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"Wavescan" is a weekly program for long distance radio hobbyists produced by Dr. Adrian M. Peterson, Coordinator of International Relations for Adventist World Radio. AWR carries the program over many of its stations (including shortwave). Adrian Peterson is a highly regarded DXer and radio historian, and often includes features on radio history in his program. We are reproducing those features below, with Dr. Peterson's permission and assistance.

Wavescan, June 5, 2011

Five in a Row: BBC Eastern Relay Station on Tin Can Island

At least four small islands in widely separated locations have been designated over the years as "Tin Can Island". One is a small island in the Tonga group in the South Pacific, so named because the early delivery of postal mail was floated ashore in a sealed cookie, or biscuit tin. Another Tin Can Island is located at Lagos in Nigeria, and it is one of the main cargo ports for their capital city; and a third Tin Can Island is located in "Island Lake," Minnesota in the United States.

The Tin Can Island that we are looking at today, is located off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula in the Middle East. It is better known as Masirah, and it was nicknamed "Tin Can Island" by personnel of the British Royal Air Force who were stationed on the island around the middle of last century.

At the time, aviation fuel was air lifted into Masirah in square four gallon tin cans, and it took 270 tins of gasoline to provide sufficient fuel for a Wellington bomber airplane to make a nine hour operational flight. The local people on Masirah built many small homes by filling the empty tins with sand and stacking them on a cement foundation. Thus, Tin Can Island!

The island of Masirah is a picturesque though quite barren island, just 15 miles off the coast of Oman on the north eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula. The island was named Serepsis by Admiral Nearchos who was a fleet leader with the armies of Alexander the Great.

The island itself is just 40 miles long and about 10 miles wide, with its narrowest point at a width of just 5 miles. The island is sandy and barren, though there are scenes of beauty inland. There is an abundance of wildlife on Masirah with unique birds and turtles and tortoises, and also a spectacular coral reef just off shore.

The island has been mostly uninhabited right throughout its entire history, except for two particular eras of development. In very early times, Masirah was mined for its copper, and also for its semi-precious stone.

During the European colonial era, Masirah was surveyed by British expeditioners who discovered that the island had been occupied by stragglers from the Bahriya tribe who were unfortunately wiped out by an epidemic. And of course, local mainland fishermen have used the island as a base for their fishing enterprises.

However, at the beginning of European settlement, the Royal Air Force established a primitive base at the northern end of the island in 1942 to serve as a staging point for flights between England and Southern Asia and beyond. The Americans took over the base and enlarged it soon afterwards, but it was handed back to the British once again. In 1977, the British left the island, and once again, it became an American Air Force base.

At the height of the foreign presence on the island, there was a total population of 12,000, including some 10,000 local Omani people.

As the 3rd BBC relay station in the area, after Berbera in Somalia and Perim at the mouth of the Red Sea Gulf, work on the installation of a new and much larger station began in 1967. Initially, this new BBC relay station at the northern tip of Masirah Island was in operation as a mediumwave only facility, with two transmitters rated at 750 kW each. The first transmitter was taken into regular service on June 1, 1969, and the 2nd unit followed early in the next year.

Two main mediumwave channels were in use for the broadcasts from the BBC Eastern Relay Station. One channel was 701, 702 and later 703 kHz, depending on the beam direction; and the other was 1410, 1412 and later 1413 kHz, again, depending on the beam direction. At one stage test broadcasts were carried out on another channel, 1320 kHz.

Programming for this BBC relay station was initially provided on tapes that were flown out or shipped out from London, together with live relays taken off the air shortwave from the BBC shortwave station on the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. No live programming was produced at the
facility on Masirah.

On June 13, 1977, a massive cyclone bore down on Masirah Island, and in advance, some 7,000 people were evacuated from the island or moved inland. This powerful storm lasted five days in the area, wreaking havoc to the local villages, and also to the BBC relay station.

When the damage was surveyed subsequently, it was discovered that the powerhouse roof was torn off, the towers for the 700/701 kHz transmissions were felled, and feeder lines to all antennas were badly damaged. However, one set of towers was still standing, the transmitter building sustained only light damage, and the two large transmitters sustained only superficial damage.

However, it took six months to complete repairs to the damaged station, and in the meantime, shortwave relays at other BBC stations filled in for the now missing radio coverage in the target areas.

However, after a few more years, the equipment was getting old and needed replacement, so work was commenced on a totally new station, this time on the mainland almost opposite the island. Finally, broadcasts from the BBC mediumwave station on the island of Masirah came to an end at the end of the year 2002, in favor of a new facility at A'Seela in Oman. The mediumwave site on Masirah is now a dedicated bird sanctuary.

More about these stations in two weeks time.