Susan Mulvaney has now been associated with radio broadcasting for more than 40 years, starting at Xandir Malta, going over to RTK and returning to Radio Malta with an evening slot. On the occasion of World Radio Day, we get to know her experiences, trials and tribulations over such a long stretch of time.

susan mulvaney, radio, malta
Susan Mulvaney today. Photo by Gino Galea

You’ve been a long-time devotee of radio for a good number of years now, so much so that you are also considered a veteran broadcaster. How did it all start?

It was March, 1976. Hardly had 48 hours passed since I had delivered my second daughter, Daniela, that my husband Charles did not come to visit with a grin of a well-fed cat.

“You know what?’ he asked.

“What?”

“Well, Joe Avellino (then General Manager at Xandir Malta) phoned me at work and asked whether something had happened to you because he had been trying to reach you by phone at home for two whole days.

“He wants you to take over the ‘Women’s Programme’ on Radio Malta. Immediately!”

I was awestruck. I asked him to relay the message that I would contact him as soon as humanely possible after going home – which I did. Personally, I favoured the idea! And was pleased at being asked…

I had started my journalist career in 1964 with l-orizzont under the late Anton Cassar – the first female in the second intake of student journalists with Union Press on a three-year course. As fate would have it, the management had decided to start publishing Malta News and I was promoted to sub-editor after only a few months’ training. This included responsibilities for what then was ‘the women’s page’.

So passing from print to radio would not be such a Herculian task, I argued.

I went into what until a few years’ earlier was ‘Rediffusion House’ with butterflies in my stomach. After pleasantries I was taken under the late Charles Arrigo’s wings “to be shown the ropes”. I was lucky, in that I knew how to use my voice, having formed part (and still do) of St Monica Choir under Sr Beniamina Portelli. Training consisted mainly of using the microphone – at the time a monstrous contraption that even looking at it made you shiver!

I was always a subscriber to such magazines as Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman and Home and Women’s Weekly. I spent most of what little I was paid for producing the programme on such publications but these helped in developing some avantgarde topics.

In 1981, I was employed full-time at Xandir Malta. This brought added responsibilities: it was not just the women’s programme. I was now a full-time producer in the true sense of the word, joining the ranks of seniors like Charles Arrigo, Charles Abela Mizzi, Victor Galdes and Peter Paul Ciantar. Not only did I had to cater for the ‘Woman’s Hour’ – which now became true to its word and had an hour’s duration – but I had to produce other programmes, mainly cultural ones.

I was fortunate to be housed in the same small office as that occupied by that charismatic Charles Abela Mizzi – desks practically adjoining each other. We discussed ideas, refined them and ‘criticised’ each other when necessary. His sense of perfectionism was contagious and he moulded me that way.

Rolf Harris, Susan Mulvaney, Radio,
With Australian entertainer Rolf Harris

You surely remember the early years of Xandir Malta, which kicked off in 1975. How prominent was this for the country? What was the feedback of the general public like?

Since its inception in 1935 by a company called Broadcast Relay (Service) Malta Ltd., which in 1955 changed its name to Rediffusion Malta Ltd., radio broadcasting in Malta has had a very mixed fare. Television started in 1962.

Following the 1971 general elections, the then Labour government led by Dom Mintoff made it clear from the start that there was to be a point in time when broadcasting was to be transferred to the public sector.

Negotiations between the government and the Rediffusion Group started towards the end of 1973. However, by the end of 1974, negotiations broke down as no agreement had been reached between the General Workers’ Union and the management as to the terminal benefits that would be paid to the staff were the company to terminate its activities in Malta.

This was the second industrial disagreement registered between the GWU and the Rediffusion Group, the first being registered on July 26, 1968 with a one-day strike.

On February 14, 1975 the GWU ordered a sit-in strike at the premises of the Rediffusion Group of Companies and for a few days wired sound and television broadcasting services remained off the air.

On February 19, radio and television broadcasts were restarted by the workers themselves who were still on the sit-in strike. On February 24, 1975 a Bill legalizing recent past and future activities of the workers of Rediffusion and MTV was introduced by the government and an Emergency Council was made up of workers from the two companies.

By April 1975 it was decided that the Emergency Council would also take control of other important communication services. These would include the former Rediffusion, Malta Television and Radio Malta under the new name of Xandir Malta run under a new public corporation, Telemalta.

By July 31, 1975, Xandir Malta officially became the broadcasting division of the Telemalta Corporation.

I entered broadcasting during Xandir Malta, although I used to be invited to take part in some programmes during Rediffusion’s term.

One must say that some welcomed the fact that broadcasting was “now in the hands of the Maltese” while others, being polarised as they are, did not like Mr Mintoff’s oft heavy-handed tactics.

Perhaps the most divisive period was post-1981 election when Labour won the majority of seats but not the popular vote which resulted in the PN boycotting parliament and ultimately also Xandir Malta for imbalance in reporting.

Later, when the PN came to power in 1987, steps were taken to convert Xandir Malta to Public Bradcasting Services.

In September 1990, a White Paper was issued setting out the government’s proposals for establishing pluralism in broadcasting through the development of new radio services at national and community levels, the introduction of a cable television service, and providing a framework for rapidly developing technologies.

Susan Mulvaney, Malta, radio
Susan interviewing Charles Bonavia from the Malta Bartenders Guild

Broadcasting is certainly a skill and an art in itself. How did one become a broadcaster? Were there any customary or compulsory training programmes which one had to successfully complete before becoming a radio broadcaster? Is it true that “today’s presenters lack the training and discipline of older generations”?

I believe you have to have it in you to broadcast. Of course, as with any other profession, one needs training in key skills: strong speaking, research, reading and writing skills, ability to interview and moderate guests, provide commentary and news stories, technical skills with automation systems, control and mixer boards and CD players. And, above all, a flexible schedule!

I attended two BBC training courses held in Malta but, as they say, “practice makes perfect”.

And if anyone wants to stifle one’s broadcasting career before it even starts is to go in with an attitude that he is God’s gift to broadcasting. One should, at all times, ask for and take advice from experienced broadcasters.

Discipline is of paramount importance, especially when it comes to keeping to time schedules. If news is to be broadcast at 12, it should not go out at 12.01! If a programme is of 30 minutes’ duration, it should not overrun but the producer must time it to 25 minutes to give space to advertisements and other promotional material.

And a warning: please think before you speak. It is a pity that many broadcasters are massacring the Maltese language, often using foreign words when there is an appropriate one in our language.

Also, speak plainly as to be understood: in broadcasting once a word is lost, it is lost forever.

What was radio like at a time when television wasn’t a fierce competitor as it is today? Was there any sense of prominence attached to the post?

Before the advent of television in Malta – first the Italian stations and later the local one in 1962 – radio was the most important communicator.

Programmes were varied. I vividly recall Effie Ciantar’s choice of the first programme on Rediffusion’s “B Switch” at 6 am after the Ave Maria: one day you had nice soft music, the other classical music, followed by operating, Italian, American and English songs.

Rediffusion’s “Switch A” used to relay the BBC World Service for 6 am to 11 pm.

People had their ears stuck to their Rediffusion sets to hear drama, Maltese readings, quizzes, variety shows, comedy sketches, especially by Radju Muskettieri, or series like “Taħt il-Blat Samm” and “Il-Farfett l-Aħdar”.

Children were also offered a mixed fare by in-Nannu Peppu, iz-Ziju Salv and Ziju Frans, often keeping us glued to the set hearing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five’s adventures in drama form on a Saturday afternoon before going to confession!

Carnival, Karnival, Susan Mulvaney, Radio
An Outside Broadcast of a Carnival Competition

Does radio serve any exclusive particular purpose missed by other media? It lacks the colours, the imagery and the sense of immediacy that television easily transmits. Where do the strengths of radio lie?

The advantages of radio are numerous. Radio is a much more portable medium than television and news websites and allows the listener to carry on listening while on the move.

The “pictures” are better on radio. The listeners use their own imagination to conjure up for example, what the characters in a radio play look like: they can imagine the romantic hero in a way that they prefer or be frightened by a monster of their own imagination. They are freed up to produce the images that they want.

Many television writers started in radio and many successful television formats were tried out on radio first. And we are now seeing another phenomena: TV chat shows are nothing less than radio shows but were we can see who is talking!

Radio programmes are so much cheaper to produce, producers are far more willing to invest time in encouraging new writers and supporting them through the early stages if they show promise. Writing for radio is also much freer than writing for television.

Perhaps the most overused phrase currently employed by the radio industry, but a good marker for the possibilities of the medium, is that: “Radio is the Theatre of the Mind”.

It demonstrates the power of the spoken word, and the ability of audio alone to create powerful and vivid pictures in the mind of the listener.

All the sounds together will help listeners create their own pictures, which are much stronger than most visuals because they are self-generated; they are the listener’s unique images, created much like the reader of a novel creates the scenes they are reading about.

You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears.

And this is even acknowledged by the Advertising Industry. Advertisers use radio as a medium for its immediacy: as a medium it can react quickly. It is cost effective and clearly targeted, it can reach the right people, at the right time, at the right place and often just before the point of purchase. Radio remains relevant today, providing the entertainment people need.

Having savoured both radio and TV broadcasting, I’d emphatically cast my vote in favour of radio!

© 2017 – VIDA Magazine – Clifford Jo Żahra