Friday, 24 June 2016

American Public Broadcasting: A Possible Model For Africa

By Paul Shalala in Syracuse, New York
Entrance to WCNY Media Complex

Public Broadcasting Service is a tricky sector in most African countries due to the many interests from various sectors such as politics, tradition and business.

The African model is usually accused of being biased, inefficient, being perceived as unpopular and having boring programmes.

The fact that the state funds these public service media institutions make them targets for opposition criticism.

However, in the American context, public broadcasting is a local and community oriented concept which was developed to help people access information in their localities.

Despite being funded by the federal or state governments, public radio and TV stations across the USA do not air or propagate government policies or programs.

Their mandate is the local community where they are based and all their news and programming is local.

On Thursday, i visited WCNY, a local public service TV and radio station which covers central New York state.

The station was established 50 years ago by the New York state government but it calls itself a non profit organisation and is exempted from paying tax.

The station runs five TV channels and four radio stations

After a tour of the station and having a chat with some of its staff, this blogger decided to write about the concept of public broadcasting service in America.

No Political Adverts

WCNY is located in the center of New York state where politics is part of life and political advertising is very lucrative.

Actually, one of the four radio stations broadcasts from Albany, the capital of New State.

However, the station does not allow political adverts or any other form of campaigning.

This allows the station to remain neutral of any political influence.

But during election times, WCNY hosts a number of radio and TV programs were candidates from various political parties participate as a panel to articulate their policies and inform the public what issues they are bringing to the public.

"Public Broadcasting regulations do not allow us to broadcast political adverts. We however give a platform to political parties to reach out to our communities through various programs during elections," said Debbie Stack, WCNY Director for Education and Community Engagement.

She explains that they do not at all receive pressure or requests for broadcasts from the US federal government.

"We are funded by government but we do not have a feed for news from the federal government. We also diversify in other areas to raise revenue," she added.

Community Engagement

According to Ms Stack, Public Broadcasting Service was established in order to help local communities have easy access to information.

She says due to this idea, several of such stations were established across the United States and they concentrate their programming and news to local content and national affairs.

"Here in central New York, our community is largely native Americans, blacks and Hispanics. That is the society we strive to serve on a daily basis."

She says several radio and TV programs specially tailored for the community are either suggested by the community itself or conceptualised by the station.

"We have a radio program called 'Read out Radio' where a host reads headlines and important stories from local newspapers to the community. This helps our listeners have a feel of what is happening in their locality."

The radio also occassionally gives out radio receivers to residents in far flung areas to help them keep in touch with their favourite radio programmes.

Members of the community who are talented in radio or TV also volunteer to take part in the programming.

Poverty and Crime

Syracuse city is ranked as the poorest city in the US, according to a 2015 survey by a university Professor from Rutgers University and data from the US Census Bureau.

Poverty is common in the city due to the closure of several industries over the years and the increase in joblessness.

"This city is poor. We have a lot of poverty here. And due to poverty, crime is on the upswing," said Ms Stack.

WCNY and the Syracuse Police Department occassionally organise neighbourhood meetings to discuss issues of security and how to make the community secure.

The station also runs a weekly show dedicated to public affairs and it is intended to bring local issues and deal with the concerns raised by the public.

Multi-Racial Workforce

Due to the multi-racial nature of the inhabitants of Syracuse, WCNY has also employed a diverse workforce to match the needs of the community.

The city is dominated by Whites, African-Americans, Hispanics and a few Native Americans (First Nation people).

Debbie Stack (in red) addressing visitors
At present, the station has several interns, one of whom is a Kenyan-born lady who has brought the 'African' flavour to the institution.


The station is funded in various ways.

It receives funding from the federal government for its operations.

And being a member-driven institution, WCNY allows members of the community to be part of it by way of purchasing membership cards.

The station also carries out other ventures like selling (subscription) of its corporate magazine WCNY Connect.