• A public service broadcaster need not rely on the dictates of the market economy.
• Put differently, a public broadcaster does not depend on revenues from advertisement for its operations.
What is the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation? KBC is a bastard child.
It is a child that is ignored by the father, who dallies with other mistresses and only acknowledges his abandoned child when he realises that after all, this may be his only child. His many mistresses will not give him another child. So, the father, without showing any guilt comes around to dole out some love, but he is not fully committed to assume the responsibility of a parent for his long-suffering child.
This was my take-home after reading the immediate former KBC managing director Waithaka Waihenya’s new book, Sisyphus Task: The Battle for the Soul of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.
A career journalist, a respected columnist and an editor of longstanding, Waihenya, when he took the reins at Broadcasting House, a lot was expected of him. Was he the elixir that would fix the problems at the national broadcaster?
What would stop him, anyway? Did he not offer himself for this plum public job because he understood the media environment and the place KBC occupies in that cosmogony? Having served as editor-in-chief at KBC, it was believed he knew what ailed it and given a chance in the C-Room, as the MD’s office is known, he would turn things around. But after seven years at the helm, Waihenya left a disappointed Kenyan.
KBC, Waihenya writes, is “like a favourite auntie whom everyone loves but who is always ignored but whose funeral everyone would be obligated to attend!”
In that, Waihenya sums up the place KBC must occupy in our psyche as Kenyans. This “institution,” he says, “is at the heart of Kenya, and it represents an integral part of the country’s history.” Yet it remains that “bastardised child” or that “ignored auntie,” to use his analogy to those in government.
He observes that “every Managing Director and every Information Minister comes to office armed with one resolve, reform the national broadcaster.” And the language would be seductive, “awaken the sleeping giant that is KBC,” or “revitalise this doyen of broadcasting.”
However, the MD or the Minister, “often ends up foundering on the rocks of frustration and desperation.”
The problems afflicting KBC are both historical and made-up.
Historically, KBC was inherited from colonialists after independence. Although it had previously been used as a propaganda tool, the thinking in the Independence government was that it would be put to good use as the bridge unifying the gingerly and expectant Kenyan population.
Indeed, on July 1, 1964, when KBC became Voice of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, in his inaugural address, referred to VOK, as a “tool to strengthen and consolidate unity, and for the general development of the nation.”
Much as KBC’s function was to keep the people "well-informed, educated, and entertained,” it bore the responsibility to “build unity.” This was in line with a tradition laid out by Lord John Reith, the first director general of the BBC. He envisioned a public service broadcaster that would remain independent, even as it strived to fulfil its core mandate of being a “cultural, educative, and moral force that should immensely contribute to the improvement of national life, taste and manners,” of a people in a manner not known to private media which is driven by profit.
To achieve this, the BBC originated the 'license fee' as a sound model of funding, which would keep the corporation from being beholden to the whims of politicians.
Indeed, a public service broadcaster need not rely on the dictates of the market economy. Put differently, a public broadcaster does not depend on revenues from advertisement for its operations. In fact, the media was supposed to set the agenda, and not the other way round, where today you have proponents of 'pop culture' that makes no pretence whatsoever of honouring national ideals, determining what programmes to air!
Here lies the problem. The act that established KBC is ambiguous. It sets up KBC as both a commercial entity and as a public service broadcaster. On the one hand, it implores it to compete with private media houses for advertising revenue. On the other, it requires it to be at the forefront of broadcasting government projects.
On many occasions, KBC will not go after profit: It will shelve some of its programming to broadcast ready-to-air material from government all the time, in times of national events, or in crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the journalists at KBC well aware of what a public service broadcasting should be, work on their own initiatives to perform this requirement.
Waihenya says one of the biggest challenges facing KBC today is funding. Starved of the license fee revenue that was scrapped by the Narc government, when the corporation had just taken a Japanese loan that runs into billions, KBC began to haemorrhage and has continued to do so.
The government gives KBC some money and demands it to make up for the deficit from advertising revenue. For KBC to function to its optimum as a public service broadcaster, a role no private media can play, it must be well funded.
But KBC also suffers from a bad image, or is it, a misinformed 'perception' as Waihenya observes? For many years, KBC operated as an appendage of the ruling party, Kanu. As such, it was loathed just as was the ruling party.
Waihenya relates a story of a KBC cameraman who was roughed up during President Mwai Kibaki’s swearing-in ceremony. To the multitude at Uhuru Park, KBC was President Daniel Moi and Kanu! It was accused of giving Kanu prime coverage and blacking out the opposition.
However, when Narc came into power, it adopted the same Kanu script, with its apparatchiks demanding that the corporation should only cover Narc! In other words, every government avoids the issue of funding, but wants KBC to work for ‘it’, not for the ‘public!’
EFFORTS OF MY FORMER MDS
There are three former MDs of KBC who are regarded with fondness. You have the journalist, diplomat, former MP and author Joe Khamisi. He related with the staff well, and he is remembered for resisting the scrapping of the licence fee, which was the only steady source of revenue for KBC.
There’s Philip Okundi, the engineer and career civil servant who’s remembered for his reforms to bring in more advertising revenue, giving KBC a facelift and improving the welfare of its staff.
Wachira Waruru, a high-flyer in the media industry, as an editor and manager, is remembered for reorienting KBC’s editorial policy to reflect a multiparty democracy. Waruru believed that KBC has some of the best brains in broadcast, “some of the most knowledgeable people".
For injecting independence and objectivity, he was literally hounded out of office by honchos in the Ministry of Information in the Narc government.
Waihenya relates this debacle in a most scintillating manner in Sisyphus Task, but he deals charitably with the guys who frustrated and drove out Waruru from Broadcasting House. Yet, as Waihenya writes, “Perception has been one of the biggest problems affecting KBC. Many of those who do not want to be associated with it accuse it of being too pro-government. It does not matter that a well-taken content analysis would prove that the latter-day KBC has done a good job of balancing editorial content.”
I have been at KBC since 2012 and I can vouch for this: There are journalists at the corporation who do their job, and they do it well. If it’s the question of embracing the 'public sphere' concept as adumbrated by Jurgen Habermas, KBC has done so.
Many times you will hear talk of downsizing, rationalisation, staff complement, or having an effective workforce. However, any attempt to do this will be fought. But in truth, it’s only at KBC where someone can vanish for weeks on end, even months, continue earning a salary, resurface and sit smugly as if nothing is wrong.
You have individuals, officers who do not add value to the core functions of the corporation but who are paid lots of money, more than the more dynamic, dedicated and productive souls at KBC Waruru talked about.
Here, you still have petty tribal politics and favouritism in the fortunes of some staff. But more pressing is the financial stability that is needed to function well. In Sisyphus Task, Waihenya makes a strong case for the government to appreciate that KBC is a public service broadcaster that cannot be replaced by private media houses.
The current KBC boss is Dr Naim Bilal, a journalist, and a gentleman who has worked in the private sector and government. Does he hold the antidote to fix KBC? If the battle for the soul of KBC is to be won, one must be as objective and a good Kenyan, for the government now knows this institution cannot be supplanted!
Waihenya’s book is a cornucopia of public service broadcasting. It would be unthinkable if the Cabinet Secretary for ICT and MPs have not read this book.
Khainga O’Okwemba is the presenter and producer of The Books Café on KBC English Service Radio