There is a certain air of nostalgia that grips you whenever you pass by Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) on Uhuru Highway and Harry Thuku Road.
It is as though you are approaching a hallowed ground and so you turn to face the establishment and pay visual homage to the dilapidated buildings that may have formed a significant part of your cultural and national psyche.
Back in the day, KBC was the only radio station in the country. It opened at dawn with the National Anthem and the presenters awoke the nation with the song “Amkakumekucha” (wake up, it’s daybreak).
Pupils visiting from upcountry would be excited upon entering the city once they passed Museum Hill, and their teachers would announce with some degree of solemnity that “ … and this is KBC”.
The children would then marvel and sigh eagerly, “so Leonard Mambo Mbotela is in one of these houses, now?”
Well, things and times have changed so dramatically in the media industry that what remains of KBC now are memories of its glorious past.
Since the liberalisation of the airwaves in the 1990s and proliferation of private (FM) radio and TV stations, the national broadcaster has hobbled and wobbled to near insignificance.
The rapidly changing political formations and dispensation have left the once-towering media edifice high and dry of resources and relevance.
Faced with myriad challenges, the fate and future of KBC even in the next 10 years is the subject of a new book written by one of its former chief executive officers, Mr Waithaka Waihenya.
The book is titled Sisyphus’ Task: The Battle for the Soul of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.
In the book, Mr Waihenya contends that KBC’s trials and tribulations emanate from its ambiguous position as a government entity charged with public service broadcasting, which is essentially a not-for-profit role.
The statutes define KBC as a State corporation of the commercial order, yet its public service mandate hinders it from plunging into such “commercially minded” news gathering and programming ventures that attract audiences and advertisers.
“It is classified as a national broadcaster, yet in the categorisation of State corporations, it is classified as a commercial entity, which should make its own money.”
Recounting the flip-flop state of the broadcaster, the author compares the cyclic struggles by its CEOs and relevant ministers to steady the faltering giant to that of Sisyphus in Greek mythology.
Sisyphus is condemned to roll a huge stone to the top of a hill. But no sooner does he reach the top than the stone rolls back to the bottom, and he has to follow it down to start the task again.
Mr Waihenya observes that every new minister for Information and managing director comes to office with one resolve: “Reform the national broadcaster.”
Such resolution is always couched in seductive mantra like, “awaken the sleeping giant that is KBC”, “revitalise this doyen of broadcasting”, reform and restructure this national loss-making gem …”
The book enriches knowledge and scholarship of the media industry in the country and in Africa, given that KBC is one of the first broadcast stations in the region.
It gives us an insider view of things in and about KBC.
Apart from “episodic” funding from the exchequer and sporadic policy support by the government, Mr Waihenya sees public perception and stigmatisation of KBC as a government propaganda tool as a major millstone on the broadcaster’s neck.
He regrets that many people still bear the hatred they had for KBC during the Kanu regime even when they have not watched the station’s news and programmes lately.
But the most confounding is the disdain that some people, even Cabinet and principal secretaries, have for KBC.
Mr Waihenya says while he was CEO of KBC, he has been confronted with questions of whether the broadcaster was still an important outfit in the era of a liberalised media environment.
When he sought to have security of KBC’s installations enhanced due to increased terror attacks in the country, a top police boss told him that the importance of guarding KBC no longer made sense.
“It used to when it was the only media house,” the boss said. But now we have many media houses, so KBC is not at all special.”
When he asked a Cabinet secretary whether KBC had a role for all citizens, the CS retorted: “To be honest, I do not know why we still have KBC as a national broadcaster. The country does not need it, and the government does not need it either.”
Sisyphus’ Task observes that the predicaments afflicting KBC afflict all others public broadcasters in most Africa countries.
Mr Waihenya proposes that for such broadcasters to survive and execute their mandate, they should be properly funded and supported by enabling policy and regulatory frameworks.
They should also be insulated from political interference and granted independence to avoid perception of being mouth pieces of their government.
Even the British Broadcasting Corporation, on which KBC was party modelled, is undergoing rough times.
Only this week, its Director General, Lord Tony Hall, announced that he would be resigning mid this year.
The revered broadcaster that has often been the reference point of broadcasting success as we mourn the dwindling fortunes of our own KBC, is equally starved of funds and swarmed by technological locusts.
Reacting to Hall’s announcement, some legislators predicted dangerous times ahead for BBC and suggested that its funding model be overhauled.