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Guns Could Not Silence The Romantic Voice Of The African Night

Published 9 years ago
By Forbes Africa

Nostalgia is a thing of the future as far as one of the newest old radio stations in Africa is concerned. The breezy sound of LM Radio in Mozambique is back with a vengeance, with plans to broadcast across the whole of Southern Africa.

LM Radio was about the dream as much as the sound. Hopeful songs of love and laughter from LM, Lourenco Marques—as Maputo was known in those days—the city of palm trees, prawns, piri piri, sunshine and sand. The Monte Carlo of Southern Africa where smart yellow taxis ferried holidaymakers through the wide pristine streets of the city to the aroma of ground coffee and fresh bread.

This was the Mozambique of the 1960s and 70s where LM Radio made its name. There is a generation of boardroom executives in Southern Africa who grew up listening to LM Radio, under the bed sheets or in a boarding school dormitory. LM Radio had that allure of the underground as it played records the national broadcasters of neighboring countries refused to touch. Out of the African night came the sound of the Beatles—banned in South Africa after John Lennon said they were bigger than Jesus—The Who, Herman’s Hermits, Pink Floyd with a sprinkling of home-grown pop. Many who were youngsters in that era can’t remember exactly what the national broadcasters were playing, but recall it was difficult to dance to.

Gerry Wilmot with a shrivelled orange in the wake of the seige

It was this frustration with the establishment that led to the birth of LM Radio in 1936. Advertising man, GJ McHarry, from Durban in South Africa, wanted to hear jazz on the radio. The South African Broadcasting Corporation refused to touch it, so McHarry headed north to set up a station at Radio Clube de Moçambique.

The new station hosted big band music and variety shows before studio audiences. It brought the sparkle of tinsel town, with Latin dash, into the dowdy farms, barrack rooms and mining camps of Southern Africa. It prospered in the 1950s and became hip in the 1960s and 70s. Heavens, even young Cliff Richard paid a visit to the station that played his records. By 1969, it was estimated nearly nine million people, in South Africa alone, were tuning in.

A symbol of its success was that, in 1972, the SABC bought LM Radio for a massive R60 million—a fortune back then. The National Party government was twitchy about independent radio stations broadcasting from outside South Africa’s borders. The station struggled on through the turmoil of Mozambique’s painful independence before it closed on October 12, 1975 with a simple announcement on air saying: “For us it has been 39 happy years.”  The new government in Mozambique took over the station to air educational broadcasts.

Fast forward to September 21, 2010 and radio engineer, Chris Turner, and his team were putting the finishing touches to a radio transmitter fixed to the top of a 10-story concrete block in Maputo, ahead of the first full broadcast of the revived LM Radio.

The tiny studio was also in the tower block, but has since moved to small offices in the basement of Hotel Cardoso.

“The lifts in the tower block didn’t work very well,” says Turner.

LM Radio is Turner’s dream and radio is his life. He grew up in Cape Town with one ear fixed to the radio and was an avid fan of LM Radio.

“They played Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and you didn’t hear it anywhere else. Everyone in my age group has a memory,” he says.

Turner started a pirate radio station from his bedroom by the time he was 12. The police came to his home and closed down the station three times, but that didn’t deter Turner who grew up to train as a radio engineer.

To follow his dream, Turner and his wife sold property to raise the $3 million capital to open the station. It wasn’t easy; there were hours spent poring over Mozambique’s often pedantic bureaucracy.

The reward was that LM Radio is expected to break even in its first year, ahead of forecasts. The target is to achieve R12 million ($1.5 million) turnover in five years. It is taking advertising from South African supermarket chains to corner shops.

“We are about quarter of the way there,” smiles Turner.

LM Radio is banking on a large English-speaking population in Mozambique, largely South Africans; plus it broadcasts on medium wave in Lesotho, the Free State and in Johannesburg through community station Radio 2000. The station claims between 55,000 and 75,000 listeners a week, with a target of 125,000. Turner plans to apply to broadcast in Zimbabwe and Zambia, followed by the rest of Southern Africa where he thinks there is an even bigger pool of people who want to listen to Elton John and Abba.

“I think there is something in the music of the 1970s. It is feel good music, happy music. A lot of people write and tell us that our music lifts them up,” says Turner.

When LM Radio was reborn, in keeping with the theme of the station, there were blasts from the past. DJs, who were veterans of the original station, went back on air as if it where yesterday, rather than the last century, that they signed off. Reg de Beer, a veteran presenter who died in January, came back as did Nick Megens, a Dutch national, who had got into broadcasting at Radio Clube while working at his father’s company in Maputo.

Megens, who lives in Johannesburg, survived one of the most fraught chapters in the LM Radio story. It all began one spring morning with a frantic phone call from station manager, Gerry Wilmot, telling him to come into Radio Clube as soon as possible.

Megens was living on Catembe Island, just off the coast, and took the ferry over to Maputo. As he jumped into a taxi he knew this was no ordinary day as thousands of people running in panic through the streets of the capital buffeted the vehicle. This was September 7, 1974. I Shot the Sheriff by Eric Clapton was number one on the day Portugal signed the Lusaka Accord handing the liberation movement, FRELIMO, control of Mozambique within a year. It was a shock to many of the white Portuguese after more than four centuries of colonial rule.

“People were giving away the keys of their houses on the streets and later that day I saw people at the airport, holding one suitcase, weeping,” says Megens.

When Megens got to Radio Clube he found it bristling with guns. Armed white militia had taken over the radio station because they feared the Portuguese, or FRELIMO, may use it for propaganda. The show went on; for 10 days Megens broadcast with a couple of gun-toting militia men at his back.

“All I could think of was, ‘what happens if one of these guys goes to sleep and his gun goes off, the bullets are going to fly around the room?’”

The militia brought in supplies to their prisoners on air. The only problem was that it was just oranges and cigarettes and Megens didn’t smoke. His stomach rumbled while cartons of cigarettes piled up against his wall. Station manager, Wilmot, demanded the newspaper photograph him holding a shriveled orange in protest.

When the Portuguese Army ended the occupation by storming the radio station they lobbed in a couple of hand grenades.

“It is not a nice sound,” says Megens.

Nearly 40 years on, LM Radio is a nice sound and that is maybe why it has overcome closure, political chaos, civil war and scores of desperate men with guns.

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Related Topics: #Advertising, #Broadcasting, #LM Radio, #Lourenco Marques, #May 2012, #Mozambique.