Binary choices - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
Go to content

Binary choices

Written on 24 May 2019

Opinion polls of one sort or another are in the news; every day now it seems there is a new one. A problem with many opinion polls is that the question put to the vote is worded in such a way that only two answers are possible: yes or no (for or against). That is known as a Binary Choice – and that was the problem in 2016 with the referendum about the UK leaving the European Union : the only choices the British People had, as the politicians are even today still reminding us, were 'leave' or 'remain' - there were no 'ifs' and 'buts'. At the time of the 2016 referendum it seems no-one had thought to consider what to do should there be a very close result – and, of course, there was. In fact that was yet another example of The Law of Unforeseen Consequences (LUC) that I have written about several times on each of my websites.

There was an interesting example of a binary choice opinion poll when I was stationed at RAF Gatow in West Berlin in the late 1970s. The main English language radio station was the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). The BBC World Service also broadcast on VHF at certain hours and on medium wave in the evenings. The American Forces Network (AFN) station was located in the American Sector at the extreme southern end of West Berlin – but could be heard satisfactorily in the British Sector only if you had a high gain antenna installed on the top of a married quarter or barrack block. The Americans told us there was a music copyright problem about making the station audible to a wider, non-US, audience.

Inevitably I suppose, BFBS mostly played records from the UK Hit Parade every day, hour after hour, interspersed with chat. BFBS made a very patronising claim that the wives of British servicemen, who made up the bulk of their daytime audience, preferred Top 20 music. This really got up the noses of folk who didn’t like a never-ending stream of pop music. In the end, BFBS decided to conduct a poll of its listeners. The single yes/no question was: “Would you rather listen to an hour of Top 20 records, or an hour of Mahler’s symphonies?” You may guess what the result showed (allegedly 95-plus per cent in favour of Top 20). The station used that result as vindication of its policy.

Both East and West Berlin were hotbeds of spies in those days and visible high gain radio antennae suggested clandestine activity against the state – which state depended on which way the antenna was pointing. At RAF Gatow it ‘became known’ (that is to say, someone spilled the beans) that some determined RAF personnel at RAF Gatow with the requisite technical skill had built their own high gain antenna and hidden it in the rafters of one of the barrack blocks just so they could listen to AFN.

One day, I was detailed to carry out the Station Commander’s Inspection of that particular barrack block. After viewing most of the living areas, I mounted the ladder leading to the roof space and, with the aid of a torch, that I just happened to have with me, I could see a single hi-gain VHF antenna orientated towards the American Sector. There was an untidy network of co-axial cables coming from the antenna leading to several of the individual rooms below. When I got back down to floor level, the Officer i/c the building asked me nervously, “Did you find anything untoward in the roof, sir?” I told him that there was a lot of scruffy co-axial cabling gathering dust in the roof space. I said that I would not report it on this occasion but suggested that he should “get someone to clear it up before the next CO’s inspection.”

Above. The East German radio and TV main transmitter just a couple of hundred metres across the border from West Berlin from where I took this image in 1978 . Tony Cunnane (c)
As a matter of fact, one of the most powerful, VHF transmitters in Greater Berlin carried an East German station called DDR1 that for hours on end played only classical music. (DDR was Deutsche Demokratische Republik - their name for East Germany.) Much of DDR1's output was from records of classical music, but there were also regular live relays from German opera houses and concert halls. Don’t run away with the idea that this station transmitted for the benefit of the East German population: the DDR never did anything to please its own people. The station transmitted on a VHF frequency that all western portable radios could pick up, but which was outside the tuning range of domestic radios available in East Germany and the Soviet Union. I listened regularly to DDR1 and recorded lots of stuff onto my Ferrograph to replay at my leisure!

Back to content