Michel Fleischmann: Magnate of the airwaves

A guy from Vršovice, a bohemian and a media magnate. The president of Evropa 2 and Frekvence 1, with whom we discussed family, life in France, and the world of media and politics, is all of these.

You are from an intellectual family. Your grandfather was a lawyer, your father was a writer and a diplomat, and your mother was a photographer. How did your background influence your relationship to your current profession?
You did not mention that my other grandfather, Ruda Jílovský, was a singer at Red Seven, and that he recently received the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk for his resistance. He then emigrated to the US, where he and Ferdinand Peroutka co-founded Radio Free Europe. Thanks to my father, who was from a literary family, many artists visited our home, such as Nezval, Seifert, Werich, Nový, and many others. When my dad worked as cultural attaché in France, we met many well known French cultural personalities. So my development was logical. I first felt a passion for radio in 1962, as I listened to a live broadcast of the Czechoslovakia vs. Brazil world soccer championship final on an old Russian radio. That is when I said to myself that radio was what I wanted to do with my life.

In 1969 your family decided to remain in France, where you spent 26 years. What did you study, and what kind of jobs did you hold?
My father was the first Czech diplomat to stay abroad with his entire family. At that time I was studying at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, and I worked as an usher and cashier in a movie theater, then later as a projectionist. I kept at that for nine years when I studied French literature and sociology in college. I also worked in the Georges Pompidou Center as a watchman for the paintings and a librarian, but I mainly organized poetry evenings with actors. At the beginning of the ’80s I found myself at the founding of an illegal “free radio station”, but in the end I became a director’s assistant for French public radio, where I prepared a series of programs about people who influenced French culture.

You had a very well established life as a professional in Paris, so why did you decide to return to Czechoslovakia in 1989?
Because Czechoslovakia was deeply ingrained in me, thanks to my family. I always believed that a change would come, and that I would work in radio in Prague. In 1989 public radio sent me to Czechoslovakia as a reporter, and by chance I met people in the airplane who were going to Prague to establish Evropa 2. We saw eye to eye, and while we were still in the plane I was offered the post of general director. It was an opportunity for me to return home and to the profession I knew. It is not easy to live out your dreams in France, which is a developed western country. Suddenly I had a chance here to work in virgin territory.

Did you experience culture shock on your return from France?
I was caught completely off guard by the pervasive grayness, and by how everything was impossible. I lost ten kilos because I lacked the courage to beg for entrance into good restaurants where only foreigners were welcome. I lived through that period in a state of alarm, and sometimes I felt truly miserable.

What is the greatest difference between the Czechs and the French?
The French live with a certain “We’re French and we know it” egocentricity, while Czechs still have to convince themselves that it is worth it to be Czech. In fact, Czechs live at two extremes – in a terrible inferiority complex and the horrible extreme of a superiority complex. Czechs are convinced that they are a highly cultured nation, which is true, but the French have their culture naturally built into themselves because of their freedom.

You used to regard commercial stations with contempt. What led you to change your attitude?
Public radio people claim that they are making art and that we are doing business. The results that you hear are nearly the same, except that public radio claims to be clever while calling commercial radio stupid. I decided to switch to commercial radio when I heard that I would be able to produce and broadcast 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, instead of preparing a 3.5-hour program once a month, as was the case at French public radio. I also do it for success, and successful we are.

Are you a co-owner of the stations you manage?
I don’t own a stake in any radio station. The owner is a French company that belongs to Groupe Lagarde`re, which operates Europe 1 and Europe 2 in France and Evropa 2, Frekvence 1, and Regie Radio Music in the Czech Republic. Although I’d like to own such stations, I’m a media magnate – an employee.

Do you think that commercial radio stations have a bad influence on listener taste? What do you think about the inconsistent quality of Frekvence 1, which broadcasts an excellent discussion program, “Press klub F1,” and, on the other hand, “The Sexy Life with Jitka Asterová”?
Who in the Czech Republic is really the mischief-maker of poor taste? You might think it’s Frekvence 1, and that’s your right, but I think that Radiožurnál or Praha are the real culprits. Research shows that listeners want to hear frank talk about sex to set them right – “Sexy Life” is reality. Czech citizens want it, and we’re giving it to them. “Press klub” is the crowning jewel, something extra.

What is your opinion of political influence on the media?
Politicians erroneously believe that they will profit from influencing Czech radio stations. Conversely, the media do not have sufficient influence on the politicians. If they did, the politicians would realize that the listener, not the politician, is important in electronic media. After twelve years of democracy, politicians should finally realize that the economic interests of companies differ from their own – the political sphere uses the money collected from taxes, while we earn it.

A life in numbers
1952 born in Prague on 8 February
1964 accompanied father to France, studied at Lycée Henri IV in Paris
1969 remained in France with family as a political refugee
1976 completed studies in modern literature and the sociology of literature at the College of Social Sciences
1978 employed by the Centre Georges Pompidou
1981 employed by Radio France public radio
1990 named general director of Evropa 2 in the Czech Republic
1992 named a Knight of Art and Literature of the French Republic
1993 named general director of Frekvence 1 – currently president of both radio stations

Why do you think politicians discredit journalists, leading the general public to perceive them as corrupt servants or incompetent nit-pickers? What is the situation like in France?
Of course there are bad journalists and good journalists everywhere. But a politician in France who said that journalists were trash would be forced to resign. But in this country that’s what the prime minister says. It’s interesting that no great wave of resistance or solidarity has arisen on the journalists’ side. They evidently have no idea what key they should be playing in. The second problem is that a country where a politician wins a lawsuit against humorous drawings in not a democracy at all.

Do you want to get into the television market?
We must develop, or else mortal stagnation could set in. Groupe Lagarde`re wants to enter this market. It has both the means and the personnel. There are two possible subjects – TV Nova and Prima. The problem is that we don’t know who to buy them from.

Some people see you as a tough negotiator who, having made a decision, cannot be stopped by anything. Do you agree with this?
I’m certainly tough in matters of business and media, which I represent and defend. I’m responsible for finance, and I would never get anywhere with pleasant speech and retreats. But it isn’t true that I always get what I want. I personally experience far more defeats than victories.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Smiling, a poetic professional.

Where do you see yourself being in ten years?
Surrounded by people who love me.

What would you like people to think of when they hear your name?
Family tradition.

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