Radio Vlora stands by to make waves

Andrew Gumbel reports on the bedroom-based operation behind Albania's first private station
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The Independent Online
Fernando Llambro is the sort of entrepreneur you could find only in Albania. His venture is not exactly illegal, but neither is it entirely legal and it has already been broken up once by the police.

The source of his funding is shrouded in some mystery - unless you believe that he pulled together upwards of $25,000 (pounds 16,000) solely by working as a waiter in Corfu hotel. Strangest, though, is that in eight months of operation he has not made a penny and does not look like doing so in the near future.

What does he do? He runs Albania's first private radio station. "It's a consuming passion. I love this work and wouldn't do anything else," said the 31-year-old electrician from the port of Vlora, sitting in the radio studio which doubles up as living room and bedroom for himself and his wife, Erilda.

Mr Llambro developed his passion while working illegally as a fruit-machine repairer in London and spending time on the premises of a small radio station called Live FM.

His equipment was bought in pieces from various unspecified locations. The records and tapes, mostly 1970s dance compilations, come from street markets in Greece and the archives of Radio Tirana. The telephone, used for occasional phone-ins, is unregistered and illegally wired up via a neighbour's line.

Radio Vlora 104 FM, which attracts listeners in an 80km range (including, on fair-weather days, the Italian port of Otranto, across the Adriatic), is a home-made operation in every sense of the word. In present-day Albania it is also a distinctly uncertain enterprise, since for the moment the state controls all broadcasting.

That presents two problems for radio hams. First, it is impossible to make money because any advertising would be illegal. And, secondly, Mr Llambro can be sure that his most assiduous listeners are the local police, who have instructions to close him down the second he strays into areas of controversy. "The moment he mentions politics, he is finished," one senior police officer in the town said.

The police raided in February, confiscating much of the equipment. Mr Llambro took them to court, saying they had no legal grounds to stop him broadcasting, and won. He has been back on the air since 1 May, bending over backwards to help the local authorities with public-information announcements.

But what is really in it for him? It is hard to believe that Mr Llambro is simply on a mission to bring Abba and Elton John to the ears of Albanians. No, he is betting that once the government introduces its much-promised law on private broadcasting, he can be in the front line to reap the benefits.

President Sali Berisha's government has been super-sensitive about liberalising the flow of information in Albania, but with the opposition Socialists favourites to win next spring's general elections the ruling Democratic Party might be keen to establish an independent broadcasting network to look out for its interests in the future.

In Tirana, the Albanian capital, entrepreneurs are beating down the doors of various government ministries with proposals for television stations. This being Albania, with its limited resources, it seems the most widespread suggestion is for cheap, lucrative but thoroughly trashy programming.

"It might not be the kind of television Albanians had dreamed of, but we all have to make a living," said one television worker, dreaming of bigger, if not necessarily better, things to come.