“If I walked across the Gozo Channel my enemies would still call me a bad swimmer!”
After my contract with Xandir Malta ended I decided to stay on in Malta. Also there was the whiff of broadcast deregulation in the air and therefore certain business and creative opportunity.
I was approached by a former Rediffusion / Xandir Malta broadcaster who informed me that a businessman wanted to build a radio station.
The entrepreneur, despite his lack of broadcast experience or practical knowledge of the industry, had a dream to build a new national English language radio station. His core business was and I think still is real estate in Malta. This estate agent had, quite amazingly in my opinion, already appointed a mate of his, a British expatriate living locally to be the Managing Director. Like the estate agent this person also had no practical experience of running a radio business and in fact little or no practical knowledge of broadcasting on any level.
I was approached to ‘advise’ on the creation of what, hopefully, would become a successful and popular radio station. This was also to be a company that would generate sufficient commercial revenue to survive longterm. With broadcast monopolies about to be broken and the micro-market in Malta due to be fragmented this was to be a sizeable challenge with such a limited consumer base. It was therefore crucial that the business model was watertight, confident and commercially enticing.
Let’s Play Radio Stations
The overriding programme policy was already set out before my arrival as ‘adviser’. This was that the station would broadcast in the English language and not Maltese. The target audience would be resident Maltese, foreign business people and tourists visiting Malta. I could see a delicate potential of an English language radio station in Malta – but core audiences I felt would follow stations that were distinctly Maltese. I was proved right in a way with the proliferation of new Maltese language media which later came along and survived successfully. Whether there would be the appetite or sufficient listeners to an English language station was relatively questionable as there was no data available to prove that there would be a strong regular audience to generate profit or even a sustainable turnover. The brief for this station, although laudable to a point, required serious dedication and hard work to build a strong audience, turning a vision into a healthy reality and then maintaining listeners in a rough tough small-scale market.
With a sizeable potential transient audience through tourism and business, the possibilities of building audiences was feasible to a point. My overall concern was an almost immediate ‘in bed’ arrangement with Maltese government departments related to inward investment and tourism as well as positive connections with hotels and holiday companies. Indeed I felt that pre-promoting and building relationships from the outset was vital. In pre-internet times, I also felt that this radio service should also be promoted outside Malta in coordination with holiday firms in the UK and the Republic of Ireland especially. Only the basics were ever covered and despite internal ‘dip stick’ market research, I felt not enough attention was ever given to pushing this potential station beyond the dreams of the real estate agent.
The reality of the whole set-up seemed like a ‘mates club’ with a few chums who wanted to play radio stations. People with alleged ‘connections’ and other mates and chums with other tentative ‘connections’. In what was to become a highly competitive and desperately hungry market in my opinion this is not the way to build a national broadcasting station which was in need of identifying serious investment, creating a confident business model, a strong product and credible personnel serving the general public.
Only the person from Rediffusion / Xandir Malta and myself seemed to have any practical broadcast experience and a professional vision.
Whilst it was my job to inject the broadcast professionalism most of my opinions and direction seemed to fall on deaf dreamy ears. The whole scheme lacked cohesion. Singing the same hymn sheet was fundamental but far from reality. Whilst the handful of potential investors were sitting dazed and in that dream our competitors were quietly developing and building in readiness for the 1991 Broadcasting Act and their green light to success.
To be honest had I not have been contacted by these people I was making plans of my own with other local businesses and individuals. At the time I thought possibly there could be some kind of subtle ‘incorporation’ of ideas into this estate agent’s dream – how very wrong I was. I should have walked away from this in the first months instead of sticking it out for what seemed eternity.
Raided and Threatened
My time developing and building plans for ‘Island Sound Radio’ (not my idea for a name) was fraught with the exposure of a certain Maltese character thankfully only reserved for the few and twisted. Maltese on the whole are good, honest, creative and ambitious. I love Malta and I adore and respect the Maltese. As with all societies there’s always a very tiny element that is unpleasant, ruthless and darn right nasty. Beneath the glossy coat, the trusty public relations and shining exterior was a level of nastiness that I had never experienced before. At the time, this came from the most surprising quarters although in retrospect I am not quite so stunned.
At one point menacing letters were being received at the offices suggesting that my time in Malta and my employment should cease or the consequences could be severe (these were immediately handed over to the Maltese Police).
On another occasion I had my apartment raided by Maltese Police on the false and stupid claim by a certain individual that I was entertaining individuals for sex after feeding them drugs. The raid itself although terrifying naturally came to nothing whatsoever. However as only a very few people in Malta knew my personal address, it was relatively easy to pinpoint the identity of the twisted individual responsible for this nastiness.
I know now who was behind all this – I am not surprised at the identity of the perpetrator.
The Ever So Dangerous, Bitter and Nasty End
After the death threats and the raid things went from weird to worse.
Finally the long awaited and much anticipated Green Paper (Broadcasting Act, 1991) was published. This was to lay the ground for our future, our competitors and that of the doomed Island Sound Radio.
Despite the real estate agents’ allegations to the contrary I had read and digested the document – in fact I knew the contents inside out. Because I wasn’t screaming it from the rooftops this guy assumed that I merely it stuffed away in a drawer!
Meanwhile, under an arrangement with the estate agent guy, I had accepted a sort-term contract to go to Ghana for a few weeks to conduct some training and development for their national broadcaster. This was a deal which involved the British Council. I had already worked under similar arrangements in Zimbabwe, Malta and Namibia. It was early 1991 and the timing of this assignment seemed fair, reasonable and cheap for Island Sound as I was going to be released temporarily from contract with no cost to them. In a way these assignments had a certain prestige value for Island Sound. I had also thought it an idea that while travelling back via London I could go to any necessary meetings at no cost to my employer saving him more time and money.
With no reason or warning, at a hugely insulting early Monday morning session I was quite suddenly verbally assaulted by this real estate agent who just got into a huge sudden rage. Out of the blue he started and continued offending and swearing at me and the nation I was about to advise! The language, verbal violence and the abuse was quite extraordinary.
I have to say that in my more than 35 years broadcasting I have never been so vocally battered and for what turned out to be for no reason at all. But where this fit of peak originated in this guys mind remains a mystery to this very day. Looking back I think that even more scary was the speed and ferocity this guy turned from a kind of mate to a genuine verbally nasty person.
After all this abuse and rage, I went into Valletta to the former British High Commission building to sort out a few personal affairs and certain arrangements between myself, the UK government and those arranging my Ghanaian assignment.
I decided that enough was enough. Weird letters, my personal space invaded, accusations and terrifying face-to-face insults – this was the end as far as I was concerned and over a quiet coffee in Valletta I decided to quit this stupidity that was my job and for now my home in Malta.
At my choice it marked the immediate end of my connection with the estate agent and his doomed radio station. By the afternoon I had happily ‘resigned’ in writing and to this day am delighted I have never spoken to that foul-mouthed person since his abuse that Monday morning. The general public in Malta know this guy as a jovial friendly person. I know a side to him that hopefully not many more people know.
I did manage to place a call to the Rediffusion / Xandir Malta person who introduced me to all this (he still remains a good person and much respected in Maltese circles). I explained briefly what happened and informed him of my desire to leave the doomed Island Sound Radio plan immediately and get away from Malta as quickly as possible.
To this day, I have no idea why I received this treatment. It saddens me deeply when I look back. Especially now that my health is so very bad.
I privately met a former Xandir Malta colleague of mine (a manager) who informed me that a local well known politician whom I had been in regular contact with on a lead up the the Green Paper (Broadcasting Act 1991) was apparently “seeing red” every time he heard my name mentioned – very strange!
Other people I know and knew at the time, friends and colleagues, said that this real estate bloke was asking them questions about me. To me this seemed quite obsessive.
By now I was hoping that the Broadcasting Authority, with whom I had always had a good professional relationship would not be taken in by the alleged veneer of this guy and look more closely at the application and what was really on the table.
I later passed on the details of my terrifying experience to colleagues of mine, broadcast organisations and other parties. They all expressed quite serious alarm of events. Whilst many are, even to this day, sympathetic and saddened, we all agree that deregulated broadcasting businesses can breed an element of transient investors with little or no understanding of the industry. Whether this gives these people a green light to abuse and insult professional advisers is questionable to say the least.
In my view (and that of others) when you are building a broadcast business you are not flogging second-hand cars or making a quick buck out of the back of a van. Advertisers and audiences are the bread and butter. They need to be nurtured, the clients enticed and the professionals understood. Dedication and genuine understanding must run freely through the business. There’s no room for a bad tempered, bullying, impatient, prima donna – even if you are the self-styled ‘Chairman’.
Island Sound Radio would still be there to this day had they stayed focused and taken a few tips from the competitors who, as history has proved were definitely ‘on the ball’ and made a certain success in this micro-market.
Due to extreme osteoarthritis within a few years I was to be relying on walking sticks and wheelchairs for personal mobility and my right side paralysed through stroke. So I never had this opportunity again and Malta, which I love so dearly, was denied something really good. All this was killed by the person whose vague and ill-planned dream it was.
‘Island Sound Radio’ managed to get a Maltese national broadcast licence, I gather the formats and plans were multi-changed, it never generated any significant turnover. I believe that the estate agent pulled out. According to the Broadcasting Authority research audiences were desperately low. The station disappeared completely and apparently the licence for the frequency sold.
The real estate guy and his business is still flogging property in Malta. In a really bizarre and quite scary move in January 2010, 21 years after this cruel madness, this bloke sent me a ‘friends’ request at Facebook. Maybe he is so insensitive and short-sighted that he feels it is ‘water under the bridge’. I will never find it in my heart to forgive his cruelty towards me. I have blocked and removed him from my Facebook in genuine the hope he keeps his distance from me.
The politician I referred to became a cabinet minister for a while and is still a Maltese Nationalist Party member of parliament and respected lawyer. I have no dispute with him at – his was a reaction to the silliness exposed by the nastiness perpetrated by others.
The author of the menacing threats is still out there as is the person responsible for having my apartment raided – I know the identity.
The Ghost of Island Sound
All this seemed to follow me for several years. Technical, industry and investment contacts which had been built through all this swore they would never do business on this level again. One technical director of a UK company told me of a fiasco that seemed to ensue and wanted an assurance from me that I was no longer connected before we could discuss other projects.
All-in-all this experience was waste of energy and time. Island Sound, meeting that real estate agent guy and experiencing his foul temper and language remains my only professional regret.
I should have listened to others and got together our own consortia.
The Island Sound experience does not feature on my CV although the dreadful memory runs deep.
From BBC Monitoring International Reports web site on 22 January 2003:
The Malta Broadcasting Authority is investigating why a commercial radio station has suddenly stopped broadcasting its own programmes, and has started relaying the Voice of America 24 hours a day. Island Sound, which broadcasts from Floriana on 101.8 MHz, stopped its scheduled programmes abruptly on Monday [20 January] morning, without any explanation. Managing Director Colin Tabone said the station is off the air “because we have some equipment-parts missing that need to be imported”. The 12 members of staff have been sent on leave.