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Barbados Rediffusion: The End of an Era in Broadcasting History

Bridgetown, Barbados. © Windstar Cruises

By IPS Correspondent Terry Ally

BRIDGETOWN, Dec 2 1997 (IPS) - When the clock struck midnight Monday, signaling the climax of celebrations of the 31st anniversary of independence in Barbados it also marked the loss of a significant portion of the island's history.

It was the end of the line, and the end of an era, for Barbados Rediffusion or Star Radio as it was also called - one of the two remaining original cable radio services in the world.

It survived its wired contemporaries in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, outlived those in the "mother" country of Britain, and is survived only by another service in Singapore.

The owners decided to shut down the service because of financial difficulties.

"For the past few years the company has tried, against considerable odds, to keep Star Radio alive. The facts are, however, that it is no longer economic to maintain over 1,200 miles of cable across the island; pay an annual licence fee as well as a tax on each individual speaker," explains Chief Executive Officer of Barbados Rediffusion Service Limited, Vic Fernandes.

Apart from being unable to cope with operational costs, patching obsolete equipment and trying to keep monthly rentals within reach of listeners, Fernandes says it was almost impossible to replace existing cabling.

"Only six of 16 Star Radio's power amplifiers, which were specifically designed for the Barbados wired network in 1975 are working," he says.

The decision leaves 6,000 loyal subscribers without the service. Rediffusion was more than just a radio service in Barbados. The 62- year-old service which started out as Radio Distribution, hooking up its first subscriber on Apr. 2, 1935, was a culture in itself and steeped in history.

Cable & Wireless Ltd station ZNX32 broadcast international cricket, tennis and turf club race meetings on shortwave for Trinidad, British Guiana and Jamaica. The Barbados station used this letterhead in 1952 © David Webber Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

From its early days, the speaker installed in the home, would never be switched off at the end of the broadcast day, because in the event of an emergency in the early hours of the morning, the station would spring to life awakening and warning Barbadians.

It's library was filled with vintage collection of music, spanning six decades, and with all the memorable and news breaking moments in history.

Almost every Barbadian broadcaster of note worked at Rediffusion whose newsroom was the training ground for almost every broadcast journalist in the island.

The service was bought by the Nation Corporation in 1979 from the Rediffusion Group in the United Kingdom. The programming was wide and varied, from the contemporary to the classical, from story telling to religious services, from educational programmes that were used by the Ministry of Education to a comprehensive newscast.

It was one of the few stations which still recorded and broadcast church services and which because of its educational programmes, was considered an integral part of the school's curriculum and was installed in 120 primary schools.

For the elderly, the little brown boxes were their companions in times of loneliness. "I listened to it everyday, and after my husband died, it kept my company whenever I was home alone," says 74-year old Claris Murray.

Her Star Radio was installed in 1955, a few months after Hurricane Janet ravaged Barbados. It was Rediffusion, in those days, which was never switched off that awakened Barbadians with the news of the hurricane.

Many people, like 90-year old Celina Worrell who had Rediffusion for more than 30 years, just could not come to grips with the fact that it was closing. "You meaning it never coming back?" she asked in disbelief.

She found solace in the church services every morning and evening on The Star, while 50-year-old Hersley Smith preferred the classical music hour in the early hours of the morning to "put my mind at rest".

Anglican cleric, Father Laurence Small, who was the first news editor of Rediffusion, preached at the last broadcast service on Nov. 30. He drew a parallel with the Star of Bethlehem, which led people to Jesus Christ with that of Star Radio which, through its many religious programmes, also led people to Jesus Christ.

"The Star has served us nobly in every aspect of our national life - cultural, educational, religious, political and in sports - never being partisan but transcending the narrow boundaries and borders of these spheres of activity for the benefit of the country as a whole," he said.

Long deactivated speaker for the Rediffusion located at the police station in Hastings, Christ Church, Barbados. - Wikipedia

So important was The Star in the lives of Barbadians that campaigning politicians promised people in rural communities "a Rediffusion" should they vote them into office.

Veteran Barbadian journalist, Tony Best, recalls that young men courting young women were shown to the door once Rediffusion had gone off the air at 11:15 pm on weekdays or shortly after midnight on Saturdays.

"After all," he wrote in tribute, "no self respecting young lady in 1961 would have a young man in her home once the wired speaker in the corner had become silent. The goodnight kiss or last squeeze of the hand at the door regularly came as the last note of Britain's national anthem was being played to signal the end of the broadcast day."

He adds: "That Rediffusion has maintained its credibility with the public and has bolstered its image as a well-managed professional institution tells part of the story of Barbados' transformation from a colonial outpost to one of the world's most successful Black nations.

"For in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, a few Black people had the audacity to dream they could run or own an institution as vital to Barbados as Rediffusion. Now the dreams of young Bajans (Barbadians) are limitless and that's good," Best says.

Despite that success, it was a tearful goodbye. In the final six hours of its life, veteran broadcasters and on-air personalities such as Alfred Pragnell, Olga Lopes-Seale, Mike Goddard, Carl Scott and Hugh Riley were part of the studio team and interacted with subscribers who made the final calls that the radio service would receive and broadcast. Many people were choked with emotion in those final hours.

Barbados Rediffusion was born 31 years before Barbados was granted its independence from Britain and it peacefully died exactly 31 years after that event.

© Inter Press Service December 2, 1997

This material remains © IPS-Inter Press Service and is only to be used for non-commercial personal or research use. Any other use requires permission of the copyright holder.


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