THE recent demand made by Radio Pakistan to levy radio tax on vehicles and mobile phones has started a media debate.
Do we need to save Radio Pakistan?
In the age of climate change, the neglect of cultures and languages by corporate media and the race for profits, and while keeping the communication and cultural needs of the people in mind, we must have a public broadcaster. Every country has a public broadcaster. Even in the US where there is no state broadcaster, NPR serves as the public broadcaster.
Our oldest broadcaster has more pensioners than serving staff.
Radio Pakistan has played a crucial role in the development of languages and cultures. So far, the only broadcaster that broadcasts in 22 Pakistani languages remains Radio Pakistan. No broadcaster can match this depth and diversity and it serves as the nursery of Pakistani literature, poetry and music.
The reason it acts like a government broadcaster lies in the fact that no political party of Pakistan is serious about making it an independent public broadcaster. Every party wants to protect their favourites to promote their politics of patronage.
Can Radio Pakistan be financially viable?
The current salary bill for 2,900 employees of the organisation is Rs1.6 billion. The salary bill for its 4,200 pensioners is closer to Rs1bn. The total advertising income available for the entire radio industry is a little over Rs1bn which is shared by Radio Pakistan and over 150 private FM stations. Even if we divert all radio advertising income of the entire industry to Radio Pakistan, it would barely meet the salary bill of its pensioners. Despite all its efforts, its total earnings have never crossed Rs330 million which includes the Rs80m it gets from CRI and VOA that started during the tenure of this scribe.
The very question of making Radio Pakistan financially viable is against the economic realities of the Pakistani market.
Since it is the oldest broadcaster, it has more pensioners than serving staff. It has to pay the pensioners’ salary bill while it can barely pay the salaries of its current staff. It needs an endowment to address the problems of its pensioners. A sum of Rs10bn as a one-time payment by the government of Pakistan can solve this problem forever. Is that too big an amount to take care of the problem once and for all? I don’t think so. If worse comes to worst, the huge land in the control of the national broadcaster can be sold to make up for this amount to create the pension fund.
The organisational structure of the broadcast corporation looks more like a government outfit than a corporate body. It has more officers and less professional workers in its fold in all its wings.
The organisation has fewer numbers of trained producers, news journalists, editors, marketing and sales executives and engineers and more peons, gardeners, drivers, clerks and steno typists in its fold. Without changing the employees and the hierarchical mix, it can’t be transformed into a modern broadcaster.
Nobody is suggesting that people be laid off, but those unrelated to a modern broadcasting network can be adjusted and absorbed in other federal ministries and divisions.
There is no option other than public support to keep Radio Pakistan afloat. Does that mean there is no need of restructuring and policy reform with respect to Radio Pakistan? No. Saving Radio Pakistan must be tied with the administrative, financial, technical and marketing reform of the entity, making it a truly independent corporation with professional leadership in all its departments along with a professional board of directors.
The corporation must say goodbye to the current ACR system as the tool of promotion. In fact, promotion in the corporation must be based on the performance evaluation and assessment of the employees against set targets. The current system only benefits the sycophant, incompetent and the obedient lot. Creative and bold employees were always marginalised and thrown out of the system.
Radio Pakistan has always done better with a professional leadership rather than babus heading it. An autonomous corporation that can change rules without looking to the Establishment Division and information ministry and a professional rather than bureaucrats-led board of directors is the key.
The administrative and financial control of the federal bureaucracy and the sitting government must end. A bipartisan committee of parliament instead of the Ministry of Information should guide it. The parliamentary committee must not interfere with day-to-day operations. And politicians must resist the temptation to take advantage of their position to use the organisation to promote the politics of patronage.
Yes, Radio Pakistan must be saved but it can only be saved if it is transformed into a modern public broadcaster.
The writer is an Islamabad-based broadcast journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2015