HomeOpinion & AnalysisCry my beloved state broadcaster

Cry my beloved state broadcaster

By Lawrence Thodhlana

Compliments of the new year comrades and friends, colleagues and foes, experts and pedestrian critics, action takers and armchair critics, current and former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) staff, particularly those who left in the last 12 months. May 2022 bring you immense success and the Lord continue to expand your horizons.

You might be wondering why l focused on former ZBC staff members who left recently for the various TV stations that were established with some going on to set up their own production projects. I focus on this lot because the public broadcaster’s staff turnover is at its highest as the vultures that are the new stations are circling around the ailing broadcaster. I also draw attention to this lot because amongst them are some who previously accused me of being self-righteous and unpatriotic when I wrote my previous pieces on the state of affairs at the broadcaster.

There are two photos of ZBC staff and presenters in a studio seating on chairs and crates trending on social media. The photos are drawing a lot of criticism and ridicule from Zimbabweans all over the world. It is sad and painful that a station that has produced multitudes of practitioners now holding their own in industry has stooped so low. Sadly, things will continue to go south at Pockets Hill if corrective measures are not taken.

Over a year ago, many warned the powers then that the licensing of new TV stations was a bad omen and as such it was imperative that they innovate and immediately begin to do things differently. Months down the line, the chickens are coming home to roost. Staff turnover is at its peak, morale is low, there is virtually no investment in broadcasting technologies and in staff — there are misplaced priorities amongst a plethora of challenges facing the broadcaster.

Let’s start off with the trending photos of sports presenters seated on crates with virtually no other physical props. The photos are an indictment on the management as it exposes a lack of priority in the core business which includes enhancing aesthetics. These fellows were aware that Afcon was on this month thereby drawing millions to tune into various TV stations to watch and yet they saw no need to invest in a studio set that would attract viewers. In the photos circulating, the Head of Radio, Robson Mhandu, is seen seated on a yellow crate with a huge grin on his face. Now, if such a senior member of management is comfortable with that set up what chance does the company have?

The green screen is a world-wide practice where studios like the SuperSport, Aljazeera, Sky TV to mention a few, shoot on green screen. The difference is that they mix the green background with well-thought out physical sets. The management at ZBC is either ignorant of this technical side of TV or does not care. My take is that they don’t know.

ZBC has been unfortunate to have been led by people who are clueless about broadcasting, people who did not come up the structures, those who have never been in the trenches. Successive CEOs and their teams have come and invested heavily in areas that are remotely connected to broadcasting. Previously, there was a CEO who preferred rebranding and repainting buildings to upgrading staff and re-equipping the institution. Then came one who bought cars and lawn (green grass) rather than buying cameras, lights, microphones and re-equipping the Outside Broadcast van. As we make fun of the studio and presenters seated on crates, ZBC management recently hired a firm to dig out and replace the lawn that was planted two years back. This project is on-going. Priority is on grass over arresting staff turnover and investing in technologies. They are about keeping up appearances.

As l was watching the Afcon pre-match analysis, one of the presenters mentioned that ZBC would be bringing all the matches to its viewers. This got me thinking why they bother if the only fixtures they secure advertisements for are those involving Zimbabwe? Why postpone programmes that were bringing in revenue through adverts for soccer matches that are not bringing in money. After all, media institutions are in the business of selling audiences to advertisers through educative and entertaining programming. For example, I am disappointed that the Marketing team failed to secure adverts for the Nigeria vs Egypt match when this country is host to thousands of West  African businesses. They could have approached the Nigerian embassy or Zim-Trade to get contacts of Nigerian-owned businesses that could have advertised. I am not convinced that the Marketing department is competent enough to market media products. One wonders if they even know the features and qualities of their product. Ironically, the currently CEO is a Public Relations practitioner & Marketer previously with a leading sugar manufacturer.

At the beginning of the current soccer season ZBC secured rights to some of the Chibuku Super Cup fixtures where they brought us some matches from Mandava stadium. The broadcaster reneged on the contract when it emerged that in negotiating the deal, the Marketing department had seriously undercharged thereby pursuing the venture would have been economic suicide. Apparently, they charged less than a quarter of the cost of such a production. This points to a department that is charged with selling products they are clueless about.

The current management made up of the CEO, Corporate Secretary, Director Finance, Director Audio, Director Engineering & Director Radio has only one person with a background in broadcasting. The one with some knowledge in broadcasting is the same fellow seen seated so comfortably on a yellow crate in the trending photo. I suppose the photo aptly captures management’s style were the current buzz phrase at Pockets Hills is “low hanging fruits”. Staff is being encouraged to come up with near zero budget concepts as part of austerity measures.

Consequently, morale is low at the broadcaster resulting in high staff turn-over. The circulation of the trending picture is a sign of the frustration the men and women at pockets hill are experiencing. These are people who know what should be done but have had their advice to management falling on deaf ears. Studios have inadequate lighting with only the basic flood lighting possible. There is a shortage of cameras and computers with the news-room being hit the most. Due to shortages of vehicles, reporters and cameramen are using their personal cars to go assignment with ZBC offering them with between 5 to 10 litres of fuel and nothing for depreciation.

More than seven years ago ZBC received two small OB vans through the Zim Digital initiative that were to be equipped to expand capacity but, the vans have been lying idle in the shade since. Successive Boards of Directors and management have come and left without a single investment in the two. Instead they have bought themselves cars, replaced carpets with tiles, painted the buildings and replaced the lawn, developments that have no bearing on output.

I would like to urge the powers at Pockets Hill that as they moot the idea of retrenchment and revising the grading system they should consider that there has been two major layoffs in the last 20 years that have yielded nothing much save to incapacitate the firm through loss of expertise and experience and to start another vicious recruitment and retrenchment cycle.

As management revise the grading system, it is imperative that they keep those at the core of the business a priority. Technical operators are key to broadcasting and as such should be retained. Since the onset of the Covid-19 induced lockdowns, all other staff members could work from home but the technical operator had to come to work. This can assist in determining who is core in your business. The programmes and news stories and bulletins cannot be filmed virtually, sound desks cannot be operated virtually, equipment cannot be repaired virtually. Reporters and producers had to interact with sources in search of news and programmes.

On a parting note, I reiterate what I have said in previous posts. ZBC has always produced competent practitioners who have gone on to excel across the world. Despite, the current brain drain, there remains a significant level of expertise and experience to resuscitate its fortunes. This is only possible if management starts prioritising the core business of broadcasting and listening to subordinates with media knowledge. Management can benefit from consulting former staffers who are heading similar broadcasting stations in and outside Zimbabwe. Ngatimirei kutenga nekudyara huswa titenge macamera nemota dzebasa.

  • The writer is a freelance multi-media practitioner with over 20 years experience in broadcasting and various media forms. Lawrence is a holder of an Honours Degree in Media and Society Studies with the Midlands State University. Lawrence writes in his own capacity drawing inspiration from his experience and knowledge of broadcasting.

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