New Delhi: Shashi Shekhar Vempati, the newly appointed chief executive officer of Prasar Bharati, has already set himself some targets. The 43-year-old media and tech professional (also a member of the Prasar Bharati board), is looking to turn the public broadcaster around and revive viewership and finances of the network. Prasar Bharati runs Doordarshan and All India Radio.
Vempati, who will be the first non-Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer ever to spearhead the public broadcaster, takes charge on Monday.
In an interview, Vempati talks about his agenda as the CEO, the revival of Doordarshan, and his plans to put Prasar Bharati on a global stage, alongside BBC and Al Jazeera. Edited excerpts:
What will be your agenda for the next five years, given the competition from private broadcasters?
First of all, my plan is to learn, listen and understand the challenges of the organization and bring my private sector experience into play.
We have to see how we can bring Doordarshan from where it is to where it needs to be in terms of engagement, loyalty, trust and impact.
I would not like to compare ourselves with private players. Being a public broadcaster, our canvas is entirely different. The aspirations are bigger. I want to create a global voice for India which something no private player would aspire for. I don’t see private players as competitors; they could very well be good partners.
Your appointment comes at a time when Doordarshan is looking at a complete overhaul in channel programming and packaging. How challenging could this new journey be?
The whole strategy of coming up with a new look, and a new way of presenting engaging content, will be very challenging. We have to do things differently and think about the funding. We have to prioritize activities, given budget constraints.
The reach of Doordarshan is huge and there is the nostalgia factor that plays in. There are people who grew up with Doordarshan. But, sustaining audiences and bringing them back is a challenge, especially with younger viewers; the children of liberalization have very little or no memory of Doordarshan.
As a member of the Prasar Bharati board, what are the problems that you have identified with the organization?
One of the biggest challenges is that this organization (both Doordarshan and All India Radio) does not operate like a modern, 21st century media organization. We have to embrace modern IT and management practices, which will improve the ease of doing business.
Second, there is a lack of trust and transparency. Stakeholders—both inside and outside the organization—have had bad experiences with Doordarshan at one point or the other. There is a lot of negativity that needs to be addressed. Once we address these macro issues, everything else will fall into place.
Is a digital platform in the pipeline?
Last year, a committee was formed by the board under the leadership of Prasar Bharati chairman. That committee had submitted a set of recommendations to the board for creating a global digital platform for Prasar Bharati. The board had approved the proposal.
The report has now been sent to both the information and broadcasting (I&B) minister and the Prime Minister.
This is going to be one of the top agendas for us in the coming months. I am looking to create a digitally savvy public broadcaster.
So far, the government has been leveraging the reach of public broadcaster for communicating with people. Given the current political scenario, what role will the public broadcaster play under you?
A public broadcaster has two purposes—one is engaging with citizens across the country and giving them relevant information. That’s a broader social mission that cuts across political parties and will continue irrespective of who is in power.
Second, there are things that are specific to the current government, be it Centre or state. Like, there is Mann Ki Baat (on All India Radio) at the Centre and then there is a similar show held by the Karnataka CM. Here, it is not about a political party but about engaging with the citizens, and a public broadcaster is the vehicle for doing that.
Going forward, I want to take the global road because that has been neglected for years. We want to have a global voice like BBC and Al Jazeera.
This is where I feel the global digital platform that we are creating will come into play. We are a billion-people democracy, the largest one and a very young one at that. The world deserves to hear our voice and get our perspective on global events.
Prasar Bharati has been trying to pull itself out from the government support and become an autonomous institution. Is it proceeding towards commercial viability?
Financial autonomy is a complex issue. Prasar Bharati employees continue to be Government of India employees and the government bears the wage bill for them.
Financial autonomy is something we have to apply our minds on. We have to work out issues related to the workforce and figure out an ideal funding model to head towards financial autonomy.
As for functional autonomy, there is a very symbiotic relationship between the government and the organization, and I don’t think that is going away anytime soon.