One of the best radio and TV broadcasters in Liberia in the 1960s to the 1990s, Jonathan Reffel, passed away in Monrovia in the early hours of Tuesday July 26 after a short illness. He was in his early 70s. Sierra Leoneans in Liberia used to love Jonathan and his sister, Victoria (Like Dr.Boima Fahnbulleh and his sister, Miatta who received part of their education in Freetown ) because the Reffel siblings were said to be the children of a famous and beloved Bassa Chief in Sierra Leone, fondly known as “Bassa Reffel. ”
The Late Jonathan Reffel
Some people even said that they had their early education in Freetown. This story had not been confirmed by this journalist . What was obvious though was that Sierra Leoneans, relishing the strong family and cultural ties between Liberia and Sierra Leone, had profound regard for the two and identified themselves with Jonathan and Victoria, who excelled themselves as powerful broadcasters in their country of origin, Liberia .
It will therefore sadden Sierra Leoneans to hear about the sudden death of Mr. Jonathan Reffel, who also served as Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism and Ambassador-At-Large. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Reffel family and the citizens of Liberia for this big loss.
We bring you a tribute in honour of the late Jonathan Reffel by Mr. Kwame Clement, who was also an outstanding broadcaster in Liberia in the 1980s. The tribute is published courtesy of the FRONTPAGE Magazine .
Jonathan Reffell —The Passing of An Era: Kwame Clement on Death of an Icon
The death of Jonathan Reffell truly marks the passing of a golden era of broadcasting in Liberia. Liberians of a certain age can easily recall the other now deceased luminaries whose collective talents gave that era its brilliant glow: Henry Andrews, TeMynors Kla-Williams, and Tommy Raynes, to name a few.
But, Reffell easily stood out among these giants of Liberian broadcasting. He had class, style, élan, and exuded supreme confidence. His pleasant but commanding face easily filled the television screen as he presented the evening news. His wonderful voice, without any affectation, commanded and held your attention.
I proudly confess that he was my model — I dare say my idol — at least when it came to my style of delivery. It is difficult for me to point to the exact time. But by the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I eagerly looked forward to hearing Reffell on the radio or television.
“Living in Ganta, I would use my parents’ small hand-held transistor radio to record his programs, particularly his radio show, “What the Papers Says,” which summarized major stories in the newspapers. I would then play back the recording again and again, picking up on his diction, his stress on particular syllables, the pitch, and inflection of his voice. Called upon in school to read, I would then put on my best “Jonathan Reffell voice.”
I first met Reffell professionally in July 1979. At the time, he was the Deputy Managing Director of the Liberia Broadcasting System (LBS), and he also hosted the weekly television news program, “Meet the Press.” I was not employed at the time at LBS, but literally everyday after school, I frequented and just hung around the place, helping to write stories for the News Department.
One Sunday morning, before the taping of his Meet the Press show, which was to air later that evening, I arrived at the station just as he exited his car, impeccably dressed as usual. I handed him, a bit nervously, a few questions, saying I thought he could explore them with his guest. To my outmost joy, he asked all of the questions I had written. After I did this a couple of more times, he started inviting me to join him on the show and help him interview the guests.
This was heady experience for me. I was just a sophomore at the University of Liberia, and still shy of my twentieth birthday. Yet, here was my idol, recognizing my abilities and putting me on the air—on television—with him!!!! That was Reffell. He was a stickler for perfection, and in his rather blunt way, could be unsparing in his criticisms if he thought your on-air presentation was not as sharp and perfect as his.
His standards were pretty high. If you did not meet or approximate them, he did not want to hear you on the air, period. But he could spot talent and was always ready to help groom and polish those who he felt had what it took to get on the air. Under his tough guy exterior, was a genuinely charming, soft, and caring person.
The last time I saw him was less than a year ago. I had him over at my house in the United States for lunch. It was such a wonderful occasion. Virtually all of his children in the States came over to join him for lunch. So too did a couple of his siblings, and some of the folks who, like me, benefited from his mentoring at LBS: Welma Mashinini-Redd, Jestina Gibson-Gray and James Butty.
He looked good for a man of 70, although he walked with a slight limp and complained vaguely about not being too well. Yet, with perfect recollection, he regaled us with anecdotes from his storied career and the history of broadcasting in Liberia. And who was better to talk about the history of broadcasting in Liberia than Reffell. He was literally present at the creation, with the formation in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s of ELBC—which would become LBS—and the advent of television in 1964.
One particular story he recalled is very instructive. It aptly illustrates how, even as a very young man, he had become a virtual institution when it came to news broadcasting in Liberia. As the story goes, Reffell had been suspended and someone else read the evening news on radio. While the news was on, President Tubman called in his aide, Reginald Townsend, and asked, “What happened to the News”? Townsend replied, “Mr. President, the news is on.” Tubman retorted, “No, that is not the News; it is not Jonathan Reffell. Tomorrow, I want to hear the News; I want to hear Reffell.” Quickly Townsend had Reffell returned from suspension.
While he was at my home for lunch, he sat for an interview for a weekly television show in the United States, with which I and some of my former LBS colleagues are associated. Welma, hastily created a set in my living room, and directed the interview, with Jestina asking the questions. As Reffell approached the set, he looked at Jestina and Welma setting up the lights and camera and beamed proudly.
“But these ELBC girls are not easy, oh.” He was filled with pride that people he had mentored were still putting to use their journalistic and broadcasting skills. Soon he was coming up with great ideas about how we could work together to help young Liberian broadcasters and journalists improve their skills.
He had not sat before a television camera for years. But once the lights came on and the camera was rolling and the interview began, there he was—his camera-friendly face, his clear diction, and wonderful voice filling the room. Always the consummate journalist, he recounted some of the ground-breaking stories he covered.
In particular, he was proud of two stories. One had to do with how he and Tommy Raynes were instrumental in the capture of Justin Obi who had shot and killed Episcopal Bishop Dillard Brown. Brown’s secretary, who was also shot, used her own blood to write Obi’s name as she lay seriously wounded on the floor.
Reffell and Raynes quickly began a live radio broadcast that went on for hours from outside the crime scene in downtown Monrovia. They put out the word again and again that Obi was the suspected killer.
Thanks to this information, one of Obi’s students at Cuttington University spotted Obi as he tried to board a taxi in Gbarnga and Obi was captured. The other story Reffell was very much proud of was how, after a terrible flood hit Soniwehn, he used the radio to cover the devastation, and his coverage forced the government to come to the aid of the flood victims.
What shone through that day as we sat listening to Reffell was what made him and his contemporaries the stellar broadcast journalists they were—their belief that at bottom, journalism, broadcasting, can be a force for good, for improving lives. It is safe to say we will never see the likes of him again. Farewell, JR. We will strive to keep alive the torch of journalistic and broadcast excellence you so brilliantly lit and proudly carried for many, many years.