Remembering ttt – A Personal View

jai-pres-of-tt

How do you write an epitaph for ttt? How do you find a few words to summarize an institution that is as old as our nation? Where do you begin? And where do you end? ttt has been a part of our lives for more than forty years. It has been our eyes and our ears. Over the decades it has brought us closer together, taught us about ourselves, created an understanding of our diversity, unearthed some of our greatest talent, presented some of our best stories and kept us in touch with our world.

The institution that ceased to exist on January 14, 2005 was a poor shadow of the vibrant (and profitable) ttt I knew. But it was, after all, the only national broadcaster – the people’s station, a reflection of our society, our people, the conscience of a nation.

Today the heart of ttt has stopped, but it had been on its deathbed for a long time, afflicted with a disease brought on by its own inability to accept change and move forward into the modern broadcasting era. It deteriorated soon after its unfortunate marriage with the other state broadcasting organizations and the reluctance – or impotence – of its owners and its managers and directors to provide the potent medication required to resuscitate it.
But that’s for another time.

Much has already been written about ttt’s demise. And journalists, commentators, historians and politicians will have much to say in the weeks, months and years from now.

Today I want to add my thoughts as we end an era in broadcasting in Trinidad and Tobago. Now is not a time to mourn; it is rather a time to celebrate what ttt represented to all our people. I want to celebrate what it meant to me. I want to remember the ttt that was there when the Union Jack came down, the eyes of the nation that saw a country take birth and its Parliament constituted.

The ttt I remember is the one that connected with the people, the organization that reflected – or tried its best to reflect – the nature of our society, our unique social structures, our art and culture. It was also a news organization that was at times bold and pioneering.

The generation that’s witnessing the end of this broadcast era doesn’t know the ttt I know. Today’s generation is polluted by American mass culture, by sensationalism and reality television and they demand more glitz than substance. That is their right, I guess. But I believe it is our responsibility, our duty to educate them about their loss.

Today is a day to pay tribute to the pioneers who entered uncharted waters and created ttt. From the technicians and prop men to the on-air stars, from the office floor to the boardroom and that small dedicated group of pioneering television journalists, among which I count myself.

We were witnesses to history at home, in the region and beyond.
ttt was also a dream maker. It opened doors for journalists, producers, artists and performers and allowed talent to grow and blossom. I lament the demise of an institution that gave me and so many of us an opportunity to go beyond hope and live dreams. The nation will remember only a few names and fewer faces, but it must collectively say thanks to everyone, the army of dedicated men and women who built and nurtured ttt and made it ours.

I want to begin with a step back to a time when ttt was still a novelty, when a television set was a mystery. It was a time when its on-air personalities were national icons. I want to tell you a story about a teenager from the countryside, where young men had dreams and old men waited to die, where hope for a better life faded with the end of the day and took birth again with the rising sun.

ttt gave wings to that young man’s dreams and took him beyond the village, allowing him to travel from the ghettos to the White House, to meet kings and paupers, presidents and despots, telling stories about people and their lives and the world in which we live. I was that young man who dared to dream. And ttt allowed me to live those dreams, made me a storyteller. And I shared those stories with a nation that was willing to see and hear. I was proud to be a part of a national broadcasting organization, to work alongside some of the finest media personnel I have known.

Today I write stories for Canadians, seeing the world through Canadian eyes. Over the years since I left ttt I have produced thousands of newscasts, covered scores of major national and international events, witnessed the rise and fall of dictators, the birth of nations – events that have changed our lives and charted a new course for this planet. Yet I still have dreams of returning home to tell our stories about all of us. Sadly, I won’t be able to do it on ttt.

Back in 1963 while I was in high school, my father succumbed to my nagging and bought the family’s first television set. It was an act that was to change my life forever.

That night I watched television at home for the first time. It was the moment I had only imaged. Now I could put away my Reader’s Digest and enter another world, one with sound and vision and the drama and passion of life.

We watched a documentary about penguins. And later, the news. When Peter Minshall said, “Good Evening” I saw myself. That’s what I was going to do, no matter what it involved. In the next few days we watched cricket, listened to Mervyn Telfer tell us in every commercial break about “McQueen caps, worn by cricketers everywhere”. We saw Lloyd Rohlehr interview some unimportant guest and Hazel Ward present the weather, briskly and carefully scratching graphics on a chalkboard as she went along. (Many years later Hazel told me the story of how Barry Gordon put her live on the air doing the weather report while she thought she was doing a rehearsal.)

In the days, weeks and months following that first encounter with this magic medium our TV attracted the entire neighbourhood to watch all the staples of the sixties – I Love Lucy, Maverick, Bonanza, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason, The Beverly Hillbillies, Happy Days. My father was particularly fond of Dan Matthews, the no-nonsense cop played by Broderick Crawford on Highway Patrol. Ma preferred Lucy and Granny of the Beverly Hillbillies. ttt was still a foreign medium, waiting to move from infancy and grow up alongside the nation to become a chronicler of our society.

I didn’t like the crowds and perhaps that’s why I was attracted to news and current affairs shows, which the crowds didn’t like. I was intrigued with Walter Cronkite’s You Are There, with his authoritative voice informing us that, “All things are as they were then, except You Are There”. I was always there, even today. Cronkite’s book, A Reporter’s Life, and his own narration of it are two of my prized possessions.
Each week as I watched Cronkite I imagined myself telling stories about people, their lives and their world. It was my first lesson in television journalism. And I never stopped learning.

Soon I was teaching myself, mimicking Cronkite, retelling the stories, writing scripts secretly to avoid the ridicule of others who could never understand my obsession with television. I was reciting every commercial seen on the tube even the one with a matronly white woman telling us about our own Angostura and inviting us to “try a little Angostura”. And I was singing the Texaco jingle, “You Can Trust your car to the man who wears the star, THE BIG, BRIGHT, TEXACO STAR.” It’s amazing how things that happened 40 years ago remain etched in one’s memory. In those early days television was as alien as the Christmas Cards with snow that I would send to my teachers and friends.

By the 1970s ttt had become an integral part of my life and the lives of our people. In ten years it had demonstrated its relevance and its necessity. Under the guidance and direction of Programme Director, Farouk Muhammad, it was producing its own shows, appealing to the people and creating opportunities for our nationals to enter this new world both in front of and behind the cameras. It’s programming included such shows as Issues and Ideas, Time to Talk, It’s in the News, Teen Dance Party, Youth Talks Out, Heritage, Scouting for Talent, Mastana Bahar, Indian Variety, Twelve and Under, Mainly For Women, Play of the Month, Hibiscus Club, Community Dateline, Know Your Country, and many, many more. Producers like Hazel Ward, Horace James, Oswald Maingot, Errol Harrylal, Shaffique Mohammed, Victor Daniel, Tony Lutchman and others were working with our talented pool of engineers and technicians to produce high quality national shows that reflected our country, our people and our culture. And they did it with minimal television facilities and equipment, but with commitment and a passion for excellence.

On the air we had equally talented home grown talent: Hazel Ward, Clyde Alleyne, Mervyn Telfer, Holly Betaudier, Horace James, Wilbert Holder, Melina Scott, Sham Mohammed, Pat Matura, Allyson Hennesey, Brenda Da Silva and many others. And our news and current affairs personnel included Trevor MacDonald, Don Proudfooot, Lloyd Rohler, Jimmy Wong, Peter Minshall, Bobby Thomas, Yusuff Ali, Hans Hanoomansingh, Dale Kolasingh, Neil Giuseppi, Salisha Ali. I joined that impressive list much later as did Dominic Kalipersad and those who came afterwards.

All of us shared a common goal to produce television for Trinidad and Tobago that was relevant, timely and designed to create a better society, sharing our diversity and creating understanding and appreciation in our multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. It is what made ttt a great institution that cannot be replicated.

By 1972 I was teaching English, Literature and History at a high school in Couva. But I couldn’t wean myself from the idea of telling stories on TV. Then my life changed. I responded to an ad for television technicians and was invited to Maraval Road for an interview with Farouk Muhammad.
When I walked into Farouk’s office I didn’t know what to expect; I was totally unprepared. Farouk didn’t get up or even invite me to sit; I didn’t have a chance to say “Good Morning.” I will never forget the next few moments: his first reaction and my response. “You look like a reporter,” he said. “That’s what I would like, but I don’t think you’re looking for a reporter”, was my spontaneous response.

He invited me to sit. And we talked, I about my dreams of telling stories on TV, he about plans for expanding local television production, focusing on more news and current affairs. It didn’t seem like an interview; it felt like he had just found someone he had been looking for. And I thought I had arrived in the Promised Land. It was an important beginning.

My career didn’t follow the script when I began my television career on February 16th, 1972. I became a trainee technician and learned the basics of lighting, sound and other aspects of television production from Errol Harrylal, a martinet, a dedicated professional and one of the best television instructors I have known. It was an intimidating experience, but an utterly rewarding one. Victor Daniel gave me the first opportunity to write a television script; then in 1973 the real dream started taking shape when I was transferred to the newsroom.

It was that corner on ttt’s second floor that shaped my life, my career and my future, making me one of the professionals who contributed to making ttt what it was. Yusuff Ali was the News Director and he gave me the first, perhaps most important lesson of my career. “This journalism business,” he told me, “is really simple. You tell stories that people want to hear and you have to tell them well so they’ll listen.” Then he pulled up his chair to his typewriter and started writing a story to demonstrate what he meant. It began, “Hundreds of people waved placards in front of Whitehall this morning…” About a year later he gave me a lesson in broadcasting: don’t read, talk. Farouk Muhammad explained it better, pointing out that television is an intimate medium that talks to one person at a time.

I learned a lot from all of them: Farouk, Yusuff, Ed Fung, Dale Kolasingh and Neil Giuseppi and many of the others who passed through ttt, people like Hazel Ward, Bobby Thomas, Don Proudfoot, June Gonzalves, Victor Daniel, Oswald Maingot, Horace James, Raffie Knowles. And from people who would call up to offer advice and also criticism. The small short-wave radio on Yusuff’s desk was my dearest companion. Every afternoon it allowed me to listen to the BBC and the Voice of America in Special English. It taught me how to write, how to read and how to speak.

Before long the team broke up. Yusuff, Ed and Dale left in quick succession leaving Neil and me – both in our late twenties – to run a newsroom with four trainees: Verne Burnett, Afzal Khan, Liz Aqui and Mary Mouttett. Angela Fox was there from time to time, helping as a casual writer.

Neil had a new vision for Panorama, one that was driven by hard news and current affairs. Together we began a revolution in television journalism in Trinidad and Tobago that dispensed with soft, trivial matters, opting instead for hard news and stronger television journalism. “We’re just wasting time writing wire copy,” was the way he summed it up.

They were the magic words. It was as if a spell had been broken. The next day I was on the road with the newsroom’s only sound camera, with a frustrated Gerry Vieira, my cameraman, wondering, “How yuh going to get all this on air today”. We got it to air, all of it. And we did it again the next day, and the next. We were finding stories about people and their lives, letting them tell their stories in their words; we were holding the bureaucrats and officials accountable. No one and nothing was immune or sacrosanct.

I was everywhere, from the city to the villages. And Neil was in Port of Spain, working with studio equipment, also creating stories and putting together the show.

We had taken up a challenge and together we were determined to prove that youth and professionalism were indeed compatible. And we operated on the journalistic principle that our first obligation was to the people. And the people had a right to know what was going on in their world. The country started noticing. Government ministers and bureaucrats stopped taking the people for granted because we were prepared to ask probing questions about the things people wanted to know.

Panorama was scooping the newspapers, Jai Parasram and Neil Giuseppi became household names and people were calling us from everywhere with leads, and positive comments about the value of ttt in their lives.

One afternoon we received a one-line news release from Whitehall, which stated that based on a report on Panorama the government had ordered an inquiry into the PTSC. One year later the commission found exactly what I had reported about safety concerns with the corporation’s buses. There were dozens of similar stories that brought government response and solutions. Sometimes it brought the wrath of ministers; and often, the condemnation of ttt’s ultra right wing chairman, James Alva Bain.
ttt and our small news team had started to make the government and other primary definers in the society accountable, demonstrating that ttt was indeed a fifth estate in our democratic system.

Neil focused on indepth interviews about current affairs at home and abroad. I spent my time finding stories outside. We had changed the news paradigm from an urban based, diary-driven agenda to a people-based national one. We found the news where it was happening. Early in my career a BBC producer told me that I should think of television as the ultimate coincidence, combining sound and vision to create an illusion of reality. Neil and I were going one step further: we were presenting reality, not an illusion.
Jeremy Taylor, the number one television critic of the time who rarely had pleasant things to say about ttt, found that he liked “the direction Panorama was taking under Neil Giuseppi” after it “unleashed a new secret weapon” called Jai Parasram. We were not out to get anybody; we were just telling stories that needed to be told. And people liked what they saw.

Somehow we managed to cover all the big stories. From regional summits to natural disasters, we found ourselves where it was happening. Nobody could tell stories the way we did because no one had sound and moving pictures. We were able to show the horror of Jonestown, the devastation of hurricanes, the wastelands created by an erupting volcano, the passion and the mayhem of Jamaican politics, the tragedy of Walter Rodney’s untimely death, the battle for the Malvinas and so much more. And at home the little, dispossessed people could now speak about their frustration, their problems and concerns and expect a response from the officials and bureaucrats who had always been inaccessible to them.
That is what ttt was and that is what we have lost. My several awards for Excellence in Journalism that sit in my library are a reminder of the glory days on ttt and the great loss we have suffered. But they are also a reminder too that I must continue telling stories. And that’s why I am telling this one.
Ed Fung’s masterpiece documentary series, Our First Decade, remains one of ttt’s finest current affairs works ever. It was produced at a time when we had few resources. His tour of China and the Far East with Dr Eric Williams remains one of examples of why ttt was part of the heartbeat and the soul of the nation.

Neil’s outstanding coverage of Walter Rodney’s death and the Guyanese elections, my eight-part series on Jamaica, the historic Non-Aligned summit in New Delhi and the OAS General Assembly, our annual News Reviews have all contributed to making ttt more than a commercial broadcasting organization. A private television station would not have gone so far to tell stories to make them relevant to Trinidad and Tobago audiences. They would have been content to pull down an Amero-centric report off CNN.

We did what we did because of professional pride, leadership, teamwork and a passion for excellence. We were the messengers serving the nation, with ttt as the medium.
We were also breaking new ground with special live coverage of major events including the historic nine-hour live telecast of Pope John Paul’s one-day visit to Trinidad. And my own pioneering production in which we had the first live television picture out of Tobago: election coverage co-hosted by Dominic Kalipersad in Tobago and Jones P. Madeira in Port-of-Spain.

What ttt lacked in finesse, it produced in relevant, national broadcasting. And that’s what Trinidad and Tobago has lost. The ttt that became a part of the National Broadcasting Network seemed to lack the will and the enthusiasm to do the same in spite of modern, more efficient tools and additional staff.

Commercial media see value only when the bottom line stays in black; a national broadcaster serves a nation, building bridges, maintaining its culture, and preserving its heritage. Today, the eyes of the nation are shut. And the doors at 11a Maraval Road are bolted.

The broadcasting industry is one of the most competitive in today’s world where globalism has changed all the rules. The ease at which the Internet and satellite television can transport us from deep space to the devastation of Asia by a tsunami makes it difficult to operate on a level playing field. The marketplace in Trinidad and Tobago, with a proliferation of media, makes it imperative for any government to chart a new course for public broadcasting. In a nation such as ours, there will always be the need for a national broadcasting network, no matter what you call it.

Perhaps one of the greatest models is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a respected public broadcaster that has been established by an act of parliament and is funded mainly by the treasury, with a board of directors keeping more than an arm’s length from the government. CBC recognizes its social responsibility to the nation based on the premise that freedom of the press is central to the democracy and the defence of civil liberties. It’s programming is predominantly and distinctively Canadian, reflecting Canada and its regions to national audiences, actively contributing to flow and exchange of cultural expression, contributing to Canada’s shared national consciousness and identity, reflecting its multicultural and multiracial nature while being responsive to the evolving demands of the public. Its journalism is consistent with freedom of expression, independence and the highest professional standards.

In a way it sounds like what the ttt I knew tried to do and did reasonably well, despite its myriad problems. The later version of this institution that became tied to other media seemed lethargic, almost suicidal. Perhaps its demise was inevitable.
We trust that out of the ashes a true, independent national broadcaster will emerge, one that celebrates our nation and its people, an institution in which journalists will operate with the highest professional standards of fairness and accuracy.

Democracy can only flourish when there is a free and independent media. Every government – especially in small, emerging nations – owes a responsibility to the people to ensure that they have access to media through public broadcasting. After all, the people own the state enterprises, not the government. Whoever takes up the job of leading the new public broadcaster must accept the responsibility to do it on behalf of the people, to represent the nation, to celebrate its diversity and highlight that which brings us together rather than sets us apart.

When the new public broadcaster is born it must be all that and also ensure that it’s free and independent voice is heard loud and clear as a fifth estate, ensuring that nothing is ever done to silence dissent and fair comment. Media, especially the people’s media, must never prevent today’s minority from becoming tomorrow’s majority.
Dr Lenny Saith promises a better product saying that, “…the wait would have been worth it”. We want to take him at his word and wish him and the government of Trinidad and Tobago God speed in this project.

Jai Parasram – Toronto: January 2005

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Jai Parasram

JAI PARASRAM is a Canadian journalist who works for the online service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He was a member of the team that inaugurated Newsworld, the CBC’s 24-hour cable news service. He produced and edited the first newscast for the service on July 31, 1989. He was a Producer on the team that won a GEMINI AWARD for the coverage of the SwissAir disaster in Nova Scotia in 1998. Jai left Newsworld in 1998 and established Jyoti Communication. His main projects have involved training journalists, program development for radio and television, corporate imaging, event management and media projects for clients in the Caribbean, Canada and the United States. Jai returned to the CBC in 2003 to help create the Crawl for CBC Newsworld, which he launched on April 7, 2003. Jai’s career began in his native Trinidad in 1972. He has worked mostly in television, as a reporter, editor, producer, interviewer, news anchor and executive producer. He has won several journalism awards. Jai, who is also a documentary producer, holds a Master of Journalism degree (MJ) from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

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