On the final morning, Mike Olsson ended his news bulletin with an apology. He was sorry, he said, but it had been hard to read the news on such a day.
Less than 48 hours earlier, he and Vince Thompson had announced on air that Saint FM would close at 4pm on Friday, 21 December 2012. St Helena’s first independent radio station would fall silent after eight years of exposing the powerful to scrutiny, and uniting St Helenians around the world
Listeners might have sensed that something was up on the final Wednesday, when presenter Tony Leo said that the 4.15 news bulletin would be a few minutes late.
When it came, a good quarter hour behind schedule, it began as it so many had in 2012, with news of yet another funeral. And then followed Saint FM’s own death notice.
Unusually, it was scripted and read by Vince Thompson: after eight years in which Mike’s had been the ever-steady voice of the news, the station’s owner and founder had to ask someone else to find the right words.
When the bulletin ended, Tony Leo was subdued. “What do I say?” he asked. “I’m a little bit shocked, to be honest. I didn’t know that was in the news for tonight.
“Do I say I’ll be back next week? No. It’s a shame, a shock and a disappointment.”
Then he played a track by Crowded House: Don’t Dream, It’s Over.
Tony was himself the founding manager of the rival Radio St Helena, the government-owned station whose own closure was scheduled for midnight, at the end of Christmas Day 2012 – its 45th anniversary.
It was due to be replaced some time in January 2013 by three stations being launched by the St Helena Broadcasting (Guarantee) Corporation, set up by councillors with well over £100,000 in UK aid. Mike Olsson had been funding Saint FM from his own pocket, at a loss.
By Saint FM’s last day on air, there had been no public announcement of the exact launch date for the new stations. Not even their names had been made public by an organisation that purported to be “community owned”.
Within a short time of the news of Saint FM’s closure, listeners were sending in tributes, and expressing their feelings on the station’s Facebook page. Many came from overseas listeners – some with family on an island they had never visited.
Elaine Andrews wrote: “I was in tears when I listen to the radio. I have listened for nearly six years and I truly love all that I hear. It’s the way you have of saying certain things. Hearing this on the radio tells me how close the Saints are.”
And Kenickie Simon Andrews said: “It feels like a family member going.”
The idea of launching an independent station was conceived by Johnny Drummond, who was editor of the St Helena News and its successor, the St Helena Herald – a government-funded newspaper that closed in March 2012.
Discussions on the idea began in earnest in August 2003, but Johnny died only two months later.
Mike Olsson pressed ahead with the idea. In 2004 he was granted a broadcasting licence, and after three months of test transmissions, the station was formally launched on Monday, 3 January 2005.
Angela Williams presented her first morning show, The Wake Up Mix, from six in the morning, and was followed into the studio by Emma-Jane Yon.
The official opening a few days later was attended by 80 guests, including the island’s governor and its bishop.
In time, internet streaming meant the station could be relayed to Saints on the Falkland Islands and Ascension; and on 16 May 2008, Mike achieved his ambition of extending broadcasts to St Helena’s sister island of Tristan da Cunha.
The link was marked with an on-air address by the acting governor, Ethel Yon. She told listeners: “This is an historic occasion and worthy of celebrating as it gives the people of St Helena and its sister islands, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, a way of communicating with each other over the airwaves and bringing these remote communities in the South Atlantic feeling much that much closer to each other.
“Where we are today is through the hard work and dedication of Mike Olsson and
his small team at Saint FM, to whom I pay tribute.
“Saint FM started scheduled broadcasts in January 2005 and started streaming on the
internet in May 2005, but this did not stop there. FM broadcasts then commenced
on Ascension in May 2006 with help from VT Communications and Cable &
“This proved very popular with Saints on Ascension and certainly did much to stamp out some of the isolation between families on St Helena and Ascension. Mike then decided to go a step further and in September 2006, FM broadcasts reached the Falklands.
“Mike’s aim was to reach all of the South Atlantic Islands. He very much wanted to reach Tristan da Cunha and through sheer determination he succeeded. You’ve reached your goal, Mike.”
The closure announcement referred to deteriorating relations with St Helena Government.
It complained that Governor Mark Capes had used his Christmas message to advertise the new, state-funded media organisation, with its “crisp and refreshingly objective reporting, soon to be complemented by three new FM radio stations.”
The new organisation’s newspaper, the Sentinel, had perhaps not been so objective when it published an interview with His Excellency, in which he said councillors had been right to set up the SHBC “because it’s vitally important, in any society at any time that we have a media operation that is objective and honest.”
No justification was given for the remark, or another suggesting that a few sad people chose to dwell on negativity rather than contributing to island life with constructive ideas.
Mike Olsson has never been abashed about his enthusiasm for attacking the island government and others in authority. On one occasion, he was arrested for receiving leaked paperwork relating to the government-owned Solomons business empire.
Even his strongest critics have acknowledged his role in opening up public debate on a small island where for centuries, few had dared to speak out against those in power.
In a response to the closure announcement, a St Helena Government spokesman passed up the opportunity to reflect on the station’s undoubted contribution to island life, or the achievements of those who kept it on air against financial odds, on an economically-weak island of only 4,000 people.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London was more gracious. It said:
“The UK Government and SHG values the diversity of media and opinion in St Helena, as in other Overseas Territories, and we recognise St FM’s achievements on St Helena – its contribution to stimulating public debate and to informing the public, as well as its entertainment value.”
It defended the Christmas message from Governor Capes (who was on leave in the UK):
“The establishment of SHBC this year is a great achievement. It is entirely appropriate for the Governor to note that publicly.”
Councillors, frustrated by frequent attacks that did not always prove to be justified, met in secret and passed a Media Standards Ordinance, creating statutory regulation of the island’s media.
The new rules, protecting people from unfair attack, came into force only weeks before UK prime minister David Cameron said that introducing similar legally-backed regulation in Britain would be a dangerous step towards inhibition of free speech.
Rather than become the first person to make a complaint under a law that had been introduced to bring him under control, Mike chose instead to publish a robust editorial in the St Helena Independent, pointing out the many positive contributions that Saint FM had made to island life.
They included intervening to ensure that the 2013 Governor’s Cup Yacht Race went ahead, despite what he claimed was ambivalence within The Castle in Jamestown.
The station was to fall silent almost exactly 24 hours before the start of the race from South Africa to St Helena, on 22 December 2012.
The final push came when the station received complaints from listeners that they could not hear its broadcasts. It had apparently been taken off air several times while engineers attempted to set up transmissions for the new radio stations.
In a discussion with Vince Thompson, Mike decided that after years of working 17-hour days – which included working into the night to put together the weekly St Helena Independent – he was no longer willing to cope with the frustrations of keeping the station on air. A few hours later, they broke the news of the station’s closure.
Mike paid tribute to his army of volunteer presenters and helpers – all of them Saints – and to the support of his wife, Bernice.
At four o’clock, he said, he would switch off the transmitter. There would be no big goodbye.
Disclosure: St Helena Online works in partnership with Saint FM and its sister newspaper, The St Helena Independent (which will continue to be published).
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