HIS story is not different from the story of most pioneers and trailblazers who come out with what people don’t understand and don’t believe can work. So they laugh, ridicule, scorn or make jest of your new idea, your new baby conceived and born out of vision.
Ted Turner, the founder of CNN had walked this path before, when he came with the unheard of idea of a 24-hour news channel that would broadcast news unceasingly, from inception till the end of the world which would even be reported live. The big media giants of the day and the main competitors didn’t believe the new kid on the block – CNN was a workable, sustainable idea with a future. So they made jest of Turner, calling his CNN Chicken Noodle News instead of its original name of Cable News Network. But Turner didn’t get discouraged. He forged on. And today, CNN is the envy of the competition and the whole world which it has turned into a global news village through its ubiquitous world news coverage. From a derided idea, CNN is now the world’s news leader, blazing the trail for others to follow.
The story of Ted Turner reminds me of the story of my good friend, John Momoh, who went through thick and thin to start his Channels TV, a concept that in a way attempts to replicate CNN locally with Nigerian ingredients and flavour. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the founding of Channels TV—a television station that is the pride of Nigeria and Africa, a station that has kept winning laurels as the best TV station in Nigeria for the 11th year running. Like Usain Bolt in the 100 and 200 metres Olympics race, Channels TV burns the tracks with his long strides, running invincible all the way to the tape, laughing at the poor, struggling and panting competitors.
To celebrate the 21st anniversary of the founding of the Nigerian dream TV station, Momoh gathered all the political, corporate and media heavyweights under the same roof for a gala night at the Oriental Hotel, Lagos. It was a night of wining, dining, music, speeches and praises, all attesting to the fact that success has many fathers and failure an orphan.
In his speech, the Channels chairman and CEO, Momoh recalled the days of small beginnings when he was despised, taunted and haunted by his mockers and doubters.
“Twenty-one years ago,” he began, “on a clear July afternoon, we switched on a very small electronic equipment—the size of a briefcase. We called it a transmitter. Its power rating was 100 watts. Just about two percent of what existing government stations owned. Its coverage area was within a radius of 5 of this complex. Channels TV was live on air.”
He continues: “I was excited. But many people weren’t. Some mocked. Some derided me. Others ridiculed me.”
They ridiculed him just like Goliath ridiculed David when the poor shepherd boy came to confront this Philistine giant attired in his full panoply of war. Here is how the Bible in I Samuel describes the fearsome Goliath:
“His height was six cubits and a span. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels. On his legs, he wore bronze greaves and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s road and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.”
In sharp contrast, David was simply armed with a catapult and a few stones in his pocket. Even Goliath was surprised and amused. “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? I will give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals.”
You know the rest of the story, how David used a tiny weapon to finish off the mighty Goliath to become the king of Israel.
Continuing his story, John Momoh, the David of Nigerian Television who competed with many established media Goliaths asked: “How can a man going on a transport business buy a tricycle and take on the likes of ABC Transport? Such is the analogy that best captures my audacity in 1995. Everyone jeered, but the Lord was with me.”
Like the journey of the Three Wise men as captured in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Journey of the Magi, it was a journey replete with so many setbacks and daunting challenges. Momoh and the foundation Channels TV team were frustrated. Many a times they regretted because of the handicaps of the Lilliputian tools they were competing with. But they never gave up. They leveraged on their creativity and professionalism, going for exclusive stories that won them more viewing audience which kept expanding by the day.
But for the “dogged spirit of faith,” his lovely wife Shola and a few forward-looking personalities who did not allow the early frustrations to break their resolve, the story would have been different, Momoh recalls. What kept them going was the “conviction that Nigeria needed an independent, cutting edge television news service” committed to the “highest ideals in balance reporting and the right to be adequately informed.”
“So in spite of the early pitfalls and the near-collapse, we had to survive. And survive we did. The Lord was with us,” he said, sounding like a televangelist.
When key investors were bluffing and giving impossible conditions, the Lord was with John. When advertisers would not give adverts because they didn’t yet believe in the workability of an all-news channel, the Lord was with him. For 18 months, there was no advert, no oxygen to keep the station breathing. Then out of the blues came Bournvita drink advert from Cadbury. It was like manna from heaven.
When the spectre of General Abacha’s reign cast a frightening shadow over the station, the Lord was with them. When on September 2008 during the late President Yar’Adua administration, Channels Television was suspended for broadcasting what was described as “an unwholesome news item,” the Lord was with them and the angel of suspension passed over Channels. It was back on air again.
In her own speech, the Vice Chairman Mrs. Shola Momoh saluted the “courage of President Ibrahim Babangida to deregulate, thereby putting a stop to coups. The country has so many radio stations today. So if a coup is announced on one, it could easily be countered on another. That singular act brought the cessation of military coups in Nigeria. Thank you Gen. Babangida.”
On my part, I salute John Momoh for envisioning a media enterprise that has passed the test of good television which is: good programming, professionalism, relevance, authenticity and innovation. I salute the pioneering spirit of this African media organization which has scored so many firsts: first Nigerian TV station to stream its news and programme live, first Nigerian TV station to interface with followers on Twitter, first Nigerian TV station which is the point of reference for breaking news. As our people would say: “Channels Television. Una well done o!” I salute a visionary who was laughed at but has the last laugh.