Last week, KBC, the national broadcaster, admitted it was broke. Officials from the organisation told the Senate Committee on Information and Communications Technology (ICT), chaired by Baringo Senator Gideon Moi, that KBC is unable to meet its financial obligations. It cannot remit employees’ statutory deductions to the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), the National Pension Fund, cooperative unions, health care and insurance. It also cannot pay for its own satellite transmission costs.
The officials said KBC earns about Sh9 million a month, against a total expenditure of about Sh180 million. These revelations came at an interesting time when KBC seeks to recruit a managing director to steer its operations.
In hindsight, KBC’s financial woes are not new. They can be traced to the 1989 when the public broadcaster signed a contract with the Japan Telecommunications Engineering Consultancy Service (JETC) for a loan totalling nearly Sh1 billion to buy equipment to improve and expand its national medium wave frequency radio broadcasting network.
In 1991, KBC again signed a contract with Marubeni Corporation of Tokyo for upgrading medium wave transmitting stations and construction of new ones.
Before the advent of multiparty politics and the liberalisation of the airwaves in the early 1990s, KBC’s expansion programme seemed promising. For example, in 1993, the corporation embarked on a major modernisation project to upgrade its transmitting station, construct new ones and improve on switching and routing network.
It commissioned the Metro FM in 1996, the first all-time musical station in the country, and in 2000, it commissioned Metro Television as a sports and entertainment channel. It also established the Coro FM, transmitting in Kikuyu language to Nairobi and Mount Kenya Region; and in 2001, it established the Pwani FM to cater for the Coast Region.
Despite these expansion programmes, the Japanese loan remained unpaid. By 2015, the loan had accumulated to about Sh10.5 billion.
Today that loan is estimated to stand at about Sh40 billion. In the 2014/2015 Financial Report, the Auditor General stated that the national broadcaster was insolvent. “The corporation is technically insolvent and its continued existence as a going concern is dependent on the financial support of the Government and its creditors,” stated the report. At that time, the KBC had lost about Sh5.34 billion in the year ending June 2015, and Sh5 billion, the year before.
The dawn of multiparty politics, the liberalisation of the airwaves, and the mushrooming of private broadcast media caught the KBC flat footed. Suddenly, the public broadcaster lost its monopoly and glory.
Today, KBC is the sixth in Kenya’s audience share — trailing new entities like Citizen, KTN, KTN News, NTV and K-24, in that order — according to the 2017 Geo Poll Audience Survey.
To stay relevant and competitive, KBC has behaved like a chameleon changing its colours for survival. It was once called the African Broadcasting Services (KBS), then the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), the Voice of Kenya (VoK), and now again, KBC, through an Act of Parliament in 1989.
The factors ailing KBC are many and varied. They include the lack of innovation; the lack of merit in its employment practices, in particular in senior management positions that tend to be politically influenced from the outside. The result has been a KBC that has remained static in its ways of doing business.
Self-censorship in its editorial and programming content has helped drag back the institution. The Senate Committee expressed concern about the content of the programs the station aired, saying they were not competitive to what other broadcasters are offered.
Despite the problems afflicting the public broadcaster, it must not collapse, or even play second fiddle in the hands of the fast-growing private sector. KBC’s unique role to entertain, educate and inform must be maintained albeit with a fresh approach to the changing broadcast environment.
Examples abound where Government-funded broadcasters like the BBC and the VoA have thrived in the face of private broadcasters. KBC is capable of following in the footsteps of these established stations if the will to do this obtains.
Kenyans and the Government cannot exist without a public broadcaster. No Government in a democracy or a dictatorship can ignore the power of its own media in influencing change.
It is therefore in the interest of the Government to bail out the financially-crippled KBC. On its part, KBC should dispose of some of the land and properties it owns across the country to help in its restructuring.
Mr Katana worked at the Voice of Kenya (VoK). He is presently a political and media analyst