THE REM ISLAND
While studying broadcast engineering at college in Brussels – in Belgium, during 1964, one of the teachers asked the students if anyone was interested in doing some work between the time of their studies and military service.
Ludo Gijs recalled that… the professor didn’t reveal too many details, he only told us more when he was sure we would stay involved. In June or July he told us which project we were in; it was the “Engineering Office Heerema”, the architects of the island, that took the initiative. They had organised a so-called pirate-station, so-called because at that time there was no law against these broadcasts.
We landed there at the end of July. We went out by helicopter, or by speedboat, from Zestienhoven Airport, or Katwijk or Noordwijk at the coast. There were five from the same class; we stayed a fortnight on the island, and were on leave at home for one week.
Which was your first impression on seeing the island?
The first time, I saw the 10 KW for television, RCA-made, and RCA-engineers were busy building up the transmitter. It was the first time we were far from home, an adventure by any means! There was a kind of lift system to get on the island, when we arrived by sea. Normally the water was 10 meters below us, and at one stage one had to jump into a basket.
How were living conditions?
Extremely good; there were 7 or 8 people on the island; there was the technical crew and those organising everything on the island, the latter being Dutchmen; the Belgians were the technical crew. There was a VHF transmitter 40.11 for the commercial television, from 7pm till 11pm. During daytime we had radio broadcasts; therefore there was an aerial and a cable.
Did one need special aerials to get good reception of the programmes?
On VHF, channel 11, vertical polarisation; their aim was Rotterdam and Amsterdam, but with a tower of 104 meters and the island still moving a little bit, reception wasn’t always stable. To have control over this, approx. 200 people got a free television set, providing every evening they noted the broadcast’s quality. By radio we were in contact with the mainland, and next day, we had their report, there was a kind of system to collect all this data, and when we had the technical notices, we could do the adjustments.
What about the content of the programmes?
Mainly American series, but the new ones; the ones that were broadcast at that time in the States were already purchased to be shown. Thanks to the island there was an added value compared to the other stations...their series were recent ones!
What was your task on the island?
We were sound- and image-engineers. At night we had to tune the transmitters; we worked in teams, one night team for the maintenance, and in the evening there was another team in charge of the television broadcast. At night there was someone to do the tests and to control the modulation level by means of the daytime figures. We needed someone producing sound, so we gave him a hardcore magazine, and he told what he saw. But we had forgotten that the transmitter was ‘on air’. Normally we had to be on simulation. The guy who did this, was fired next day.
Why did everything stop?
The continental shelf slowly drops till 11 kilometers, and after 11 kilometers it goes straight to a depth of 200 meters. They planned to build the island a little bit further than 10 kilometers, because at that time it was the territorial zone of which 10 kilometers still belonged to the country at the sea, strictly legally it wasn’t forbidden then. The exploitation of the seabed wasn’t yet written into commercial broadcasting laws, thus they decided it was still safe to build it at 10 kilometers.
But to forbid the broadcasts they changed the law in Strasbourg , and needed 3 or 4 countries to agree. At that stage they put the border at 11.5 kilometers, and at the beginning of December 1966 the island came inside a forbidden zone.
Did the broadcasts go on?
Until the 7th December, because they needed a legal procedure, and there was the technical side to stop an enterprise like that. Then the Koninklijke Marechaussee (Dutch Military Police) started thinking how to stop it, because it had always been said that all damages to the island by their action had to be paid by the State. We’ve seen their boat coming; everything was ready to be broadcast live, the island’s occupation, the cameras were set up. They have tried to build some scaffolding, but didn’t manage, and subsequently sailed back. Next day they came with large helicopters, and people came down. We didn’t remove the aerial; someone came down on the edge of the island, and with a Ministerial Order he told us ”We are here to close down the island, are you going to collaborate with us, or are you going to defend yourselves?”
We said we won’t fight, but won’t help them either. They had to do it their own way, telling them that everything that was destroyed would be put on the Government’s bill. Then a government engineer came down and switched off the radio transmitter; he cut down the aerial and then the other helicopters came. The place was crowded with policemen. They took the crystals and put seals everywhere.
Stories? Good memories?
All this time was a succession of high adventures for me. Imagine being 21 years old, and taking a helicopter each and every week, and all this 35 years ago. The speedboat, a kind of hydrofoil, had very powerful engines, the trip took nearly 40 minutes, we had to fasten belts. It was spectacular. Going up the island in the basket was an adventure, life on the island as well.
Ludo Gijs, also worked on Radio London, as an engineer in the early days, and has since worked for the Belgian power authority. He will be among the guests at this years Euroradio 2001 in Calais.