by Larry Smith
Another general election is approaching, and - as sure as night follows day - there is rising concern over the role of the Broadcasting Corporation.
Political control of ZNS has been a hot-button issue ever since legislation was passed in 1956 to pave the way for television. Before then, broadcasting was part of the Telecommunications Department, which launched ZNS radio in 1937 as a weather service.
Bahamian television was a kind of holy grail - and our quest to grasp it took over 20 years. It was followed by another 20 years of stagflation - creative stagnation mixed with financial inflation.
What should have ignited an explosion of Bahamian art and entrepeneurship, led instead to dull mediocrity and authoritarianism.
The question of how to implement television first arose in 1962, when a parliamentary committee began reviewing proposals. Besides ZNS itself, applicants for a TV license included some of the same players who competed for cable rights in the 1990s - The Tribune, Etienne Dupuch Jr, Charles Hall Jr and the Nassau Guardian.
But the committee never reported and TV went under the radar until 1966, when the United Bahamian Party minister in charge of broadcasting - Geoffrey Johnstone - wanted to license private cable services that relied on a central booster antenna to receive transmissions from Florida for distribution over a local network - much as happens today.
According to then Finance Minister Sir Stafford Sands, the cost to set up local TV could not be justified. So the government wanted to give the franchise to the existing cable operation in Freeport, which was owned by a South Florida company called Wometco. John Bethell, Works Minister at the time, was a director of the Grand Bahama operator, which had launched its Freeport service in 1965.
The Implications of TV
Back then, there were only 7000 TV sets in the country. They received grainy signals from a handful of Miami stations if you had a tall roof antenna with a signal booster - and depending on the weather, of course. So there was naturally a lot of interest in local TV for the sake of popular entertainment alone. But there were deeper considerations involved.
Most important was the potential political power of a television monopoly in terms of information control. Second was the relatively large investment to set up and run a station, not to mention the money and expertise needed to produce local programming.
That early CATV system would have carried the four familiar South Florida stations as well as local channels, but a Senate committee rejected the proposal. The majority report, signed by Kendal Isaacs, Clifford Darling and W. B. Johnson, called for a national TV station to protect and promote the nation's cultural identity.
Further consideration of television was put on hold again until after the 1967 general election, which brought the Progressive Liberal Party to power for the first time.
In one of the earliest controversies of the PLP's time in office, the Broadcasting Commission in 1968 signed an "unauthorised" $2 million contract contract with an American group to build a TV station in Chippingham that wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars. But that too failed to materialize.
After the 1968 general election, Arthur Foulkes assumed responsibility for ZNS, and plans for a TV station were restarted: "I recall many internal debates over the issue," he told Tough Call recently, "including whether we should start with colour, which prevailed. We sent people abroad in preparation."
But once again the project stalled - this time because of a dramatic rift within the ranks of the PLP itself, which eventually led to the formation of the Free National Movement: "There was much dissension in the party at that time," recalled Sir Arthur. "And it all climaxed with our leaving the government in 1970."
So there the idea rested until after Independence, when new private proposals for television were floated. In 1974 the government rejected an opposition request for an investigation of aerostat (or blimp) technology developed by Westinghouse. Floating 11,000 feet over Grand Bahama, a dirigible could pick up TV signals from Miami and rebroadcast them on a local channel.
A Top Political Priority
As the 1977 general election neared, television suddenly became a top political priority. The government sent a dozen Bahamians off for training in Canada and borrowed about $7 million to set up the station on land already acquired at the top of Centreville hill.
This was one of several big initiatives undertaken by the Pindling government that hugely expanded the public sector. Others included Bahamasair and National Insurance - and despite sometimes noble intentions, all were criticised for pork barrel corruption and partisan dealing.
At ZNS it began with construction of the TV station itself. Only a few PLP contractors were asked to bid and the winner was Otis Brown, a former party chairman. The contract price was kept a virtual state secret. And the engineering contract went to the brother of a top PLP cabinet minister.
TV-13 came on stream in July 1977 - three months before the general election and just in time for a convenient state visit by Queen Elizabeth, who did the official honours.
As Sir Arthur recalled in a recent panel discussion on Cable 12: "One of the things that TV did was give us a greater sense of national pride by seeing our own people on the screen. That was very significant."
But the political advantages were even more significant. TV-13's inaugural broadcasts (during the election campaign) featured Roots, a violent American-made serial drama about the horrors of slavery, and a syrupy documentary on the first decade of the Pindling regime.
The commentators on the Cable 12 talk show (in addition to Sir Arthur, they included Charles Carter, Wendall Jones and Calsey Johnson) discounted the idea that Bahamian television was conceived as a political tool. But we cannot overlook the fact that racial violence and the Pindling personality cult were the station's initial and ongoing expressions of entertainment and education.
From Bad to Worse
That inauspicious beginning was followed by a series of staff upheavals - resignations, suspensions, firings and redundancies - involving many of the original personalities who had been trained overseas. This all climaxed with the appointment of Fred Mitchell as political commissar (after veteran broadcaster Ed Bethel was unceremoniously removed to make way for him).
Mitchell's hardline political approach to news and public affairs provoked much resentment, which led to allegations in Parliament of sex scandals at the station. In a 1978 speech he threatened to "destroy" his detractors, who, he said, were trying to sabotage ZNS as the only "decent" and "effective" news service in the country. Sound familiar?
Mitchell eventually moved on, but ZNS continued to play a nasty partisan game, reaching its lowest ebb during the 1981 teachers strike. A front-page newspaper editorial at the time said democracy had died during the teachers' battle with government: "For those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the government-controlled broadcasting station is accountable for the death."
We clearly recall the flagrant and unapologetic misuse of ZNS during the three-week strike, which led angry protestors to burn an effigy of station manager Calsey Johnson. This so upset his colleague, Charles Carter, that he likened it on the air to a Ku Klux Klan attack (although all the 'klansmen' were black). As the newspaper editorial put it: "The extraordinary thing is that ZNS management in their arrogance see nothing wrong with what they've done. They would probably do the same again."
We could go on ad nauseam about ZNS abuses over the years. The refusal to play the songs of Bahamian musicians whose lyrics didn't suit the PLP. The arbitrary and capricious business practices. General Manager Carter presenting as a PLP candidate while hosting the public affairs programme "Focus". The sudden 1982 demotion of news director Mike Smith by the same Ed Bethel who had been similarly treated earlier. The childish propaganda masquerading as nightly news. The endless replaying of "Roots" during election campaigns. And on and on.
The Cable 12 Roundtable
Most of the distinguished gentlemen on the Cable 12 roundtable chose to ignore this sordid legacy, and focus instead on the relatively safe topic of ZNS's poor record in promoting Bahamian cultural identity. But although couched as a chat about the past, the main reason for the Cable 12 show (which was hosted by Keith Wisdom, the son of one of ZNS's former general managers) was to shape the future.
Strangely, the consensus seems to be that ZNS is somehow necessary to our very survival as a nation, although there is grudging acceptance that it should now be converted into a low-key public service financed by the treasury. The other angle to this approach is a prospective arrangement with Cable Bahamas, which has been eager to solicit advertising revenue since it was set up in 1994.
ZNS has always been heavily subsidized by the government - even as a monopoly - so it is unclear how Cable Bahamas - another monopoly - will ensure the survival of ZNS by accepting advertising on a few channels. There may well be an unmet demand for local television advertising, but we know that Wendall Jones will soon be launching an independent TV station that may solve that problem.
The roundtable knights sought to launch a debate on the role of public broadcasting in the Bahamas. Mr Jones argued that the country was already "too public sector-oriented" and that ZNS had to be "downsized and depoliticised" in order to let broadcasting develop. Government should not be using tax dollars to compete with the private sector, he said, and any broadcasting commission should report to parliament rather than to a minister.
Sir Arthur agreed with the charges of political interference and self-censorship at ZNS, while pointing out that the government-owned BBC manages to achieve fairplay, "which is evidenced by fact that it gets into trouble with every British government." He argued that ZNS should continue as a public service and that two private stations should be licensed if our small market could sustain them.
Mr Johnson insisted - in the face of gross reality - that the government did not control ZNS and never had. He said it was the Broadcasting Corporation's responsibility to "educate and inform" Bahamians, arguing that there was no reason why ZNS should not continue as it is.
Mr Carter, the ex ZNS boss whose private radio station produces the news for Cable 12, also denied there was any political interference at ZNS. He said he had "always believed" that cable television should have been part of the Broadcasting Corporation so that it could fund "enlightening and uplifting Bahamian programmes". Young Bahamians didn't know who or what they were, he argued, and it was "the public broadcasting responsibility to give them that information."
The bottom line is that the country's entire broadcasting policy needs to be re-evaluated and reformed to fit our modern context. If done well, this could prove as exhilirating a move for the PLP as the FNM's cutting of ZNS' stranglehold on the industry was in the 1990s.
As Mr Carter said, "the privilege of broadcasting requires the upholding of certain values." So the task before us now is to reformat ZNS as a community channel, and sweep the unfortunate and costly mistakes and personalities of the past 30 years out the door.