Malta – 20 years after Broadcasting deregulation

In 2007 I was asked to write a piece on Maltese radio. 20 years after deregulation here is an update.

In a medium where “content is king” and where in Malta the Maltese have such choice, in fact all that seems to be on offer is much of the same. One pop record mixed into another blended into another and then quicker than you say ‘pluralism’ we’re into another over-modulated ad break. It’s like having an mp3 player on speed. In a way that’s how radio is everywhere.

If you search around (and I mean dedicate real actual time looking) you might find the odd gem in this overgrown, discarded forest of deejays and over modulation.

So what about the political offerings? In 1991 after decades of fiddling, bullying and tampering with the national broadcaster by countless politicians on both sides, the Nationalist Government decided that enough was enough and did the biggest cop-out in broadcasting history by offering radio licences to each of the major political parties.

The media hungry politicians could now have their own 24/7 voice to inflict on the Maltese in the vain hope that they would finally leave the national broadcaster alone to get on with the job in hand. This led to the creation of a station for the Nationalists and one (literally “One”) for the Labour supporters as well as another station for the church.

Despite massaging the ego’s of these political parties, history has shown that the poor old national broadcaster was never really left alone to get on with the job and stories continued to fill the press with, to put it diplomatically, ‘political comment’ on state broadcasting..

So what do these political stations sound like? In the right-hand, blue corner we have Radio 101 with it’s collection of former national broadcasters and other party stars who defected to this Nationalist station pumping out suitably ‘nice’ programming and ever so familiar music.

In the left-hand red corner there’s One Radio which boasted in 2007 that it “is the only radio station in Malta that transmits live on a twenty four hour basis.”  This is popular programming for the masses and despite the obvious bias towards the Labour Party, the formula paid some dividends in the audience stakes.

Then of course there’s the other surviving national FM stations filling the ether with some good and some not so brilliant 24 hour entertainment all vying for the top spot in the ratings in this micro-market. Those shining through like stars and the not so great … well, simply not so great.

So, whatever happened to my first love? Like a temptress, Radju Malta operated by the state lured me to the islands in 1988. My mission was to advise on matters relating to programming and presentation.

State broadcasting in Malta was built on a foundation and diet of Rediffusion, then operated as part of the ex-TeleMalta Corporation as Xandir Malta and today is PBS Limited.

I have to say that this previous grand old lady is a shadow of her former glory.  Stripped of her monopoly and left in the cold, unloved. Like a discarded former icon, Radju Malta still lives on as a single network trying to grasp some semblance of the past. A past that included a produced, well-polished and highly professional Radju Malta One and a popular well liked lighter Radju Malta Two with professional producers and presenters who genuinely were (and still are) Maltese icons. All memorably under the leadership of Charles Flores. Now retired, these giants of broadcasting like Mary Grech, Mary Drewery and Charles Abela Mizzi  have left a huge gap in what appears to be an austere national radio station.

Today Radju Malta One and Two no longer really exists – it is now merely a cut-down version called Radju Malta with moderate presentation, inoffensive easy to the ears music and sounding in dire need of a presentation and technique overhaul. Levels sometimes are all over the shop, microphone technique somewhat lacking consistency, it sounds tired with strange occasional backing music on what should be plain speech.

But all is not doom and gloom. Thanks to live internet streaming I often listen to Maltese radio from the comfort of my pad here in London. And when I am in Malta I can be seen with a radio discretely if permanently clamped to my brain. Some programmes sound smooth and unpainful to the ears. Polished and seasoned broadcasters who have survived 1991, kept their heads down and maintained their professionalism can still be heard. Their programmes are gems that stand out like beacons. An example to the zoo of screaming transient deejays who don’t understand the meaning of one-on-one communication yet alone acceptable ‘programme levels’.

Back in 2007 The Malta Broadcasting Authority issued more than 50 FM community radio licences across these tiny Mediterranean islands, which, by the end of the year had a staggering 3.1% audience. Some of these stations specialised. Some are there to give specific coverage of events that the national broadcasters do not provide. So why didn’t the 13 national broadcasters fulfil this role and breakaway from the same old samey waffle and muzak? Your guess is as good as mine.

Radio in Malta has become a poor relation of a massively crowded broadcasting scene. The best thing that happened to the BBC was ITV and the break in the Beebs monopoly. Sadly the same cannot be said for Malta’s national broadcaster which, as an outsider looking in, after 20 years of deregulation seems sadly neglected and under funded.

By 1991 Malta’s national broadcaster had become a whipping stick for the proliferation of broadcast ‘experts’ who suddenly sprouted from nowhere. These were people who went to extraordinary lengths to reinvent themselves as a future guiding light and saviour of an established mature broadcasting system. On every corner in every street it seemed that everyone was the ‘expert’ except those who had spent a great many years building their profession and status as genuine Maltese broadcasters and icons. 1991 was the year when the unknown ‘young guns’ of broadcasting rudely and with no care swept the floor and finally demoralised the professionals forever. And the result? Momentary notoriety, frequencies jam-packed with alter egos, endless unproduced presentation and radio stations with few listeners and no business future. 1991 did not herald a bright new competitive future for Maltese broadcasting.

I remember I was asked my view on what was to be the end of the monopoly for Xandir Malta. I even wrote a ‘paper’ (long lost and gone). In it I suggested that the regulator should get tough in readiness. Indeed the regulator in my plan was to be further removed from the affairs of political figures by making it illegal for politicians and organisations to be seen to interfere in state and independent broadcasting. Such people and their parties would be issued with new guidelines to cover normal times and election periods. A franchise system would be developed. Xandir Malta (the state broadcaster), exempt from having a ‘franchise’, should be afforded a head-start with a serious investment in development and training. Guidelines for new business applicants with programme company contracts of no longer than five years for radio and seven years for television could reapply for their contracts along with new applicants. And the crucial bit … Radio Malta One and Two retained at all cost with a view to ‘education and culture’ on a new Radio Malta Three. Television Malta developed with serious investment with a view to a second channel, TVM2. This non-political one-off funding would come from the state. Then the broadcasting authority charged with appointing a single new independent commercial television station funded through private enterprise and a further two national FM independent commercial radio services. Political entities would not be allowed to invest or editorially control any station. The key word was ‘independent’ and the primary aim was to deregulate and not swamp the market whilst improving revenues through better programming, production and presentation.

Of course none of this ever happened. My ‘paper’, like my ideas received a dutiful nod and then filed – probably in the bin.

From where I am sat it seems that throughout radio in Malta the golden age and good times are buried forever. The aspirations and hopes of the ‘private stations’ have given way to a struggle for survival. With only about 100,000 households in Malta the market was bound to be tough especially with direct competition from nearby Italy and the borderless internet. Such a vast over proliferation of Maltese stations has proved to be professional and business suicide. This is a medium abused by gross interference and murdered by legislation. By giving so much rope the industry that was Maltese radio and television finally throttled itself.

The only winners are the few professional broadcasters who, against all odds, stuck it out and shine through. And their listeners (and viewers) who can still enjoy the occasional good Maltese radio or television programme.

Ian Waugh