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It’s already been 25 years since Radio 101first hit the airwaves, thanks to the introduction of new legislation which repealed the status of prohibition of private broadcasting and consequently saw the proliferation of local radio and television stations.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