Joan Armengol with The Beatles.
Two legends, one family—meet Joan and Senen Armengol, father and son. The first is an award-winning Catalan journalist and a pioneer of radio, television and print media. The second is a current mover, shaker and concert promoter in the world of rock music. The dynamic pair have interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life, but this is the first time that they sit down to interview one another about their respective careers.
Joan is a man who could blend into the crowd. He’s dignified, quiet—a grandfatherly gentleman in a dark sweater and striped polo shirt. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and a soft smile. He started out reciting poetry at the municipal radio station in Igualada and went on to become one of the most recognisable figures at RTVE and Barcelona Radio, and the magazines Correo Catalan and Ondas, from the Sixties until the Eighties. He has interviewed countless personalities over the course of his career, from Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí to Richard Nixon, Fidel Castro, Ella Fitzgerald and Grace Kelly, and was one of the founders of the Spanish Academy of Arts and Sciences of Television.
His son Senen couldn’t look more different: A familiar face around town, he is never without his Fear and Loathing-style sunglasses. He started out enamoured with the technical aspects of film and music event production, before finally making his debut as a journalist writing for Popular1 and Rock On magazines. This year RTVE aired the first season of his weekly music-video programme, ‘2 Many Clips’. He is best known for his work on the feature film The Long Winter, which directly resulted in him being tapped by George Lucas to work on the new Star Wars project at just 19 years old.
Once the pair begin to speak, the blood bond between what looks like a pair of polar opposites becomes more obvious. They share a personal and professional philosophy that has led them to each become a media symbol of their generation.
Senen: Ok, Dad, let’s start with the obvious; What made a 14-year-old boy want to go into radio in a tiny Spanish town in 1950?
Joan: In the beginning it was a hobby, but I accidentally became sort of a local icon—to the point that one day, I got into a taxi and the guy wouldn’t even allow me to pay him because he recognised my voice and was a fan! At the time, there weren’t a lot of radio personalities in Spain; I became one of the first.
S: When and why did you move from Radio Igualada to the bigger station Radio Barcelona?
J: I went to Barcelona in 1957, after doing my obligatory military service in Tangier. In Igualada, I’d taught myself everything on the fly—how to work analogue equipment, for example—and had covered all kinds of random events. I learned to adapt. That was an extremely useful skill to have when making the leap from a small town to a bigger city like Barcelona. Going out into the street with a microphone and tape recorder to interview people was just not done at the time. I was doing it, even at 18 years old, so my reputation basically preceded me.
Joan Armengol with Coretta Scott King.
S: What is one of the moments that you remember as a personal or professional highlight?
J: Well, when the exiled President of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Josep Tarradelles, was finally able to return from hiding out in France after 23 years under Franco’s rule, I was the only person, besides his immediate family, who was invited to make the journey with him in his private plane. That was a huge moment, personally and professionally.
S: That is a perfect example of the important role you played in reporting historical events at the height of your career. Why did he pick you?
J: Because he trusted me. You have to learn how to inspire trust in the people you interview. And also because I asked him if I could come! Sometimes you’ve got to have the guts to just ask. [Laughs]
S: But interviewing exiles wasn’t exactly safe work back then was it?
J: No. Not while Franco was in power. The way around that was to leave the introductory question open-ended, so that the interviewee could respond any way he or she liked. The issue of censorship only came up if any so-called controversial topics came out of my own mouth. Censorship controlled every aspect of life in those days, it was a strange time.
S: You also interviewed Franco. What was that like?
J: It was an interesting and important interview. Of course, I received hate mail and threatening phone calls, but my job was to report the news. That’s what I did. It didn’t always reflect my personal beliefs.
Joan Armengol with Franco.
S: I remember that one of the interviews that you always talked about as having left a personal impression on you was with Pau Casals.
J: He was one of the greatest living artists at the time. But that was not the reason why it meant so much to me and to my audience. He symbolised Catalunya in a moment that was extremely sensitive for all of us. Franco was still alive and Casals represented the freedom we all so desperately yearned for. This interview was also a risk—I was interviewing important political symbols from both sides, in an era when this posed a physical risk to my person. But again, that was the job.
S: How many interviews have you done in your lifetime?
J: Around 80,000. I’ve lost count. Artists, musicians, politicians, writers, public figures. The most I ever did in one day was somewhere between 80 and 90, which was on the national radio. I’ve been fortunate to have met some incredible people: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, The Prince of Monaco, Vittorio Gassman, Cantinflas, Kirk Douglas, Jacques Cousteau—there were just so many. Mostly really nice people.
S: At the time, that kind of scope was unheard of. How do you think you affected or inspired the future generations of Spanish or Catalan press?
J: There were a lot of things I did ‘first’, but I did them because I followed my gut. There was never a moment when I was innovating just to innovate. That blazed a trail for others to come.
Joan Armengol with Adolfo Suarez and Fidel Castro.
S: What was the difference for you when it came to interviewing artists versus politicians, or other types of public figures? How is interviewing Salvador Dalí different from interviewing Fidel Castro, for example?
J: It wasn’t so much a question of what job the person did or the position they held. Some interviews were very formal, others felt like sitting down with old friends. The guy in the photo with Castro (above) was Adolfo Suarez, my boss at RTVE at the time [and later the President of Spain], so interviewing Castro felt more like hanging out with a buddy than interviewing such an important figure. Sounds strange, but it’s true. But you were there with me a lot, Senen.
S: For me as a kid, all this was normal. It was part of everyday life to be backstage, or having lunch with an actress or politician or film director.
Joan Armengol and Senen Armengol.
J: How do you think this affected your decision to make your career as a journalist, now that you’ve followed in your old Dad’s footsteps?
S: My goal was never to be a journalist, that grew out of my contacts in production work. But observing you at work taught me to value people for what kind of person they are, not for who they are. It taught me that an individual’s public image is something apart from the person themself. What do you think when you see me in front of the camera on RTVE2?
J: You’re part of the modern media world, you’ve gone down a different road than I did, but it suits you and I can see some of my style of doing things in the way you work. What are you working on now?
S: I’m in the middle of preparing a huge New Years’ Eve special for the second biggest television channel in Spain. We’re also discussing renewing ‘2 Many Clips’ for a second season in 2016, among other projects.
J: Always busy. That’s good! That’s the key.
S: But what about your plans for the future? I’ve wondered more than once why you haven’t written a book about all of your experiences. Why not write your story?
J: I don’t need the headache of former colleagues or acquaintances or grandsons of celebrities coming out of the woodwork and getting upset with me for telling things the way they actually were. The past happened as it happened. I witnessed a lot of it, I have the awards and the photos and the books to prove it. It’s enough. Let sleeping dogs lie, and leave the new adventures to you and the future generations of journalists.