Housing nine radio stations and rising to a height of six storeys, Broadcast House in Johannesburg was once the hub of all radio broadcasting in what was then known as the Transvaal. Much admired for its superb Art Deco features and technical capacity, today Broadcast House still plies the trade it was built and designed for sixty-two years ago. In Focus visits a Johannesburg broadcasting landmark.

1899

Broadcasting commenced in South Africa with experiments conducted by EA Jennings. This was in fact before the time of the Marconi experiments.

1920

Sir Harry Lauder was the first visiting celebrity to be heard by radio enthusiasts. At this stage radio was still in the realms of amateurs.

1924

The Associated Scientific & Technical Societies of South Africa (ASTS) is granted a broadcasting license, and broadcasting commenced from the Stuttafords building in Rissik Street. The call sign was JB. Broadcasts also commenced from Cape Town and Durban.

1925

JB radio station closed down. Entertainment mogul IW Schlesinger took all 3 stations and set up broadcasting in Bree Street Johannesburg. All the broadcasts were ‘live’.

1934

Work commenced on ‘Broadcast House’ in Commissioner Street which was built by Schlesinger.

1936

The South African Broadcasting Corporation was formed by the state, purchased the Broadcast House building from Schlesinger and moved in.

After the construction of Broadcast House in 1936, on the corner of Troy and Commissioner streets, the SABC broadcast both Afrikaans- and English-language programmes on medium and short wave radio. Broadcasts continued throughout the Second World War – during which time the Afrikaans staff are reported to have taken firearms with them to work in case a sign was given that they should take over the station. Fortunately this never happened!

A commercial service was introduced on 1 May 1950 when Springbok Radio was launched. The SABC also took over the then extremely popular LM Radio, previously broadcast from Lourenço Marques, and eventually turned it into Radio 5 under the then Director General Henry Howell.

It was found, however, that three stations were not sufficient for the growing audience, and in the 1950s seven new language stations came into being. Some time after this an FM transmission was put into service, allowing for far better quality than the previous medium and short wave broadcasts. Radio RSA began broadcasting in 1966 with the stated goal of presenting a true and representative radio service for South Africa.

On 5 January 1976 the first television broadcast was made from the new broadcast facility in Auckland Park, ushering in a new era of broadcasting in South Africa. The change was met with fierce opposition from the likes of Dr. Albert Hertzog, a senior cabinet minister at the time, who vetoed the idea. He believed ‘die klein bioskoop’ (the small cinema) “would cripple the country with moral decay”. He further claimed television would introduce foreign ideologies into people’s homes and called it ‘the devil’s toy’. It even become election issue, with the United Party using a poster with the slogan ‘Want TV, vote UP’.

After six years of broadcasting, two new channels (TV 2 & 3) were launched by the SABC in 1982. TV 2 broadcast programmes in Nguni, Zulu and Xhosa and TV 3 catered for Sotho- and Tswana-speakers. The same channel was used initially, but a year later the SABC split their channels. Broadcasting then commenced from Broadcast House.

The SABC finally vacated the building in 1985, at which time it had grown to eight storeys with five television production studios as well as the original nine radio studios. All SABC broadcasts thereafter were made from the Auckland Park complex.

Broadcast House stood empty for some time, until ABSA Bank took over the building. ABSA used it for many years for internal training and as a communication television station. They installed new electronics and equipment, and started the ‘Africa Growth Network’, an in-house television communication centre.

Today the building houses the popular local drama series Binnerlanders, which uses two of the original television studios. The remainder of the building is occupied by Global Access Information Television, which is run by a private consortium, which provides niche broadcasting for DSTV.