A 50-year old tape takes me back
05 May 2022
NOOSA – It had dropped into my Twitter feed via @Laselki, the account of the Lebanon-based Arab Amateur Radio Network, and @Stret_Pasin, a valued supporter and one of my 8,700 Twitter followers.
It had originated in Ontario, Canada, from the historic village of Ancaster close by the US border and Niagara Falls.
It was a fleeting recording of a shortwave broadcast.
A broadcast from Radio Bougainville transmitted 51 years ago on 21 October 1971, which had travelled 13,300 km to Ancaster and been recorded.
Then saved on a cassette tape until, for some reason, recently retrieved and shared.
“Sound is a bit crackly,” wrote @Stret_Pasin, “but this will bring back memories of Radio Bougainville.”
Truer words never were tweeted.
When you link to the brief recording here (scroll down to the black audio bar), you will pick up in rapid succession the sound of chanting to the famous Bougainville kaur flute, then an announcer's voice and finally a snatch of Bougainville string band music.
I thought I recognised this sequence as the pre-recorded station identification put to air each time the station’s transmitters were fired up at Toniva, just south of Kieta, from a switch in the main studio down a ladder beside my house.
But the more I listen to it, the less convinced I am of its provenance.
All I can say for sure is that anything the captured snatch of radio was broadcast at about 12 noon on Bougainville on 22 October 1971.
This was at a time when Radio Bougainville usually broadcast for 11 hours a day in three separate sessions: 6 am - 9 am, 12 noon – 2 pm and 4 pm - 10pm.
In a small town in Canada it was late morning the day before, and a young Dan Greenall was tuning his Hallicrafters shortwave radio seeking out distant stations he would register as finding in the ether.
Even in our modern digital age, there are shortwave junkies who ferret out remote radio stations and seek QSL cards: written proof of reception. (One issued by Radio Bougainville in 2016 is pictured here.)
’I heard this at such time on your station; tell me it is true.” And we’d check the log and return a QSL postcard. Yes, you had indeed heard our station.
Collecting these cards became popular with radio listeners 100 years ago and continues to this day
Dan had been doing just that 51 years ago when he happened upon a distant signal struggling through heavy interference to be captured by his outdoor copper wire aerial and delivered to the sturdy Hallicrafters S-52 receiver.
Dan has written for the Shortwave Radio Audio Archive:
“The morning of 21 October 1971 provided some of the best reception of Papua New Guinea stations in the 90 metre band that I ever experienced.
“These stations were rare visitors to my headphones but I was able to make a couple of short recordings of two PNG stations that morning, and they have survived to this day on that same audio cassette (now 51 years old).
“This one of Radio Bougainville begins with a local chant followed by announcement on the hour. The station ran 2.5 kw and their signal made it over 13,300 km to my receiver that day.
“Audio quality is passable considering the recording was made using an open mic to the speaker of the Hallicrafters S-52.”
Broadcaster: Radio Bougainville
Date of recording: 21/10/1971
Starting time: 1100
Frequency: 3.322.5 MHz
Receiver location: Ancaster, Ontario, Canada
Receiver and antenna: Hallicrafters S-52 using a longwire antenna
When I linked to the thin signal that had managed to land so far away so long ago, I was momentarily overcome with emotion.
I had known those sounds so well from too many early mornings wondering whether the breakfast announcer would arrive in time to open the station.
A recording something like that told me he’d arrived, fired up the transmitter and was ready to begin proceedings.
Through the static of 51 years – two-thirds of my life – came a once-familiar sequence of bamboo flute / announcer / stringband, transporting me back to a time when I was young and in my first management job which, bad bits and all, I was enjoying as if born to it.
They were tough years for the people of Bougainville, especially in the villages around Kieta and its hinterland.
Bougainville Copper had started to dig the ore that produced great quantities of copper, gold and silver on alienated land amidst an alienated people.
Despite the volatile social and political climate, I had enjoyed the challenge of Bougainville.
I felt I’d been made for it and that it was making me.
And I enjoyed working with talented station staff, most from Bougainville, like Tom Kathoa, Sam Bena, Perpetua Tanuku, Justin Kili, Aloysius Sahoto, Aloysius Nase and Aloysius Rumina – most now gone from our midst. That’s what 51 years does.
And that simple recording - made so long ago and so far away - brought it all rushing back.
You can read more about my Bougainville years here in Brink of Secession.
So thanks to Dan Greenall, the Arab Amateur Radio Network and @Stret_Pasin for giving me a free ticket to fly back more than half a century. I really enjoyed the trip.
This story reminds me of the importance of short wave radio when I was a kiap in PNG.
In those days, long before communication satellites, mobile phones, computers, GPS and all of the technologies that we now take for granted, communication for ordinary folk in PNG was essentially restricted to letters, telegrams, land line based telephone calls and listening to radio broadcasts from the embryonic national radio network of which Keith was a formative part.
Telephone land lines were something only found in a major centre, so outstation communications revolved around letters and telegrams sent and received through the daily 'skeds' (scheduled calls) on the station's short wave radio transceiver.
When I was doing my basic training as a novice kiap I was urged to buy a short wave receiver as soon as possible because these were regarded as an essential means for maintaining contact with the outside world.
As I recall, the radio receiver I purchased was both very good and very expensive, costing around $35 which roughly equated to a week's salary.
This cost was beyond the reach of most Papua New Guineans and so the administration either simply handed out or otherwise heavily subsidised basic units as part of its overall communication strategy.
Village life could be much enlivened simply by having a radio receiver around which people could gather to hear music and the news.
Under the right conditions, the receivers could get signal from stations that were very distant.
Thanks to what must have been immensely powerful transmitters I was able to listen to the ABC's national service as well as the BBC's International Service and the Voice of America service.
The latter apparently covered the entire Pacific and South-East Asia and was clearly both a propaganda outlet as well as being a source of connection to home for the USA's legions of soldiers, sailors and aviators who were and remain scattered across the globe.
On patrol, the radio could soon attract an audience of villagers, especially the kids, who took great delight in the music.
As well, it kept me somewhat abreast of things happening outside of our remote and rather strange outstation existence.
As for personal communications, I mastered the intricacies of the ubiquitous Crammond Transceivers for talking with the Sub-District and District Offices, as well as taking and receiving telegrams.
Telegrams were exceedingly expensive and, if I recall correctly, were charged out at a cost of about five cents a word, so they were only used for the most urgent and important of matters.
I tell my grand-daughters that the SMS system that they use so freely is just a modern version of a telegram. They were amazed and appalled at the costs involved back in the 'olden days'.
I also wrote to my parents on a somewhat sporadic basis, with letters taking anywhere up to two or three weeks to wend their way to or from PNG.
I still listen to my small, analogue radio at night, usually Philip Clark's Nightlife. I am a special fan of Toby Hagon's Motor Talk segment and, so it seems, are many others.
So there is still a place for radio in a world full of digital alternatives. You never know, if things go badly in Ukraine, we might yet be glad that this now very old fashioned technology is still around.
You were a faithful son, Chris, writing to your parents with such frequency. Most of us were more dilatory.
My dear friend Murray Bladwell had the ignominy of his mother sending a telegram asking if he was OK. In those times telegrams were read over the sched and then typed for delivery.
Most people would tune in to the sched to hear what was happening. That telegram made Murray something of a target for the women of Kundiawa station who took the side of his mum - KJ
Posted by: Chris Overland | 05 May 2022 at 06:24 PM
Keith, some PNG Attitude readers might be aware, following your departure from Kieta on promotion to Port Moresby, I was appointed as Station Manager of Radio Bougainville.
Some 15 years ago I was carrying out research at the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) at the University of Maryland in the USA.
Not only does the LAB catalogue and archive all aspects of US radio and television (such as scripts, programs etc.), it also collects QSL cards relating to mediumwave and shortwave stations worldwide heard by American long-distance radio listeners. These keen hobbyists are known as DXers.
The LAB collection then numbered at least 30,000 cards and verification letters and, is, no doubt a much larger archive now as material continues to be gathered, primarily from families clearing the belongings of grandfathers (DXers are predominantly male) who have passed away.
As I was visiting from Australia, the Curator, Chuck Howell, kindly retrieved a box of cards indexed as A-B. Skimming through the Australian collection in the box, I then noticed that the B section included Bougainville.
Thinking that I might find something of interest, I checked and, much to my amazement, came across two QSL cards/letters I had sent to a couple of American listeners who had heard Radio Bougainville when I was Station Manager in 1973.
I had added a few chatty notes in my correspondence and had signed both.
That Radio Bougainville shortwave signal on 3325 kHz from studios in Kieta with 10KW in power sure got out a long way.
LAB Curator Chuck was so taken aback and astonished at the whole coincidence that he insisted on taking a photo, which you can see in this article.
In passing, a fellow radio listener and I have been able to encourage the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra to become the repository of the QSL collections of Australian DXers.
Cards and letters are archived by the NFSA and my colleague is active in digitally scanning everything so these historical documents are kept for future historians. Each card tells its own story.
Posted by: Martin Hadlow | 05 May 2022 at 03:26 PM