Ra­dio 101 – rec­ol­lec­tions on the oc­ca­sion of its sil­ver an­niver­sary

It’s al­ready been 25 years since Ra­dio 101first hit the air­waves, thanks to the in­tro­duc­tion of new leg­is­la­tion which re­pealed the sta­tus of pro­hi­bi­tion of pri­vate broad­cast­ing and con­se­quently saw the pro­lif­er­a­tion of lo­cal ra­dio and tele­vi­sion sta­tions.

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS - Clyde Puli

The pos­si­bil­ity of zap­ping from one lo­cal sta­tion to an­other was back then a cause for ex­cite­ment. But the thou­sands of young peo­ple that en­ter the in­ter­net to ac­cess Face­book, You Tube, In­sta­gram and other so­cial me­dia sites as part of their daily rit­ual might be for­given for think­ing that free­dom of choice and free­dom of ex­pres­sion have al­ways been sacro­sanct and given po­lit­i­cal prin­ci­ples in this coun­try.

Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth. The ‘one na­tion, one sta­tion’ con­cept was, un­til the late 1980s, a stark re­al­ity and a relic from an era when such state con­trol was found ev­ery­where. It was a time when cable, satel­lite, and the in­ter­net were prac­ti­cally un­heard of and com­put­ers were banned as a mat­ter of pol­icy.

In full con­trast, the youth of to­day are grow­ing up in a sys­tem that in­creas­ingly in­te­grates in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy with all as­pects of so­cial life, and spend hours daily on so­cial me­dia. This has been re­cently con­firmed by Icon and the Uni­ver­sity of Malta in a study about so­cial me­dia use.

The Broad­cast­ing Act of 1991

The Broad­cast­ing Act of 1991, which made broad­cast­ing plu­ral­ism pos­si­ble, was un­doubt­edly a ma­jor mile­stone both for broad­cast­ing it­self and more so for the na­tion’s demo­cratic de­vel­op­ment.

In the early 1980s, and in Op­po­si­tion, the Na­tion­al­ist Party had to re­sort to clan­des­tine trans­mis­sions from Si­cily be­cause it was re­fused a li­cence to broad­cast whilst the state-owned broad­caster – the only li­censed broad­caster – was, in ef­fect, part of the ide­o­log­i­cal state ap­pa­ra­tus sys­tem­at­i­cally used and abused to the ad­van­tage of the rul­ing regime, in an at­tempt to sup­press all op­po­si­tion and con­trol pub­lic opin­ion.

This put the Na­tion­al­ist Op­po­si­tion at a tremen­dous dis­ad­van­tage. It did, of course, have the weekly pa­per il-Mu­ment and its daily In-Naz­zjon Taghna which suf­fered from an ab­surd and spite­ful law en­acted by the so­cial­ist regime to pro­hibit the use of the word ‘na­tion’ in pub­li­ca­tions. And it could def­i­nitely rely on its leader’s su­perb skills as an or­a­tor dur­ing the weekly mass meet­ings or­gan­ised be­tween 1981 and 1987. But in the 1980s, tele­vi­sion was the most pop­u­lar source of prac­ti­cally free en­ter­tain­ment and, of course, news. So Ed­die Fenech Adami sent Richard Mus­cat on a mis­sion to broad­cast from Si­cily.

Once in gov­ern­ment, Fenech Adami’s premier­ship cham­pi­oned democrati­sa­tion and lib­er­al­i­sa­tion with, none­the­less, a strong em­pha­sis on so­cial sol­i­dar­ity. He set out de­mol­ish the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and cen­tralised power of the Mintof­fian so­cial­ist era. The en­shrine­ment of the dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights in our Con­sti­tu­tion, eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion, po­lit­i­cal de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion and broad­cast­ing plu­ral­ism it­self were all parts of the same demo­cratic nar­ra­tive. They were all based on an un­wa­ver­ing op­ti­mism about the abil­ity of the in­di­vid­ual to make the right choices.

He en­acted all th­ese re­forms, shed­ding power over which he could oth­er­wise reign and ef­fec­tively giv­ing it to his op­po­nents. And he did this fully aware of the fact that, while in power, he would be sow­ing the seeds of fu­ture po­lit­i­cal de­feats.

The Malta Labour Party, which ve­he­mently op­posed the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the air­waves both in gov­ern­ment and in Op­po­si­tion, was the first po­lit­i­cal party to set up its own ra­dio sta­tion, Su­per One. Later on it also set up a tele­vi­sion sta­tion which it used ef­fec­tively to the detri­ment of the same gov­ern­ment that had made all this pos­si­ble.

The birth of a ra­dio sta­tion

The night of 28 Septem­ber was sim­ply mag­i­cal for those who, like me, lived the ex­pe­ri­ence. The ex­cite­ment had been build­ing up for months, es­pe­cially in the last few days fol­low­ing the In­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tions.

The in­vited crowd gath­ered in the square in front of the stu­dios in San Gwann was first ad­dressed by Prime Min­is­ter Ed­die Fenech Adami. His ac­count of the real dan­gers he him­self, Richard Mus­cat and oth­ers had had to go through sim­ply to broad­cast a mes­sage to the peo­ple like in any nor­mal coun­try made all the op­pres­sion of the eight­ies sound sur­real just five years later.

The al­ready pop­u­lar and elo­quent DJ Charles Sal­iba and the – up un­til then – lesser known John Bundy and Jackie Bar­tolo were to host Ra­dio 101’s first ever broad­cast. So fol­low­ing Ed­die’s spell­bind­ing speech Ra­dio 101went on air – first with the sta­tion’s jin­gle, im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by Get­ting Closer’s cover ver­sion of John Len­non’s Imag­ine and, as the say­ing goes, the rest is his­tory.

That night ev­ery­thing was planned down to the mi­nut­est de­tail, and ev­ery­thing went as planned. That was Austin Gatt’s way of do­ing things and that was what gen­eral man­ager Vic­tor For­mosa, an ex­pert in broad­cast­ing, ably suc­ceeded in do­ing. He was, of course, as­sisted by a for­mi­da­ble team in­clud­ing Pa­trick Miller, Noel Mal­lia and quite a few oth­ers who, in spite of their be­hindthe-scenes roles, were none­the­less cru­cial to the suc­cess.

Lou Bondi’s chair­man­ship and his dar­ing ed­i­to­rial in­no­va­tions en­cour­aged oth­ers to chal­lenge the tra­di­tional norms of broad­cast­ing, which re­sulted in – amongst oth­ers – Ge­org Sapi­ano’s straight­for­ward style of dis­cus­sion and John Bundy’s ver­sa­tile style of host­ing. It also opened a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to many new­com­ers, in­clud­ing present PN leader Si­mon Busut­til and jour­nal­ists Pierre Portelli, John Zam­mit, Ivan Camil­leri and many oth­ers.

I went on air for the first time ever the fol­low­ing morn­ing with Ra­dio 101’s first ever break­fast show. And for eight years I was for­tu­nate enough to be on air daily – host­ing one or other of the four prime-time shows: break­fast shows, driv­e­time shows, mu­sic shows, in­ter­views, in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism and, of course, po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion. In the years of Op­po­si­tion be­tween 1996 and 1998, de­mor­alised PN sup­port­ers found refuge as lis­ten­ers to my phonein pro­gramme. The pro­gramme ex­posed the Labour gov­ern­ment’s in­con­sis­ten­cies about is­sues such as the frozen ap­pli­ca­tion for EU mem­ber­ship, the re­place­ment of VAT with CET, the mod­erni­sa­tion of the ship­yards and, of course, the Mintoff ver­sus Sant saga. The num­ber of lis­ten­ers grew by the day and the pro­gramme soon be­came the flag­ship pro­gramme of Ra­dio 101, with thou­sands of lis­ten­ers re­li­giously tun­ing in daily. To this very day, lis­ten­ing to the Con­quest of Par­adise, which was then the pro­gramme’s sig­na­ture tune, still sends shiv­ers down my spine.

Lib­erty and free­dom of ex­pres­sion

To the Na­tion­al­ist Party, es­tab­lish­ing its own sta­tion meant more than the cre­ation of an ef­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool. It was the vin­di­ca­tion of im­por­tant and hard-fought-for prin­ci­ples: lib­erty, free­dom of choice and free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

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