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History of Broadcasting in Kenya

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History of Broadcasting in Kenya

Broadcasting in Kenya: In December, 1964, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation started producing and broadcasting its own news programmes and stopped its subscription to the British Broadcasting Corporation news. The Kenya News Agency was born to supply KBC with news for its local and world news slots.

The Department of Information gave the new station a direct link to Reuters World News Service, an independent news agency with offices all over the world. A teleprinter equipment to relay the news, supplied by Russia and Czechoslovakia, was also installed at the department and a Russian technician employed to operate it.

In April 1964, Information, Broadcasting and Tourism minister Achieng’ Oneko announced the Government’s plan to replace the Kenya Broadcasting Company with Voice of Kenya (VOK). VOK was to be run by a board whose mandate was to advice the minister. A new Broadcasting Act was enacted to ensure provision of news services in several languages and a fair balance in broadcasting time between different political viewpoints.

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In 1959 the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation was established by the British colonial administration with the objective of providing radio and television broadcasting. The proposal for the formation of a public corporation had been submitted by a commission appointed earlier in the year to report on the advantages and disadvantages of a television service for Kenya, and the impact of such a service on radio broadcasting. The 1959 Proud Commission rejected earlier findings by another commission in 1954 that television was “economically impracticable in Kenya” and concluded that the new medium was likely to be financially self-reliant if it was set up as a fully-fledged commercial outfit.

Broadcasting in Kenya Between 1959 and 1961

During this period, in keeping with the Proud Commission’s recommendations, the colonial administration contracted a consortium of eight companies to build and operate a television service. The eight firms, seven of which were from Europe and North America, formed Television Network Ltd. which was charged with the responsibility of setting up the national television broadcasting system. The consortium, cognizant of the irreversible developments towards Kenya’s political independence, created the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation as an autonomous public organization. The idea was to have the corporation wield as much independence as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). By the end of 1962, a transmission station and recording studio had been set up, and television was officially launched the following year.

The corporation created by the consortium bore a striking semblance with the BBC. It drew its revenue from advertising, annual license fees on receiver sets, and government subventions. The vision of financially self-sustaining television service was however misplaced, especially since the new medium failed to attract as much advertising as the older and more popular radio broadcasting service. Within the first full financial year of television broadcasting – July 1963 to June 1964 – the corporation posted a loss of nearly $1 million, and had to resort to government loans and supplementary appropriations to remain afloat. Coincidentally, Kenya had gained independence and the new government, worried about the threat to national sovereignty posed by the foreign ownership of the broadcasting apparatus, decided to nationalize the corporation in June 1964. After the takeover, the corporation was renamed Voice of Kenya (VoK) and was converted to a department under the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Tourism (later renamed Ministry of Information and Broadcasting). Its new role, as the government mouthpiece, was to provide information, education and entertainment. And while the government adopted a capitalist approach to economic development which embraced private sector participation in all areas of the economy and even welcomed participation in a number of electronic broadcasting activities, private ownership of broadcasting concerns was disallowed.

History of Broadcasting in Kenya

History of Broadcasting in Kenya

Broadcasting in Kenya – The Lutta Commission

The Lutta Commission of Inquiry, set up to look into the future of broad Casting after independence, recommended that there should be close government control of broadcasting in Kenya.

Broadcasting in Kenya Between 1964 and 1990

During this period, television and radio were owned and controlled by the state, and the two media exercised great caution in reporting politically-sensitive news. During this period, several attempts were made to move away from the broadcasting system set up. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting replaced annual license fees with a one-time permit fee, and the drive for commercial self-sustenance was replaced by a politically-inspired initiative for increased local content and a sharper nationalistic outlook. The objective was elusive, however, as the VoK television was only able to achieve a 40% local programming content by the mid-1980s against the target of 70% local content. Television also failed to become an authoritative national medium: studies in 1985 showed that only 17% of electronic media audience regarded television as the best source of information, compared to 86% who rated radio as their prime news source.

Several reasons were advanced for poor performance of television. Besides being a preserve of the educated minority in the country, the spread of ownership of television sets was severely curtailed by the poor penetration of the national electrical power grid. Even worse is the poor transmission the country received from the 55 small transmission and booster stations, whose weak signals generally cover small areas or are constrained by the country’s rugged topography. As such, household audiences have been growing mainly within the major urban areas, or near large rural centers served by electricity and near a booster station.

In 1989, the VoK was renamed Kenya Broadcasting Corporation and accorded semi-autonomous status founded on the premise that it would adopt a more commercial-oriented stance. Although the corporation unveiled grandiose plans to expand news coverage and improve local programming content, it was unable to chart out an independent editorial position, and is still widely seen as a part of the government propaganda machinery. Some progress has however been made in increased weekly on-air periods, and enhancement of color transmission. Until the early 1990s, the corporation relied on cheap but time-consuming air-mail services for the supply of foreign news footage even though the country was serviced by Intelsat. Since 1994, the corporation has been re-transmitting large chunks of the BBC World Service Television several nights per week.

Since March 1990, a second television station, the Kenya Television Network (KTN) has been in operation, offering a mixture of relayed re-transmission of the American Cable News Network (CNN) programming and light entertainment. Transmitting on UHF channel, KTN started out as a pilot project for a 24-hour subscriber TV service in Nairobi and its environs, but has apparently abandoned plans to scramble its signal and currently derives most of its revenue from advertising and TV production services. Also, it was initiated as a joint venture between Kenya’s ruling party, Kanu, and the London-based Maxwell Communications, but the British media group withdrew after the death of its founder, Robert Maxwell.

In spite of its private ownership position, KTN has been unable to provide independent news coverage because of excessive political interference with its editorial direction, a problem that forced its management to scrap the transmission of local news for over one year between 1993 and 1994. About 95% of the station’s programs are foreign, mainly because most of its 24-hour service is a re-transmission of the CNN signal. A second private station, Cable Television Network (CTN), launched in March 1994 has also failed to inspire major changes in Kenya’s television industry. CTN has been trying to build a subscriber base in Nairobi via overhead cables passed along existing electrical power pylons. Its intermittent transmissions have so far comprised Indian drama and films. A third private station, Stellavision, was licensed in the early 1990s but had yet to start broadcasting by 1996.