British Radio Batavia

By John Arnold

Masthead from Issue No.3 of AFRIB Review, Batavia, 31 May 1946

As an Intelligence Officer attached to the RAF 31 [Transport] Squadron based at Kemajoran Airport in Batavia, I worked closely with Johnny Northam – a Flt. Lieut who spent most evenings at the AFRIB radio station.

Curious as to what went on there, I went with him one evening. Not long after we arrived, in the middle of presenting a record request programme, Johnny had to answer an urgent call of nature and asked me to announce the next record if he was not back, which I duly did.

A couple of minutes later, a major poked his head round the door and asked me if I’d be interested in joining the staff as a volunteer. My voice must’ve been just right to his ears!

I don’t know when AFRIB began or ended its operations. I was with it from March to August 1946 and will describe what I remember of it during that period.

The buildings were a well-established radio station and in the shape of a ‘U’. Central control of the station, its engineers and offices, were in the hands of Indonesian general management, located in the base of the ‘U’. This included the central record library to which no additions were made while I was there. We were totally dependent on it for all our musical needs. There were no tape-recorders then remember. There was as I recall, one primitive wire-recorder, but it wasn’t available to people like me. Broadcasting took place from studios in the uprights of the ‘U’.

I don’t recall what programming pattern was followed in the daytime, as I was working at my military job. In the evening, broadcasting began at 6pm and went on till 10.30 or 11pm.

Logo from ‘Live Mike’ column in AFRIB Review

The British and Dutch alternated so that each received a reasonable share of the time allocated to news bulletins, etc. For some of the time that I was there, the Dutch news reader at 9.45 had to hang around to say ‘Goodnight’ in Dutch, so I was persuaded to learn to do it, so that he could get home to bed. I had a little knowledge of the language from time spent in Holland in 1944 and 1945.

John Arnold was responsible for ‘soliciting’ requests as this cartoon from AFRIB Review indicates

As will be seen from the AFRIB Review with this letter, programming was very broad. There was music of every kind; some live, some recorded.

As I recall, there was only 2 or 3 permanent staff on the British side of the operation. Most, like me, were part-time volunteers, and I believe, all except me were RAF.

We did any job demanded, so that at 24 years of age, with no radio or stage experience, I found myself engaged in the following tasks: announcer, news-reader, talks on careers [everyone was thinking of going home and demobilisation], disc-jockey [a term not known then. It consisted of visiting units and soliciting requests, hoping our record library would have them], acting [really play-reading] and commentating.

The British established a symphony orchestra consisting of local musicians. Directors included Frits Hinze and Ivan Fedoroff, and soloists such as Willem Noske [violin], Lisa Molino [soprano], Vladimir Gerasimuck [trumpet] and Emile van Dinter [baritone]. On Sunday, June 2 1946, the ‘For the Forces Concert’ was directed by Ivan Fedoroff and a copy of the music programme is included here.

As far as announcing was concerned, the ‘cream’ job was to announce the symphony concert from the stage of the Opera House each Sunday evening, and it went to the senior announcer. I reached this dizzy height after about 3 months, purely because people were leaving for demobilisation at a fast rate.

Ivan Fedoroff and Batavia born Lee San San, classical pianist who broadcast from AFRIB

Some things stick in the memory, such as, for instance, my very first announcement from the stage. “If the general’s driver is in the house, will he please move the general’s car, as it’s blocking a doorway”. This experience changed my outlook on music. As a youngster in the 1930’s, I had been brought up on big bands, swing and jazz. At the Opera House, between announcements, I would talk to the musicians off-stage, seeking advice about later items on the programme, and learned to enjoy the music so much that I became a devotee of classical music and am to this day. Incidentally, the station orchestra was just about a full-size symphony orchestra.

For talking about careers, I was able to call on my short experience [2 years] with the British Ministry of Labour, where I’d been trained to interview newly unemployed men and elicit their skills in detail. I also had numerous pamphlets issued by the Army Education Corps.

‘Acting’ was fun. Of the studios at the station, one was small and equipped with a round table and a suspended microphone over the middle.

Because it was used for many programmes and had a hard wood floor, we took off our shoes, so that we could move in and out when changing places with people involved in previous and subsequent programmes. This was generally not a problem, but on one occasion it was.

Keith Williams, a DC3 pilot, wrote a series of half-hour plays entitled ‘Fate Spins the Last Coin’ and several of us took part, seated around the table. At the end of the episode, we would quietly slide out of the studio, the announcer for the next programme having already crept in and taken his place at the table.

Cast of AFRIB radio play ‘Fate Spins the Last Coin’. Johnny Northam at left rear, Keith Williams in cap at left front, John Arnold at right rear

One episode was entitled ‘Of a Strange Feather’, and in one place, involved an arrow shattering a window on its way into a room. The ‘experts’ among us decided that this could be best simulated by smashing a couple of glass tumblers on the hard wood floor. Unfortunately, we took no precautions to contain the breakage and the pieces of glass went everywhere.

Slowly, with the play proceeding, a look of horror came over the faces of all in the studio, as we realised we would have to negotiate our way out of the studio over shards of glass in stockinged feet. It turned out to be highly amusing. As far as possible, people moved round the table, toward the door, using the chairs to stand on, and we escaped unharmed.

‘The Heart of London Comes to Batavia’ is headline from this Special Edition of the Batavia ‘Evening News’ of June 13, 1946

There was not much demand for commentators, just an occasional soccer game or boxing match. My only involvement in this was on the occasion of the King’s Birthday Parade on June 13th, 1946.

One has to remember that the British forces were in a Dutch colony, middlemen between the Dutch and Indonesians, who were seeking independence. It would not have been politic to have a Victory Parade as people were doing in England at the same time. Hence, the ‘King’s Birthday Parade’.

One of the AFRIB ground commentators

We had two commentators on the ground, while I gave a roving report from an artillery Auster aircraft, using an Army No.9 Wireless Set to send the report to the station. The plane was more than overloaded with me and the extra radio aboard and it took so long to reach the desired height, that I only had time to utter a few sentences before the pilot said we had to land as the scheduled fly-past of Thunderbolt fighters was due at any second!

Nearly 60 years on, that’s all I can recall about AFRIB.

John Arnold spent WWII in the Durham Light Infantry, in the British 8th Army in Africa and Sicily, and the British 2nd Army in Europe. After VE-Day, he retrained as an Air Liaison Officer with the Royal Navy, and with the end of the war with Japan, was attached to the RAF in India, and posted to the Dutch East Indies. His unit, the 108 [Indian] Air Liaison Section consisted of himself, an Indian bearer and a jeep. John now lives in North Carolina. He wrote this article for the Radio Heritage Foundation in March 2005.

All images in this article are © John Arnold Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

AFRIB Review was published by AFRIB Programmes Directorate, Koningsplein, West 5, Batavia. Evening News was published by HQ 554 Sub Area, Offices at Koningsplein W, No.5, Batavia, Netherlands East Indies.

Transcription programs broadcast by AFRIB included: “Melody Makers’, “Break for Music”, “Fanfare”, and “Music Time” from ORBS [Overseas Recorded Broadcasting Service]; direct BBC relays included Tommy Handley in ‘ITMA’, ‘Vera Lynn Programme’, The Derby [racing commentary], ‘Swing Club’, and a variety of local programs in Dutch and English were also popular. AFRIB broadcast on 55 and 115.3 metres.

Batavia is now known as Jakarta.

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