Sun | Dec 17, 2017

Editorial | Lester Spaulding's big vision

Published:Wednesday | November 22, 2017 | 12:09 AM

There are a handful of people among them Trinidad and Tobago's Ken Gordon, Jamaica's Oliver Clarke and Harold Hoyte of Barbados whose contributions to the business end of media in the English-speaking Caribbean are probably equal to his.

None would have had a more profound impact than Lester Spaulding, who died last week, aged 76. And few would have been at the helm of as many ambitious projects as Mr Spaulding, who at the time of his death was chairman of the RJRGLEANER media group, the outcome of the merger of Jamaica's two largest and oldest entities, the broadcaster RJR Ltd and The Gleaner Company (Media) Ltd, of which this newspaper was a member.

It was Mr Spaulding's last media enterprise. In ambition and scope, it largely defined the man. For while many observers have analysed this merger in business and financial terms which were important considerations to Mr Spaulding and the shareholders he served it represented to him something else of equal importance: an avenue for ensuring the survival of a free and independent media in Jamaica.

Lester Spaulding was not a journalist. He was a professional manager, who joined RJR when it was still a British-owned entity, as an accountant and grew to become its CEO and chairman. He understood not only the economics of media but had a profound appreciation of its potential as a tool of development and as watchdog against government overreach.

It is not surprising that under Mr Spaulding's watch as managing director in the turbulent ideological schisms of late 1970s and '80s, including a period when RJR fell under the ownership of the Government, no one ever seriously or credibly questioned the independence of the station, while the integrity of the state-owned Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) was under assault.

It may have been in keeping with the ideology of the Michael Manley democratic socialist government of the 1970s that the divestment of the RJR was to mass, or so-called people-based, organisations, such as trade unions, credit unions and teachers and farmers associations. It was, however, to the credit of Mr Spaulding and his chairman, the South African writer, Peter Abrahams, that the project was executed without a hitch and made to work well when it could have ended as a rudderless boardroom Babel.

Significantly, the model, as overhauled by Mr Spaulding, protected his managers and journalists and presenters from overreach of another kind. It wasn't surprising that there were echoes of it when, under Lester Spaulding's chairmanship, the company was demutualised and taken public with an arrangement that capped an individual's connected party's shareholding to 20 per cent, but limiting voting rights to 10 per cent.

 

Financial strength

 

Mr Spaulding, however, was aware that while institutional mechanisms can help to protect media from chilling incursions from politicians and private entities, independence ultimately rests on financial strength. It means running a business that is innovative, capable of responding to market conditions and being profitable. He led a company that, in a difficult market environment, adapted to shifting circumstances. In the late 1990s, for instance, RJR acquired the television services of the Government's lossmaking JBC.

Indeed, Mr Spaulding was always on the search for new market opportunities as well as for ways to provide his audiences the bulk of the company's clients with the best service, whether it was his stations' news/information programmes, or the quality of their listening and viewing experiences. It was that commitment to viability as the flip side of media independence that gave logic to the RJR-Gleaner merger and Lester Spaulding's commitment to it.

Mr Spaulding's big vision for media transcended Jamaica to include the wider Caribbean, where he served on the boards of, or led, several institutions, including the Caribbean Broadcasting Union, of which he was president between 1987 and 1991.