBS has FM transmitters at the main forward operating bases running at around 300 W, and these, coupled with a series of 10-W fillers at the smaller outlying posts, allow almost 100-percent coverage of all serving personnel.
Occasionally however, things do not go exactly as planned. Ramsay recalls when the Royal Air Force once dropped an entire FM transmission system from 2,000 feet.
“It had been placed, ‘for safety purposes,’ inside a vehicle that was being under-slung from a Chinook. The vehicle, which had come under severe wind buffering while being carried under the helicopter, had its rear doors blown open and all the military kit dropped out of the back to earth — luckily in an area that was completely uninhabited.”
It wasn’t exactly clear what had been lost that could be of use to the insurgents, so an air strike was called in and the entire area laid waste with 500-pound bombs, said Ramsay.
“There was definitely no engineering around that particular problem.”
It takes a special type of person to work for the BFBS Technology Division. The conditions are hard; personnel will do 10 weeks in the field followed by a three-week break. Staff comprises a mixture of long-serving BFBS engineers and ex-service personnel with some signal (or related) skills, and includes a number of Gurkhas. Before being posted they undergo hostile environment training and psychological screening to help them cope, not so much with the military aspect of their job but with the loneliness and isolation that can result from such an assignment.
The impact of the service BFBS provides often is felt far beyond that of the U.K. military personnel, says Ramsay.
“After a particularly fierce tropical storm, our satellite dish was taken off point and the residents of Freetown awoke to silence on the BFBS frequencies. Rumors quickly started that the British were leaving, accompanied by fear that the rebels and atrocities would return.”
A government minister had to go on Sierra Leone TV to explain that it was merely a technical problem and BFBS would be back on air soon. But shortly thereafter they received a call from the U.K. government Foreign and Commonwealth Office ordering them to evacuate the engineers quickly, and so they took the next plane.
“But, as soon as the radio was restored, normality returned, and BFBS Radio was proof of the continued and sustained British military presence,” he said.
Meanwhile, away from the world’s major conflict zones there are many other dangerous areas where radio is required. These can be post-conflict zones like Iraq or Sierra Leone or areas where civil wars are ongoing or recently ceased, as in Ethiopia and Sudan.
Dave Stanley runs DBS Consulting, a company that has carved a niche in these areas. Working for organizations like the BBC, the United Nations and the Red Cross as well as local broadcasters, he has travelled the world bringing radio and television to people who have been without it for many years. He started visiting these places, such as the Balkans after the various conflicts there, more than 10 years ago and like BFBS was obliged to overcome numerous local challenges.
A GOOD REASON
“Of course there are many problems. It is more usually coping with local conditions when there is no power or communications, for example,” said Stanley. “The headline grabbing dangers are much less common. I am usually going in to reconstruct things after the danger has passed, although it did get a little sticky in Burkina Faso recently.”
He had been there a few times and knew it was usually quiet with nothing much happening. Unfortunately, though, part of the army apparently had not been paid and decided to mutiny on his second night. This ended in a lot of shooting on the street outside his hotel, with the army proceeding to loot shops and traders.
“Having survived the night, a tense day followed and most foreigners evacuated. That night the shop owners rioted and burnt government offices in retaliation,” Stanley said. “One nearby broadcast station was attacked and it looked like I might have to be evacuated. Fortunately it settled down after that and a curfew prevented more trouble.”
As regards technology, Stanley, in line with BFBS thinking, tries to use high-quality equipment that has a proven track record in difficult environments — usually gear that is simple and easy to repair, and rarely the latest technology.
“Without doubt bringing broadcasts to people that have had minimal communication with the outside world always makes a difference. I always remember how happy the people of Koidu in Eastern Sierra Leone were to receive broadcasts from Freetown after we installed a microwave relay,” he said. “This was in the days before mobile/satellite phones and the Internet. The town was completely isolated before that, and still is to some extent. The only source of news was the BBC on shortwave or word of mouth from people taking the difficult journey from Freetown.”
Whether it is bringing troops in Afghanistan a small reminder of home or overcoming local obstacles to provide remote parts of the world with a radio service for the first time, a dedicated band of engineers and technicians work to make it happen.
“In this Internet-connected era, it is all too easy to forget the importance of traditional broadcasting to a large part of the world’s population,” said Stanley. “For many in the world, a podcast or audio stream is a dream. The reality is a small portable radio clamped to their ear.”
Andy Bantock is a radio technology consultant specializing in transmission and studios for community and small-scale radio stations.