My work often takes me to far-flung parts of Kenya. I recall a few incidents when I sat in hotels or pubs in western or northern Kenya and requested attendants to switch to KTN or NTV television stations for news.
The response would be quick and terse, “Sorry we only receive KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) here”. And many who have driven from the city to their far off rural homes may also have had the experience where their car radios would be initially tuned to their popular FM radio stations only for them to fade into “noise” as they plied more distance from Nairobi.
Any search for available radio stations only locks onto the available KBC stations. It’s a very humbling experience. That there are parts of this country where citizens can only receive news reliably through KBC.
The Kenya news industry has undergone a major transformation in the last two decades. We now have many commercial TV and radio broadcast stations. These stations, some in vernacular, have been most helpful in disseminating critical and urgent messages to various parts of this country.
The growth of these stations will only increase with population rise and high demand for diversified news sources and programmes.
Indeed, at a time like this when Kenya has to reckon with preventing the spread of coronavirus, these real-time broadcast stations have come in handy.
The government has been able to reach and mobilise citizens as well as its workers through broadcast stations. The government will continue to resort to these news outlets to send out instant messages to rally people into action on how to behave, and minimise the risk of contracting and spreading the virus.
But since most of the newly established broadcast stations are commercial, they invariably target high population zones and urban centres to optimise viewer and listener traffic to justify costs.
Sparsely populated parts of Kenya depend on the public broadcaster. So unknown to us in and around Nairobi and other major towns, KBC and its many vernacular stations remain invaluable to Kenya’s news dissemination.
Yet last week, the Business Daily reported that KBC totters under a Sh40 billion loan which it is now seeking written off through its parent ICT ministry. That a 1989 Sh1 billion loan obtained from a Japanese firm for expanding its radio frequency network and upgrading its equipment has with time shot up to Sh40 billion due to accumulated interest.
The Cabinet and Parliament should approve the write-off. And KBC should not be allowed to be sinking this low. As a strategic national broadcaster with the statutory mandate to provide news and programmes as a public service and not necessarily for profit, KBC needs state cushioning else it will crash. Left without adequate and sustained support, it can’t stand the competition from private industry. Yet if it goes down, the State will be that much worse off whenever it seeks to send out critical national messages to all parts of Kenya.
The writer is chairperson, Land Development and Governance Institute.