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Saturday, May 25, 2024

BBC downsizing: A lost gem

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As for the reasons for this job cuts and stoppage of World service programmes, well, they say David Cameron’s government had asked the British people in the streets of London whether they would like their money to be spent so that people in China or Africa or Asia could listen to news in their language or about their continent on the BBC and they said No. ­(The BBC is funded mainly by TV licence fees and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office). What a terrible case of ignorance.  The cuts have resulted in a big loss of audience for this most powerful and inspirational broadcasting outfit in the world. Well, I say inspirational. Here is my own story about my relations and feeling about the BBC of now and then.

When I was young, very young indeed, a few things excited me. Reading my books was of course one of them, and playing under that fig tree in Kolior village, using wooden clubs to play a golf like game in which the only rule is to knock the dried tallo fruit out of sight. They call it torong kosso in the dominant Mandinka language in that part of Kiang.

But among all hobbies I had, one other fascination stood out -the radio. I have always marveled not just at the technology that makes it possible for people to talk in Banjul and be heard through that little box in Kiang, but more importantly, I adore the voices of the people who talk on the radio like demi-gods. I listened to Radio Gambia so frequently that even as a child I mastered every broadcaster’s name through their voices.

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Sometime in 1978, this devotion to Radio Gambia got expanded when a certain Sheriff A Boye introduced me, or rather his primary six class to the BBC Focus On Africa. Mr Boye would ensure that he had explained and set work for the evening studies class before 16 hours GMT because he surely must not miss the world news followed in those days at 16-15 by Focus on Africa.  From then on to this day I hardly miss that programme and in fact became  such a die-hard BBC listener  that most people observed much earlier in my habit, that I was heading to become a journalist. I even had nicknames in those early years, calling me ‘Saul Njie’ and ‘Cham the Journalist’. Those observers were proven right when I developed interest and became a journalist myself, starting with broadcasting via Radio Gambia’s Sports Round-Up presented by Peter Gomez. The rest as they say is now history but I never stopped being fascinated by the BBC so when in 1995 I got a chance to send a voice sports news used in the Focus Sports, I was on the moon, happy that I have finally fulfilled a lifelong dream. 

But my demi-god worshiping of ardent broadcasters never ceased and so when I stepped off the plane from London Heathrow airport for the very first time on August 6, 2003, my first port of call was at Bush House in Central London. In any case I could not have gone elsewhere in London, because I was on a BBC short training programme and only they knew where I would stay and what I would be doing. And within the first minutes of my arrival at that Africa Service corner of a huge building, I began to put to test knowledge gained many decades ago – recognising voices and putting names to it. 

Jenny Horrocks was the most familiar. I had met her back in 1998 in Banjul but Lewis Machipisa who collected me from Holborn underground station had a rasta and I thought the BBC was such a sacred place that no one dares grow rasta while on their payroll so I failed the test to pick his voice. There was no such trouble picking out Bola Musuro even though I knew the voice as Bola Olufunwa. Josephine Hazely of course was there, and so was Stefan Manyoux who in fact was our training director. Just a short while after arriving at Bush House I was confident that I could call everyone by their names just by hearing their voices.

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And I was so good at it that when I met Mick Slatter on the third floor and recognised his voice, I asked him straight questions that left him dumfounded but vividly impressed. “Are you Mick Slatter, the one who covered the Gambian elections in 1996 and was in Senegal years earlier and covered wrestling stories there?”. Mick looked into my eyes and I said: “You have done your home work man where do you come from?”.

From Mick I learnt where to find the news presenters and on a visit there one day, I bumped on to Gaeno Howells, a long time voice on BBC world service. Sadly though I learned from Gaeno Howells that most of those whose voices inspired me were either dead or retired. John Stone for example had a stroke and lost his voice that always kept me tuned to the radio endlessly as he read the news.   Gone also were Francis Line, Meryl Okeefe, Brian Empringham, Peters Lewis, Peter Shoesmith,  Pamela Creighton, Sandy Wash, Alison Rooper, John Wing  Keith Bosley and Murray Nichol to name a few.

Like many of his colleagues John Stone read the news with such intensity and style that the listener is ever captivated. In those days the news is introduced with already automated voice which says; ”This is London”…and the well-known signature tune Lilibulero music will follow, and the chime of the Big Ben; another voice follow to announce the time “17 hours Greenwich Mean Time”, the actual news reader on duty would then come with ”BBC World Service, the news read by… 

When you listen to the powerful captivating voices like Peter Lewis or soft spoken Francis Line, or the poetic voice of Julian Porter, introducing the news, you feel like the most important piece of information in the world is coming to be told. 

As Okonkwo would say in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which I read at the same time in Mr. Boye’s class, “those were days when men were men” at the BBC. The recent redundancies and downsizing of the institution have left Britons, and indeed the millions of listeners, deprived of a true avenue to be entertained and informed.


Author: Lamin Cham, Sports Editor


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