Sunday 5 June 2011

Radio Saxa Vord - RSV

One day I hope to write a definitive history of Radio Saxa Vord. However, unless you take that first step, the journey never ends. A number of people have been good enough to share their experiences of RSV and, combined with my own experience as Officer i/c from Nov 1967 to Mar 1969, I am going to make a first stab at that history here. Because RSV had to go off the air on a number of occasions - unserviceability, need for refurbishment and, more than once, the demolition of its location, a number of people during its history feel that they were in at the start of RSV. In fact, the start of RSV was in 1959 and the original location was the Main Guardroom. The following is the part of the text of a letter I received from David Goodall, who was posted to RAF Saxa Vord in 1959.

“Radio Saxa Vord was not in the true sense a radio broadcast station but a wired speaker system with selectable channels the idea of, I believe from Flt Michael Daly, a very popular officer.
The main equipment was on site but not fully installed and working in all rooms and blocks when I arrived in October 1959.
The main equipment was installed in a room at the rear of the guardroom, and from memory not very large space, the equipment mounted in standard 19 inch racks. Later a studio was built across the road in one of the old contractors wooden huts opposite the main gate, with soundproofing and a separating glass screen, all looked very professional and well made by the AMWD carpenter. This was used to pre record homemade programmes, inter section quizzes and Music programmes - the most popular.
The routing of the cabling went through the heating ducts, which ran to every block on the site. The wireless section being the main contractor, By March we had connected all the camp. The equipment, donated by the J Arthur Rank organisation, comprised two high power amplifiers, record deck, Ferrograph Mk5 7inch reel to reel recorders, mixers and microphones, cable and switchboxes, also the RAF had found two wonderful AR88 Communication Receivers for us providing the BBC Home Service to keep us in touch with world and home news. The alterative channel was all popular music wherever we could receive it from, mostly Radio Luxembourg during the evening when reception was good.
When fully working there was no shortage of Tony Blackburn’s and producers “fighting each other for” airtime. The system worked well with only minor faults, all usually man made! I hated being tracked down in my free time by someone complaining at the sudden loss of Radio Luxembourg, only to find vital parts of the system missing and now being used for a dance at the Sergeants’ Mess! or, one person in particular, thinking all the control knobs looked prettier when all set in the same position, usually twelve o’clock!”

In about 1961 the equipment was moved from the Guardroom to a wooden building across the road near where the Ice Cap and Squash Court was to be located. The front half of the building became the Station Church – the rear became RSV (having separate entrances was handy). The photo below shows the building in the period 1961/3. (Left click on Pictures to enlarge).
I’m grateful to Patrick Bunn who sent me the clipping below. It is of low resolution but it is believed to show a DJ at work in RSV shortly after the move to the new location.
On many occasions during its history RSV took part in fund raising – and early example can be seen in the clipping from Station Routine Orders (SROs) in 1963 which belongs to Pete Brindley.
A number of attempts were made to break records set by other Units. The first of these that I have information about took place in 1966/67 Christmas/New Year period and is the subject of the Shetland Times article below

This led to a further record attempt about 6 months later as can be seen in this second Shetland Times cutting:

One of the RSV DJs at the time, Fred Curtis, was also a Radio Ham and featured in a number of articles, one of which from a 1967 issue of The Short Wave Magazine, is reproduced below:
Due to wear and tear (extensive use) the equipment was in great need refurbishment or replacement and so RSV went off the air for a rebuild. From being one of the most popular places on camp (DJs were almost like pop stars – or at least they thought so), RSV became almost deserted. It was left to a keen J/T, with a little help from a few others, to get the station back on the air. Of course all the work was done voluntarily in people’s off-duty time - in Unst there were plenty of other things to do in the summer/autumn months.

This is where I came in, arriving in Nov 67 – a snotty Pilot Officer on my first Operational tour. There were 14 officers on the Unit, including the CO. I attended my arrival interview with the Stn Cdr and left with 6 secondary duties, including Officer i/c RSV – didn’t have a clue what the initials meant at the time. At this stage I would like to claim credit for getting RSV back on the air, but I can’t. Early in the New Year (68) I was called into see the new Stn Cdr and told that PSI (Public Services Institute - non public funds in those days) had spent a fortune on RSV and it was still off the air. The ultimatum was – get it back on the air soon or funds will cease. Fortunately the hard-working J/T and colleagues were nearly complete (even enough egg boxes for the walls and ceiling to improve the studios acoustics!) By the spring of 68 we were back on the air.
Two things I will claim credit for. Firstly, I persuaded PSI to authorise a contract with the “Music Box” the main record shop in Lerwick. The contract was for them to post every record which entered the Top Ten (Melody Maker Charts I seem to remember) to Saxa on a weekly basis – no point in having record programmes without up to date material. Secondly, I wrote a number of letters to BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) persuading them to start supplying RSV with their transcription services. I pointed out that Unst was far more remote than many of the Units they were supplying in Germany etc. I was amazed when the first 12” Vinyl Records started to arrive – Goon Shows, Round the Horne etc. To this day I regret obeying the BFBS caveat – copyright material and not to be duplicated. Everyone else from then onwards was merrily taping, but as Officer i/c I had to appear to maintain standards.
The next picture is from 1969 and is from a large article about Saxa which appeared in the Daily Express. It shows Andy Parkinson as a DJ in RSV – Andy worked in Supply and was member of a number of bands/groups on the Unit.

In 1970 another record attempt took place, this time a solo effort by SAC Mike Cutler in order to raise funds for charity. The article and picture below come from the front page of the Shetland Times of 18 December 70.
The next 3 pictures belong to Rein Boomsma, who worked as an Air Defence Operator at the Ops Site. In his spare time he was an active DJ at RSV. The pictures were taken around 1972.

Rein explains another “off the air” period in 1972 – “RSV was again re-equipped with brandnew decks, mixers and taperecorders, both reel to reel and cassette which at this time was becoming popular. This happened in 1972 during the summer. Both a tech J/T and tech SAC did most of the hard work with a few of us doing test broadcasts as and when required.
I am sorry, I can see both their faces but for the life of me can't remember their names.The station was off the air for about two weeks while this went on in Aug.The pictures of mine show the new equipment as installed. The radio (BBC radio 2) was left as the original setup. Radio Luxemburg was no longer available as we were down to just the one receiver and no more funds available for a second one, apart from the fact that the Don10 wiring was in a bad state of repair during this time and again, funding stopped any further modernisation. The CO at that time was not too interested in RSV.”
 He goes on to explain the disposal of some of the equipment which was stripped out.
“I remembered as I was reading it about the equipment that was taken out during the '72 refurb and the story about the Ferrograph Mk5 taperecorder. My friend --- --------, who was a fellow DJ on RSV bought it for about a pound I think and as far as I know, it still exists in Exeter to this day. I last spoke to him about 6mths ago and the story came up about RSV and what happened to the old stuff when he mentioned it. I do remember it weighed a ton. At the time no one else was interested in the machine as it was old tech, It took 5mins to warm up (valves) and hummed when switched on. I had a Sony 500A at the time, it too hummed but not as bad as the Ferrograph!

The joys of mains hum. The kids today are missing so much.”
Another record attempt was made in 1977, this time by SAC Alan Cooper. The 3 newspaper clippings below show some of the media coverage of this event.

Unusually for a historical story, the more recent years have been more difficult to research. Sometime around 1980 the building which had housed RSV was demolished. The demolition must have occurred in the preparations for the new MTSS complex. RSV had been located where the 3 portacabins are centre-right in the photo below.
 I have conflicting advice as to where and when RSV started up again. What is not in dispute is that it restarted in the early 80’s on the main camp – i.e., on the other side of the Main Guardroom. I believe that the location was the old Ground Defence Section/Fire section, next to the Guardroom, as seen in the picture below:
RSV’s life in that building was comparatively short as it too was demolished as part of the Domestic Site rebuild, I’m not sure when this was but suspect it was around 1992/3. I do know that by 1994 RSV was operational in a new location and, for the first time, there was a transmitter, rather than fixed connections using Don10 cable through the heating ducts. A low-powered transmitter enabled reception over the domestic site – the signal could not reach as far as SHE or the top sites. Throughout its existence RSV was limited to the Domestic Site area. The new location was in the old PSA Building next to the NAAFI Shop. In the 1994/5 AOC’s Inspection photo below the transmitter aerial can be seen on the short pole just to the right of the AOC and Stn Cdr.
The next photo, from Andy Maddock, shows the RSV studio set-up as it was in 1995.
How long RSV continued to operate after this I don’t know. I suspect that, with the drawdown happening around 2000, the end must have been quite soon after that last photo. Diminishing numbers and access to other forms of entertainment would have lessened the need for RSV (multi-channel TV for example, when I arrived there was just one channel).

One aspect of RSV I haven’t mentioned until now is the provision of “Discos” at Unit functions. Throughout its existence RSV provided a pool of DJs, equipment and music which helped support many a function. Whether it was supporting a band or being the main source of music, the RSV Discos were booked to functions in all the Messes and occasionally were in demand off station. On more than one occasion they provided the entertainment at beach parties. The 2 pictures below show an RSV Disco in the NAAFI (date unknown but probably in the 70’s) and part of the programme for the Officers’ Mess Christmas Draw in 1993.

I’m sure that the final closing of RSV must have been celebrated in some way, hopefully it didn’t just fade away. If any of you feel short-changed as your part in the history of RSV hasn’t been related, I apologise. However, I can only use the material I have and will quite happily put out a Part Two or amend this section if I receive more photos/anecdotes. ----- (replace the AT with the normal symbol)

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