Geny during the latter stages of his hunger strike against the Marcos regime, November 1974. Photo from the book "Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN"

The day Marcos shattered the dream that Geny Lopez built

It was September 23 forty seven years ago when the entire nation opened their TV and radio sets and found only static in the airwaves. Martial Law had just been declared and the country’s largest network had been seized by the dictatorship
Raul Rodrigo | Feb 22 2020

In this epilogue to the 2006 book Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN, the author Raul Rodrigo takes us back, in great detail, to a dark period in the country’s history—and certainly the gloomiest day in the life of the network Lopez built. We are republishing this excerpt a few days before the 34th anniversary of People Power — which put an end to that dark period, and amidst another threat to the company’s pursuit of its reason for being as Geny Lopez envisioned it: to be in the service of the Filipino people. 

Geny Lopez had a dream. And as he stood on the deck of his boat in a Batangas cove on the morning of September 23,1972, Geny saw that his dream—to build the country's largest, most influential and most professional broadcasting network—was shattered. Geny (Eugenio Lopez Jr.) spent the last 16 years building his network. At 8 A.M. that morning, he was devastated by the news that came over his single-side band radio: ABS-CBN was gone. The country's largest network had been seized by the dictatorship.

You may also like:

In the early morning hours of September 23,1972, shortly after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, platoons of soldiers, led by one of the dictator's most trusted henchmen, Capt. Rolando Abadilla, stormed into the ABS-CBN Broadcast Center compound on Bohol Avenue, Quezon City, and shut it down. TV Channels 2 and 4, dzXL, dzAQ Radyo Patrol and all the other stations were taken off the air and all the employees herded outside. At the same time, similar raiding teams shut down the four ABS-CBN TV stations and 14 radio stations in the provinces.

ABS-CBN’s special coverage of the 1971 elections

Inside the ABS-CBN compound on the morning of September 23, corridors and offices were dark. The seven large TV studios that only hours before had hummed with activity were silent. In these studios, the country's biggest stars—Dolphy, Nida Blanca, Pugo, Pilita Corrales, Vilma Santos and many more—had delighted millions over the years. At its peak, ABS-CBN held 80% of the TV market, and its radio stations such as dzXL and dzAQ Radyo Patrol were the most popular in the country. But the programming skills and deep market reach that made ABS-CBN so successful and so dominant as a network were precisely the same things that made it an enemy to the powerful and a target for takeover.

Here and there, squads of soldiers patrolled the grounds of the Broadcast Center, rifles at the ready. Otherwise, the compound was completely deserted and still. 

On the morning of September 23, Filipinos all across the nation awoke and, as was their habit, turned on their TVs and radios—to find only static on the airwaves.

...the programming skills and deep market reach that made ABS-CBN so successful and so dominant as a network were precisely the same things that made it an enemy to the powerful 

ABS-CBN was born in the same year as the Philippine Republic itself—1946. At the same time as the network was taken off the air, the new regime effectively ended Philippine democracy. Its troops closed Congress, arrested all the key opposition leaders, and shut down newspapers and radio stations. The Republic, like ABS-CBN, was no more. The two fell at the same time because the capture of one was vital to shutting down the other. Information was power, and once all sources of media were shut, the Filipino people would not be able to react, let alone resist.

ABS-CBN was now an empty shell. Its buildings still stood, its equipment was still intact and its employees and talents still walked free. But unable to broadcast, the network became a ghost. It plunged into a state of limbo from which it might never emerge.

Radyo Patrol’s Unit 2 in the field, around 1971. Photos courtesy of Lopez Museum and ABS-CBN

Outside the Broadcast Center, hundreds of employees and talents stood waiting. They came to Bohol Avenue that Saturday morning, expecting just another day of the work and the camaraderie they thoroughly enjoyed. Now, across the street, they kept a forlorn vigil at an employees' cooperative called the Now Restaurant. There they waited for days and weeks on end, hoping against all odds that the regime might one day permit the network to reopen. Their vigil never bore fruit. A few months later, they gave up.

Still others among the network's employees never came to the Now Restaurant that September. For them, the sight of the shut-down network would be too painful to bear. For all these people, ABS-CBN was not just a company but a home. As one top executive said of that moment: “[Losing ABS-CBN] was like dying.”

Information was power, and once all sources of media were shut, the Filipino people would not be able to react, let alone resist.

No one felt the loss more keenly than Geny Lopez. He was the man who, since founding the Chronicle Broadcasting Network (CBN) in 1956 and acquiring Alto Broadcasting System (ABS) in 1957, steered the combined network past many formidable obstacles to total domination of Philippine broadcasting by the mid-1960s. For Geny, then only 44, the network was the company closest to his heart. He once said: "I can lose everything, but not ABS-CBN." His worst nightmare had just come to pass.

Yet for Geny, the seizure of ABS-CBN was only the beginning of his troubles. In a few weeks, he would be arrested by the military and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of conspiring to assassinate the dictator. If found guilty, he would pay with his life. His father, Don Eugenio Lopez, would be forced to hand over a business empire to save his son. For Geny, September 1972 marked the start of his greatest trials.

The news crew relaxes during a fishing trip in 1971. First row: cameraman Carding Ligon (first from left), news director Tits TaƱada (second from left), anchor Ric Tierro (third from left); second row: reporter Jun Bautista (first from left), reporter Orly Mercado (fourth from left), VP for radio Nitoy Escano (far right)

With the takeover of ABS-CBN, the dictator brought to a sudden halt an intricate, fascinating story that began 26 years before. During the postwar years, no one could foresee just how much glory and defeat lay ahead for the fledgling broadcasting company whose first radio antenna had been just a wire strung across two mango trees in the hills of San Juan. The network, again, like the Republic, was born amid the ruins of a world war. ABS-CBN's story since then paralleled the ups and downs of the Republic it strove to serve--and on September 23,1972, life for both network and republic flickered and went out.

As the sun rose on the very first day of martial law, the dictator was confident that ABS-CBN was finished and Geny's dream was dead. But the story was not over. Though it had been trampled on, conquered, ABS-CBN had not perished. Like the Republic that vanished in one September night, ABS-CBN would rise again from the dead.