Shashi Shekhar Vempati has an unenviable task at hand. The Prasar Bharati CEO is busy revamping the public service broadcaster to cater to younger audiences, but facing and uphill challenge with the ageing workforce of Doordarshan and All India Radio. He also has set his sights on building a world class TV channel for global audiences on the lines BBC and NHK. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online’s Krishnanand Tripathi, he lists his priorities at Prasar Bharati. Edited excerpts:
Q: You will be completing two years at the helm of Prasar Bharati, what is your vision for Prasar Bharati and what are the hurdles that you see ahead?
A: In fact what has been my learning over the last two years is that there is a lot of modernisation that is urgently needed in this organisation.
The vision that we collectively see as a team for Prasar Bharati going forward, is more digital, more IT savvy, and preparing for a big transition because a lot part of our workforce is aging, they will retire in the next few years. So we have to prepare the Prasar Bharati for a completely new look Prasar Bharati, five years from now, fresh blood, a different way of doing things and being able to connect with the youth especially, because India being a young nation, the public broadcaster has to compete with all other private media to be able to acquire mind-share of the youth so that is the big challenge.
Q: Recently, union cabinet approved Rs 1054 crore. In what way this money will be used improving the content quality and audience experience.
A: In a lighter vain, when people see a video then they say that…ye toh Doordarshan look hai…so we want to change that so that nobody ever says that something has a Doordarshan look.
A big part of the funding will go towards the modernisation of studios and upgrading our satellite infrastructure so that overall visual experience and the channel operations are state of the art, catch up with the rest of the industry. So I think that’s a very big focus on the TV side.
On the radio side, both studio automation and expanding the FM footprint. So if you look at radio listening habits have changed significantly, you’d hardly find any mediumwave sets or shortwave sets any more. Most of the radio listening has moved to the smart phones, many of them have in-built FM chip, so FM is clearly the choice of listening for the future apart from digital radio. So again in that sense, expanding the FM foot print is a big focus area of focus for this funding. Lastly it is also about preparing for the future, so investing more in digital and more IT based products.
Q: How will you revamp this organisation for future when you have legacy issues like legacy man power, to what extent it has been a challenge for you to recruit right kind of challenge in a government set up and to work with an audience that is young?
A: Man power issues were studied sometime back by a committee led by Mr. Sam Pitroda. The committee headed by Mr. Sam Pitroda recommended that Prasar Bharati should take a comprehensive manpower audit that we kicked off a few months back, Earnst & Young India is driving that project. Part of their mandate is look at all these questions that you posed: the aging work force, the kind of skills, kind of talent that we need to bring in so their recommendations will be very critical.
But I can share this. I am actually very proud what the legacy work force has delivered. Today we have more than 150 active twitter handles, more than 60 YouTube channels, our collective network of youtube channels is delivering million plus views daily, we have more than doubled our digital growth.
In that sense, even though we are constrained both in terms of resources and the talent, and in terms of our ability to attract talent from the market, obviously we can’t afford the kind of salaries a private sector organisation can, within these constraints, I think this workforce has delivered a quite a bit and I think that’s a matter to be proud of.
But there is still lot to be done in terms of where the rest of industry is and our international peers are so that is our benchmark and we need to get there. We have a very good model in terms of Rajya Sabha TV, which is very different in terms of the way it is structured, how it is operated with professionals from the market running it so that is the model that we are studying.
And we are also looking at international best practices BBC, NHK and others, to get the best elements and fit them in our unique environment that what is the right manpower model going forward.
Q: You talked about international peers. India always had the potential to emerge as a news leader in the international market, despite that soft power we are nowhere. In fact, new players like Al Jazeera, France 24 they have captured the mind space in diplomatic circles and government circles.
A: I think it’s very valid feedback, so we have to play catch up here. The challenges are quite formidable, if you look at the reach of BBC or Russia Today, it is phenomenal and gap is quite wide. Having said that I think we have made a beginning. Sometime last year, PB Board took a decision that we should have a separate English news channel and DD India was identified as that channel that it should have international focus in its content. So that’s work in the progress, we will build DD India as our voice for the world, voice of a billion people, a democracy.
But the real challenge will be on digital front, so we have revamped our digital experience with a new look app, which was launched on budget day, both android and iOS so for the first time it integrates all our digital content within one interface, so we are breaking down the silos both within DD and also across TV and Radio, so you have one App where you can live-stream the radio content, live stream the TV content. You can read news, you can get breaking news alert, so all experiences come at one place. So this digital interface will be our gateway to the world going forward, today, we have 20 plus languages including international languages because you have external services division of radio serving all these guys but it was not part of our digital experience now we brought that as well, within one App you can choose the language, whether it is a foreign language or Indian language, you will get the relevant content based on that.
Q: DD is not able to capture the mind space in terms of international English news audience, whereas other private and public broadcasters like CNN, CGTN, BBC have already launched language and region specific services.
A: My guess is that concerted efforts were not made in the past but now India’s time has come. For the last four years you have a Prime Minister who has been extremely effective in expanding India’s soft power be it taking Yoga across the globe, taking Indian handicraft, Khadi across the globe, the Gandhi as a global icon across the world in a way that entire world can relate to, people from different cultures sang Vaishnav Jan. And PM’s Mann Ki Baat which also gets translated in several languages, so now in that sense you now have environment for India to be heard globally and we have to take advantage of that, you are right, it’s a small window, probably we are way behind, we will have to play a catch up and digital is our fastest way to do it.
Q: A Hackathon was conducted by the government last year and there were several queries from MIB and Prasar Bharati. Did you get some solutions from those young minds?
A: The idea was to provoke those people and get ideas, some of the ideas that you will see being reflected in the latest app but it’s a continuous process. Everyday I get the feedback on the social media that why don’t you enable this feedback, sometimes it is something that we have not thought about, it’s a continuous process of innovation and we’ll keep doing that. The key thing is to be agile, we can’t operate in the way in which we have operated in the past.
We’ll have to keep adding the features and upgrade and the most important thing is that we have to appeal to the youth, because it is India’s youth that will go across the globe as our brand ambassadors and make this platform visible. 10.27.
Q: All India Radio played a big role in nation building. You in a way patronised artists, film makers, talented people so what is your role in modern times.
A: All India Radio has a very respected grading system of artists and that continues even today you see a lot of young artists you have got that All India Radio ratings use that visibility within their peers and within their Eco system so that is ongoing activity.
Then there is another track where All India Radio is nurturing the upcoming talent through an awards system so that is another role that AIR is playing and thirdly the AIR archives are a rich treasure house which has been digitised, it’s also a living memory, our culture, our tradition, it’s a very interesting project that AIR has taken for oral cultural traditions across the districts of India, going and recording their local songs, local rituals, various songs that are sung at the time of birth, at the time of various stages of life, marking them, I believe that data base is 20,000 plus audio recordings as of now.
And I was in the North-East a few months back where we had a very interesting competition where anybody can sing, where choirs and orchestra groups from across the north east competed with each other so AIR is continuing to play that role.
This year we will be hosting the Radio Asia conference and the ABU song festival for the Asian Broadcasting Union, various teams will come from different countries. Since it is the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi Ji so the theme of this conference will be revolving around Gandhian values in relevance to radio and it will be most likely hosted in Gujarat, so that is another example how radio is bringing together communities and preserving our tradition and also projecting India as a global voice, a strong global voice.
Q: At one point of time Doordarshan had the best of the programmes in Indian TV space. Now it is no where in terms of television ranking. How the old glory can be revived?
A: Doordarshan traditionally had a strength because of terrestrial network as TV viewing shifted from terristerial to cable and DTH, Doordarshan lost out and we have also been rationalising our analog terristerial network because now hardly anybody watches it anymore.
You were referring about the funding that the Ministry has just approved, one line in the funding that got approved was for content.
Because our challenge, if you look at the public broadcaster, a public broadcaster has a number of public service obligations, we have to cover independence day, republic day, all these national events, parliament, so much of social messaging, much of that is not monetisable, it doesn’t generate revenue for us, so that constrains us in terms of how much revenue we can generate for content.
Now that we have content funding coming in, we have the opportunity to invest into quality content, so you have the opportunity in the market, and you have the opportunity in terms of funding, both of them have come together at around the same time so now the challenge for us is to quickly capture this. And that is the goal that we have set for the team, Doordarshan team in the next few months to come up with the road map that how we are going to go about this.
Q: The funding for infra and networking has come but you also faced problem in recent past over salary payments due to some issues with the administrative ministry. Has it been sorted out?
A: See, at that time there was a need for MoU to govern the grants in aid given by the ministry are going to be spent, so that laid down those parameters. Now those MoUs are in place so that governing framework is there.
Q: Now this brings me to the larger question, as a public broadcaster what kind of autonomy you can enjoy if you are dependent on government for your funding?
A: If you look at the funding model for public broadcasters, they vary across the globe. It’s not static thing either. For example, while BBC was historically funded by licence fee, this is what NHK also does, the example you gave. But there are big changes that BBC had to do in last two-three years to restructure how they operate. Now they have actually spun off a separate entity, it is called BBC Studios, they use it to sell content to private sector to get funding. So there is nothing static or constant about how the public broadcasting is being funded across the globe. Similarly, I saw in Canada that there was a debate that may be public broadcasting should be completely ad free and private sector should fund it. There are various models.
I think we in India have chose a certain path. And I think again this is a misnomer, it’s a little bit of misunderstanding that a public broadcaster is entirely dependent on government funding. We have to understand there are three parts if you look at our budget. There is a large workforce that Prasar Bharati inherited in 1997 when Prasar Bharati got created, of people who were already working in Doordarshan and All India Radio, they continue to be government employees, so the funding that you are talking about is largely their salaries. It’s government’s obligation to fund its own employees and it will continue till they retire so that is one component.
Second component is the funding towards infrastructure which in a country like ours where we have so much diversity, we have such disparity in terms of development.
We will have to be funded because there are no private players in small towns. For example, even now the FM radio that is available on many small towns that is All India Radio. There is no private sector because private sectors investment decisions will never be on the same plane that I would make those decisions. Similarly, the number of languages that I cater to, they are a few hundred, no private sector organisation in India will deliver content in those languages. So there are obligations that I, as a public broadcaster, will have to do and there is no running away from that reality.
Third part, that is very important which many people don’t understand that, I run my operations almost entirely from the revenues that I generate, from my FCP, advertising, sponsorship and so on, which is a large part. In fact, no public broadcaster anywhere in the world runs its operations out of the revenues that are generated by advertising and selling airtime. So that is a big thing that also funds many of my social sector activities today, it subsidises them.
Q: The examples of BBC and NHK that you refer to, they have been by and large independent. We have seen them doing stories against incumbent governments. In India, DD is being perceived as a mouthpiece of the sitting government, so how will you deal with that challenge?
A: I don’t think that is big thing in India, as a democracy we have a very vibrant media set, you know when people say that there is lack of freedom of speech and intolerance then it is kind of funny because they are doing it in the news papers, in the tv studios and every day there is so much of criticism, so much accountability that the government is held to in the overall media landscape.
So I don’t see that just because you are adversarial then in any way you are enhancing your role as a public broadcaster. See the role of public broadcaster is being much larger than getting into this, for example who is going to do news in Khasi, who is going to do news in Garo, who is going to do it in Dogri and Gochri, so those are my bigger priorities right now, I have got this diverse country that I have to address. Not whether that in the prime time did I criticise the X or Y, I think that is very narrow view for looking at the role of public broadcaster.
Q: During the previous government’s tenure, DD was accused of omitting a certain part of the principal opposition party’s Prime Ministerial candidate who later became Prime Minister. What kind of autonomy you have during this government’s tenure?
A: I think our record speaks for itself. On social media, because I am a social media guy….may be addict is too strong a word, but I am tracking all the feedback, every day on Doordarshan, All India Radio and Prasar Bharati. And the only thing I see is that people are happy that, you know, this is the only channel that is delivering news. Everybody else, I don’t what they’re delivering. In that sense we have done our job. And I don’t see that we have fallen short in anyway in delivering the news that matters to the people.