TAMING THE BEAST

“NBC should be talking of more than just two channels.”
“It would be false to accuse Swapo of any interference, directly or indirectly, in what we do daily.”

The Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Director General, Albertus Aochamub (AA) says it is the nature of the beast to be wild, but it is the patience of taming it that brings victory.

Aochamub shuns quick fixes in his first five months in office, preferring to play the ‘wait and see’ game in order to tame the beast that has seen nine Director Generals (DG) come and go in haste over the last 20 years. Appointed amid much hullabaloo in August 2010, Aochamub has seemingly gone from the noisemaker that he was at MTC to a muted newsmaker. Find out why.

PF: You are starting the year sitting on a position of NBC Director General (DG) which has had a revolving door policy in the past 12 months. Four DGs came and went in such a short space of time. How do you feel about the fact that the position of NBC DG is a national hot potato?

AA: Any public sector assignment has its challenges and NBC is no exception. It remains a tremendous challenge to satisfy the varying needs and wants of all publics we have to serve. With the right support at all levels of society we should prevail.

PF: It goes without saying that every appointment at NBC’s top hierarchy is always alleged to be political. How do you intend to prove yourself as a professional not political stooge?

AA: The nature of all public offices is ‘political’ with a lower case “p”. It is a reality we cannot wish away. What remains critical is how we execute the mandates that we are entrusted with to run public offices. In that sense, professional etiquette is non-negotiable in all our dealings with all publics. At NBC we are similarly bound.

PF: How then do you see your role and how do you plan to turn-around the NBC?

AA: NBC is made up of some incredibly talented people who have rarely been given a chance to shine due to the known upheavals of recent times. It is our intent to focus all our efforts at harnessing all the positive energies for the betterment of all our lives as NBC family. We will share all plans with the public as they unfold and through the correct channels only.

PF: Your predecessor lasted nine months; describe your first five months in charge?

AA: It has been a momentous few months. We are forging ahead quietly to put in place the building blocks for a great organisation that employs world-class people. Every day is a new challenge and one relishes every waking moment thus far.

PF: What have been your greatest challenges in these past months?

AA: As with any new relationship, people first need to get to understand each other. The organisation pre-dates all of us but we have an obligation to leave it in a much better shape and form than we found it. Getting that message across remains a priority for me and I can report that we are making headway in a steady fashion.

PF: The Founding President, Dr. Sam Nujoma once appointed himself Minister of Information and Broadcasting in 2002, saying he wanted to tackle ‘problems’ at the NBC. What are the real problems and troubles at NBC?

AA: It is an organisation beset with surmountable troubles. Key ones revolve around the funding model which is in need of review, staff turn-over levels which are hopelessly high, local content that requires improvements, and a business model which requires moulding. Are these necessarily unique to NBC? I do not think so. Are these insurmountable? Of course, not.

PF: Since transformation from its colonial origins to its present status, NBC has had a long, controversial and contested history. What do you attribute to this?

AA: It is in the nature of the beast. Everyone feels that they have a vested interest and therefore demand their partisan, sectarian or specific needs to be met sometimes at the exclusion of others. Information is also power and everyone feels that they must control access points. To NBC that is not a new or unique issue. All public broadcasters are beset with the exact same trials and tribulations worldwide.

PF: So, can we safely say such challenges have led to the NBC position of DG being so much a hot potato?

AA: It is safe to make that assertion. Public broadcasters are, by their very nature, the theatres of contestation of ideas, dreams and aspirations. All publics feel they own the space and demand their right to be heard.

PF: Would you say you have made great changes or progress thus far?

AA: Generally, one should never sing one’s own praises. But please do not get me wrong, when we make progress we are also duty-bound to share our story and we promised to do just that in the months ahead. It is early days to provide a review of what we are doing. Only time will tell whether we are making serious and lasting impact on the lives of all our people.

PF: Do you get called to the minister’s office?

AA: Not anymore than is necessary to consult one’s political principals. It is good practice to appraise all principal stakeholders on all matters all the time. To that end, nothing out of the ordinary has happened on that score thus far.

PF: Recently, NBC staff petitioned the removal of top management. How are you dealing with that issue?

AA: All our people have the right to express opinions on matters that concerns them. It is the one singular right we all fought for and need to enjoy responsibly. We are open to debate all matters raised and find solutions that build a stronger and improved organisation. Anything short of that has no space at NBC.

PF: Your predecessor allegedly resigned following a dispute with the board over the reshuffling of NBC senior management. When are we finally going to see a reshuffle at NBC because according to Matthew //Gowaseb’s findings that time, there had been an “urgent need to reshuffle”?

AA: I cannot comment on what my predecessors held to be true. We are here now and have to apply our own minds around what is in the best interest of the organization going forward. Our country desperately needs more positive examples of progress to celebrate and we want NBC to stand tall in that league.

PF: Are there some ‘untouchable’ managers at the NBC? Those blamed for resisting your predecessor’s reshuffling exercise. Yes or No?

AA: No. We hug all the time…. (laughter).

PF: As Editor-in-Chief, is there independence in NBC’s editorial content? What is your take on the editorial policy of the public broadcaster? Any issues/policies you want changed or added?

AA: We are reviewing all aspects of our organisation and as changes transpire we shall share those. Editorial independence must be carefully defined in the context of our developmental state. We cannot simply copy and paste some view of the world which has no bearing on our reality as a nation. We have unique challenges because of our rich history and the public broadcaster cannot be immune to those. We must reflect Namibia in all its complexities if all our people are to feel that they belong in this geograhic space called Namibia.

PF: What will it take to make the NBC a ‘truly’ public service broadcaster like the SABC or the BBC?

AA: The examples you are citing have their own realities and own contexts. Whilst we must aspire to be world best, we must still be grounded in the realities of the land we operate in. We have Namibian societal values to reflect and play our role in the context of the national agenda as all public broadcasters do.

Again, these matters are up for debate but we are not confused about our mandate.

PF: What measures are you taking to promote local productions on NBC?

AA: Very good question. We have begun organising ourselves to showcase local content. We are open for business when people have new ideas. In policy terms we will be agreeing what percentage of all our content needs to be local even before this gets regulated through law. It is good business and we have to reflect who we are as a nation on the move. It will take time and serious funding but we have to start now.

PF: What is the problem with NBC’s transmissions? Many a time there has been reports of no NBC reception in several parts of the country? Is the equipment outdated or is it just technical problems?

AA: All broadcasters experience technical glitches from time to time. We are focused on building a modern and future proof broadcast network. Government is committed through funding and so we will resolve these challenges in good time.

PF: When you were with MTC, you had interest in Namibian football being aired on local television since the premiership is sponsored by MTC. Any developments on airing the local game live thus far?

AA: All sporting codes have to be aired on TV regularly. When sponsorships and funding options are sorted we are ready to air the games.

PF: NBC has been dependent on GRN funding for long .What is the status of the organisation in terms of viability?

AA: Public funding will always remain part of the equation. What we are debating is the percentage share between our own revenue versus what comes from the national coffers. The organisation is viable and our board is clear on the needs to at least match what funds are invested by the national government.

PF: How do you intend to maximize commercial capacity and utilisation of Government subsidy?

AA: We have the largest footprint and are expanding. We are the only ones providing local Namibian content inclusive of news. These unique selling points present tremendous opportunities for commercial exploitation and will form the hallmark of our commercial strategies. Like I said before, some form of public funding will always be needed to serve all communities across the great expanse of this country.

PF: NBC is faced with a precarious financial situation. How do you intend to address this?

AA: We are addressing these proactively and plans are being discussed to improve our fortunes. Watch this space.

PF: Some time in 2010, NBC earned N$4 million from advertising in a month; recently we understood it to have gone down to N$1 million. How so?

AA: The figures are not a true reflection of our reality. Advertising is a seasonal business and our revenues would reflect that natural trend as well.

PF: What other sound business strategies do you bring to turn around the Corporation and develop broadcasting capacity?

AA: It is too early to make bold pronouncements on strategy but there are works in the making.

PF: When do we see the second channel and what will be the difference with the current one?

AA: A split between channels is needed. We require a focus on Youth matters, commerce and industry, politics and public discourse. To that end, perhaps we should be talking of more than just a second channel.

PF: What do you appreciate currently about the NBC?

AA: The energy that pervades the corridors of this troubled organisation. That is stuff that very few people would ever understand and the reasons this place worked in spite of all the reported upheavals.

PF: Chat Shows: In 2009, the NBC made drastic but controversial changes to phone-in radio programmes to prevent what it called abuse of the right of freedom of speech. Is this not a violation of freedom of speech that the NBC has to screen incoming calls, increase the delay between receiving the call and broadcasting it to the maximum eight seconds?

AA: Opinions are divided on matters of freedom of speech and public broadcasting. This is a discussion we are conducting and will announce changes, if any, on how to go forward.

PF: Do you subscribe to the notion that the ruling party should take their cue from the colonial era media culture and practice, where everything was run for propaganda and the quest to remain in power?

AA: Again, we all have opinions on these issues. My (practical and not theoretical) experience of the past 5 months with the ruling party and the other parties has been instructive in many respects. It would be false to accuse the Swapo Party of any interference, directly or indirectly, in what we do daily. At the height of the elections they paid for the slots for party political broadcasts, shared their plans ahead of time with our reporters and allowed us access to cover the events. That is the mark of a mature party which is geared to stay in power for long and not one that desperately uses the public broadcaster for its own ends. We were not told, instructed or coerced into covering ruling party events at the expense of the opposition. Our national leaders in all public and private pronouncements have encouraged us to serve all Namibians equally and we intend to do just that.

PF: How many people work at NBC currently? Are you satisfied with that number vis-à-vis the size of the organisation’s operations?

AA: With the advent of the Digital Terrestrial Television, we are poised for serious growth as an organisation. It would mean more channels and more people to manage that space. So instead of putting people on the streets we might be hiring more.

PF: Are you content with the level of training and the capacity of understanding wider journalistic issues and principles among your staff?

AA: Challenges remain and opportunities abound to work in that area. We are mindful of the fact that good journalists have come and gone from NBC and training will remain a priority.

PF: You have some staff who have worked for nearly if not over 20 years now; some were recruited on political grounds, others on socio-economic. What effort is being made to increase the rate at which staff is sent on refresher courses?

AA: Training and refresher programmes are a priority for all our people. Everyone in their professional lives need to update themselves on latest thinking and trends in one’s chosen field of endeavour. NBC is no different in that sense.

PF: How are you addressing gender inequalities within the corporation? There are departments which have been male dominated over the last decade, then you also find that the majority of editors in the newsroom are female. For example, TV news, TV Current Affairs and the Political and Economic Desk. All these departments have female editors?

AA: Our organisation reflects the national gender balance fairly. I am not aware of male dominated departments at least at decision-making levels. I thought you would congratulate us for employing women in critical positions in the organisation and not simply paying lip-service to gender equality.

PF: Perhaps that is why I had asked if your successes which you said, ‘we must watch the space’. Anywhere, how do you want the public to judge you after this episode of your life is over?

AA: I have always wondered what my tombstone should say when my body finally expires. Maybe it is the same thing I wish my stay at NBC to be remembered for: “he lived well and gave of all his energies to the betterment of others”.

Maybe one should not hold such thoughts of death and legacy at the prime of one’s youth but it is worth anticipating the future.

PF: What type of a leader are you?
AA: Decisive and driven.

PF: Your message to NBC staff for the New Year and what can Namibia expect from NBC this year?

AA: We have a great organisation and stand at the threshold of even greater heights. Let 2011 not go to waste whilst we are conscious. PF