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Abaco Goes Hog Wild - or - Getting Boared in the Abacos!
I approached the Radio Abaco news station in Dundastown with a degree of trepidation, even though General Manager, Silbert Mills had graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article a few days before. Throughout my own short tenure in Abaco, his was one of the names I had been hearing most often, sometimes with a tone of admiration and other times, with one of exasperation. And I had also had the opportunity to get a sense of the person, speaking with him briefly on the street while either of us was enroute to one assignment or another.
Radio Abaco, with its 190' tower, is perched on a rise of land on property directly across from the southern shore of Marsh Harbour. The building is painted a pale gold colour and has a wooden deck in front. The land is as yet unlandscaped quite raw in appearance -but one can see the potential for an impressive vista of "rolling foliage" in the future.
Inside the front entrance, I was greeted by the man himself, complete with headphones. He expressed the rather dubious compliment that a woman who "knew time" was rare in his experience. On my very heels were two of the station's popular employees, Nikia Williams - fresh from an exhausting stint of court reporting at an inquest in town - and Geo the Leo (George Cornish), about to take over on-air. Ms. Williams also handles the day-to-day management of the office and Geo is the station's Sports Caster and Day Announcer.
The two rooms which comprise Radio Abaco are small but organized. Even a broadcast novice such as myself could identify relevant pieces of equipment at a glance - CD's, cassette tapes, recorders and other paraphernalia of the broadcast world, which were shelved and stacked neatly around the larger room. Mr. Mills and I sat comfortably in the small office and got down to business.
Other than the Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas' ZNS-3 (based in Freeport), Radio Abaco is Abaco's only Bahamian radio station and, essentially the first of its kind - originated, operated and "opinionated" solely by a Bahamian. Radio Abaco was born after a long and painful gestation, in March of 1997 just over a year ago and has grown at a remarkable rate. Like a lone-awaited first child, the station has been received by Abaco with joyful anticipation and pride (but also with a degree of the same trepidation I felt on entering Mr. Mills' inner sanctum).
In mid-1993, Silbert Mills began to broadcast weather reports by VHF radio for the information of Abaco's transient boating population as part of the Cruisers Net program. By 1994, a visitor called Eden Bitzer noticed Silbert's resonant voice and told him that he should really use this gift for the medium of radio. Bitzer was so convinced about this idea that he sent Silbert a package a short while later which outlined equipment needs and cost projections for setting up a radio station. Mills was mystified at the relatively low financial outlay of a project of this kind. So, intrigued by the idea, he set out to conduct feasibility studies which involved, among other things, research into advertising fees, and realized he could do it.
Mills put together a proposal and submitted an application to Government, which, in turn, garnered the opinions of various local government boards thoughout Abaco. He felt so optimistic that he went ahead and bought the tower from Florida's Y-100 radio station and had it brought in to Abaco. Silbert himself, did not support the incoming Government at that time, made no bones about it and therefore, was not entirely surprised to be advised that his application was not successful "at the time". The news that his application had not been favourably considered disappointed him, but did not daunt his spirit. Meanwhile, the tower had been sitting at the dock for a year. After seeking advice elsewhere, his wife and partner, Dolly Mills, submitted a new application in her own name and received approval in December, 1996 - a mere few months after applying.
From then on in, the Millses, with Dolly as President, Chief Executive Officer and accountant and Silbert as General Manager, Weather Forecaster, Reporter and Spokesperson, set up Radio Abaco. Transmitters and other equipment were purchased, the tower erected and all systems were "a go" by March 14, 1997 just in time to be the first to broadcast the election results of that year. I asked Silbert about his past experience in such a venture. He assured me that at the time, he had had absolutely none did not even know what the inside of a station should look like. However, through the kindness of the late Cay Gottlieb, former Manager of Freeport's Kool 96, he was familiarized with the basic requirements and put the knowledge to good use when designing Radio Abaco.
The station has received wide public acceptance - residents of the Abacos, including the boaters and visitors alike call in, visit or write to commend Mills, to make suggestions or to thank him for the services the station provides. Mills would never allow the station to be used for propaganda purposes and in fact, wishes to maintain its Christian character, as he is a Christian himself. The program schedule, which ranges from Gospel and Easy Listening music, to local and international news, to Morning Devotions, reflects this side of the man. The talk show Face the Facts has been popular with Abaco. It airs every Tuesday morning from 11:00am-12:30p.m. and showcases a personality who personally or professionally contributes a service to the Abacos. The Mills Report, airing every weekday morning at 9am features controversial topics from all over on which Silbert makes provocative commentaries.
The other three employees of Radio Abaco are Audrick "D.J. Nice" McKenzie, the nighttime music program host, Raymond Campbell, the Sunday Announcer and La Keisha "Special K" Burrows, who with her seductively pleasing voice is a part-time Day Announcer.
As was inevitable, and because I know Abaco would want to know, I asked Silbert to tell us all about "the man" inside the radio personality and he obliged. Silbert Mills, husband of Dolly and father to Teneil and Dario, was born in Abaco some thirty-something years ago and has lived here most of his life. His parents are Bertram Mills and the late Voila Mills and his sisters operate the Island and C&G Bakeries in Marsh Harbour.
When he was just 16, Mills' father, Bertram, lost his sight and Silbert had to leave school to help support the family. His first job, making $40 for a 6 day week, was kneading bread at the bakery where his mother worked. He left that job to work for $4.00 more a week at Marsh Harbour Power & Light Company, then was employed at Bahamas Customs by age 17. Mills was employed there for 5-1-2 years before an incident occurred which would forever change his life.
During the early 1980's - the Bahamas (which for most of its history has been a passageway for the transshipment of legal and illegal cargo) had become a dream for drug traffickers intent on supplying the major market of the United States. All types of water and air vehicles were used in this venture, including the odd small private plane. Customs Officers at both the docks and airports throughout the country literally had their hands full trying to keep up with the job of checking whichever planes they could for drugs and other contraband. On a private trip to Florida around this time, 22 year old Silbert Mills was arrested on a charge of "conspiracy to transport illegal substances" along with several other persons. He was accused of receiving $2,000 to "look the other way" while a drug deal was "going down". Despite his plea of not only innocence, but ignorance of the whole affair, he was found jointly guilty as charged and sentenced with the others to a minimum of 2 years in a Florida prison. What he found particularly insulting was that he was taking home a substantial sum at the time owing to his regular salary plus overtime and to a small joint business venture and simply would not have needed "dirty money".
The nightmare of his life had begun. Silbert, with a haunted look in his eyes, described the 20 months he actually spent incarcerated. The hardest to bear were the first nine during which time he was locked into a cell so small that he could stretch his arms out and touch both walls at the same time while sitting on his cot in the middle. He spent time reading books from the prison library on how to form a business, on how to form a prospectus on proposals and business law. By the end on those 9 months, when he had seen the sun about four times, he was more than ready when he was placed in charge of the library itself. Silbert remembers those days with sadness, but without the bitterness one might expect. The only lasting consequence he is not able to shake is a dislike of "food lines" of any kind including buffet-style self service. Even though he maintains his innocence to this day, he has learned much from the experience he might not have otherwise learnt. He is aware that certain members of the Abaco public whisper about his having founded his business and built his home on ill-gotten gains, a whisper which, though untrue and unfair, he has used to motivate him to be even more successful.
In fact, a lot of his blessings, though originating with God, have been showered on him and his family through the kindness of fellow human beings. People like Eden Bitzer, the originator of the Radio Abaco idea, and Jack Albury, who gave him his first post-prison job in 1984 at the Bahamas Yachting Service when others were shying away from him. People like Bill and Sally Pasco, residents of Pelican Shores, who loaned Silbert and Dolly the money they needed to build their home when certain banks had no faith in them. Like his partners in an air charter service he was involved in for a short time until he ventured out on his own. Like countless Abaconians who have encouraged, praised and supported him ever since and to whom he feels a great debt.
Apart from Radio Abaco, the Millses co-owned a Pizza Hut franchise until August, 1998 but now exclusively own Abaco Pizza Hut and the Admiral Yacht Haven Villas on the waterfront at Marsh Harbour. Mills' wife Dolly has been his greatest support and chief fan during his struggles and he's forever grateful to her. His personal philosophies are that a man should be true to his personal lifestyle without having to bend to the will of others and that the majority rules in decision-making. Silbert is a true Aquarian (for those who still follow the stars), and like them, he believes in the principle of "live and let live." In the near future, his plans include entering the political arena on behalf of his beloved people of Abacos and lending his gifts most obvious of all, his melodious voice to yet another God-engineered purpose for his life."I LIKE THE SOUND OF THAT!"
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