Public broadcasting – an upliftment to all South Africans



By Michelle Constant

The recent comments by the Ministers of Telecommunication and Postal Services, and also Finance, on the SABC, left me demoralised.  And cold. With due respect, I wonder whether the Ministers truly understand the role and opportunities public broadcasting offers; how it is different from commercial and talk radio, and how it can uplift all South Africans.

To declare my interests, I have worked at the broadcasting corporation as a freelance TV presenter, TV producer, radio DJ, award-winning radio documentary maker, arts journalist, and radio presenter for nearly 25 years.  Whilst the TV was great, it has been the radio that continues to be my greatest passion. It’s a passion borne out of a love for public broadcast, and everything it stands for.  (Admittedly my years as a 5fm DJ, were not exactly true public broadcast but damn, it was fun, particularly in the early beats of kwaito.) The mandate of proper public broadcast is to serve, inform, educate and entertain the public. Its core mandate is predicated on the idea that it is a not-for-profit institution.   In its perfect form, it offers the opportunity to creatively tell the small stories of this country, the opportunity to demonstrate the diversity of our narratives, to engage South Africans, both as citizens of the country, but importantly the world.  

I’m not a massive fan of talk radio, perhaps because it feels as if it operates on a binary (a yes/no binary), which ultimately cuts away at the centre.  Having said that I think we have some impressive, and world class talk radio hosts in our midst. (I’m thinking of my colleague Stephen Grootes, amongst others.)  

Public radio broadcasting is dependant on time – time to research, make documentaries, to record in the field, to create soundscapes. I have leapt out of planes, with a microphone strapped to my arm, exchanged blows in a boxing ring, and recorded my own ‘TKO’.  I have discovered and shared that dying is a way of life by spending time with the staff, and ‘clients’ in hospices around the country. I have shared my tears on dusty streets, and in theatres, shared the wisdom of young leaders in community programmes, and from elderly gogos.  The move to telephonic interviews, the constant cost cutting has meant that we have not been able to follow our true mandate as a public broadcaster of hearing, truly hearing, diverse South African stories.

I’ve worked for many radio stations, both public and private, and what strikes me about SAFM is the array of listeners – from Kuruman to Khayalitsha, Empangeni to Emalahleni – it’s not just the geographic spread, but the demographic spread – age, race, gender, and LSM, that has left me deeply humbled and honoured to do the work I do, and tell our extraordinary stories.

We are all aware of the mismanagement of the SABC over the last decade; it has been well documented, and it has felt like death by 1000 cuts.  But the glib dismissal of the organisation has also undermined the brave, hard work by many at the SABC (Think of the SABC 8.)  And yet at SAFM, I continue to hear radio, created under gruelling circumstances, that (admittedly not always) still holds it’s own in terms of storytelling.

 In much the same way that we all feel fury at the mismanagement of Eskom, we also know that in order for our country to succeed, we need Eskom, in whatever form, to succeed. Likewise with the SABC, we need to go back to the drawing board, yes we need to develop a proper public broadcast funding model, but to assume that we can simply privatise and commercialise the organisation, would possibly destroy it’s powerful and unique offering.  Currently we have a strong Board, talented teams of producers and broadcasters, and huge potential. It would be a pity to waste it.

I have great faith in South Africa, I am proudly South African, but frankly the day we decide we don’t need a public broadcaster, is the day my faith will be destroyed. Long live the SABC.


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