Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A series in the Antigua Sun. Toward the end there are parts about St. Vincent

The [Caribbean] media in the 21st Century
Wednesday May 28 2008

by Hazra C. Medica

We, in the print media – and in the media on a whole – know that time changes. The public’s priorities too, we understand, also change.

Therefore, the one question a number of us, if not all of us, find ourselves ever concerned with is: “how do we remain at the top of our game?”

We are aware that we live in an age in which “mock news” more easily woos audiences than real news” – think The Colbert Report and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We live in an age in which the consumer has become the broadcaster – “Broadcast yourself” – YouTube, the consumer media company invites users.

So how do we go about plotting our survival? How do we go about ensuring that the audience is made to feel that drastic things are bound to happen if they haven’t a copy of our newspapers, can’t listen to an episode of one of our programmes or watch our nightly news?

According to Sanka Price, Editor of Saturday Sun and Better Health, a monthly magazine at Nation Publishing, we strive to “remain relevant”.

We are in his neat cubicle at The Nation, in Barbados. He draws me an analogy. When video, came in, he tells me, many prophesied the death of the cinema. Initially, he remembers, people did “slack off” from the cinemas. But then the strange thing was, he recalls, after a short period of time, the cinema became even more popular than before.

The strength of the cinema, he tells me, lies in the appeal there is in going out, watching a movie and being with your fellow human beings that successfully rivals buying that same movie on video cassette (or DVD) even though you will own it for the rest of your life.

According to him, being relevant means recognising your market. Despite changes which might take place in the media in the Caribbean, it is our (the media) “remaining relevant” which is the one thing which will keep the people with us.

Remaining relevant, Price, a media worker of 26 years, notes is one of the “key things” every newspaper in the Caribbean has to face. According to him, the needs of the audience tend to change as do their priorities and when this happens the only way we in the media can remain on top of our “game” is to address these needs.

Price tells me about the strategies his paper has come up to remain “relevant”. He tells me that here at The Nation, what they are doing is getting more involved in what some are calling “citizen journalism.”

“So we get people to submit photographs – of accidents of anything odd and what not – and in one of the publications I do, the Saturday Sun we have Readers Photo of Week – that’s where people submit photographs and you have a whole slew of photographs to choose from.”

The response to Readers Photo of the Week has been rather positive, Price reveals, and every week he has a number of photographs to choose from.

“One of the things we also do is ask questions dealing with relationships,” he adds.

According to him, relationships are a “big deal”, particularly in an environment in which everything is fast paced and there is a lack of closeness whether that relationship is between a man and a woman or a mother and her child.

“We are having problems with relationships in general and that is why there’s this level of domestic violence and violence in general within society. So one of the things we are focussing on is having a forum where people talk about relationship and their feelings in relationship,” Price explained.

Readers can text or even e-mail The Nation; Price jokes that he never thought people could sit down to write such long texts as the ones he has been receiving.

“The point is people are responding- they want to get involved – they want to feel that interaction between us and them,” he stressed.

Of course, he accepts, discussing relationship issues “has nothing to do” with the issues the paper would normally look at, like say for instance, the economy, which is the “biggest deal” nowadays because of the rising prices.

“But there are factors that make up a total person and you know, there’s a concept that if your personal life is at least going good for you, you can weather any storm,” he explains.

In Price’s estimation, the media always has to think about its relevance since as long as “we” remain relevant then we will always have a large audience. Readers will always think about picking up a copy of our newspaper, or listening to our radio stations or watching our television stations.

“That’s what we try to do here with our different products. There are different aspects to each product that we sell here. And so although people will look at us just a paper selling seven days a week, Each paper, each day has a different character to it,” he explained.

“I can speak for the Saturday paper. The Saturday Sun, for example is light, comical, deals with relationships, and a little gossip – it also has its serious side. Monday’s paper might reflect more on health, the Wednesday more on family issues and there are of course the magazines which go along with it,” he added.

Price is not jesting when he labels each paper a “product”. There is The Daily Nation (published every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), then there is The Midweek NATION (published every Wednesday) and The Weekend Nation (published on Fridays), The Saturday Sun (published every Saturday) and finally The Sunday Sun (published every Sunday)

With each “product”, Price explains, they at The Nation attempt to reach the average person out there: “We have to produce something that makes them want to go into their pockets and pull out their two dollars or one dollar every day,” he smiles.

It’s not only about ensuring that the audience is willing to go into their pockets on a daily basis for a copy of The Nation. It is also, as Price points out, about making people feel that they cannot live a day without doing so.

Price, who started working at The Nation on 15 Jan., 1989, has been with the media house for 19 of his 26 years in the media; prior to that he was a freelance writer. He has covered various events over the world including the 1993 aborted general elections in Nigeria and did a series of articles and photographs on life in that country and the work of Barbadian missionaries in South Africa and Malawi 2002. He has also covered the aftermath of the 1990 Jamaat al Muslimeem coup in Trinidad and the recapture of Winston Hall in St Vincent 1989.

The seasoned reporter and editor who has a number of Pan American Health Organisation Media Awards for Excellence in Health Journalism to his name holds that the old age definition of the role of the media as it concerns the unearthing of facts and informing the public on a vast array of issues still holds though it has been modified somewhat.

“Frankly if there is no press – there‘s no outlet for people to be able to understand what is really happening and put what is happening into context of what is happening in their own societies,” he affirms.

It is critical he says, for we in the press to keep trying to inform our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean about what is really going on. We in the press have to, he stresses, form a link between all the various papers and between all the various media houses.

“We have to be able to communicate between each others as professionals and then we will use that link to be able to communicate more effectively through our publics because CSME is around the corner,” he explains.

He tells of the current situation in the Caribbean in which if something happens, in say, Guyana, Suriname or the Bahamas or in the Easter Caribbean, journalists and media houses have to wait patiently for photographs- you don’t’ get them immediately- unless there is a “contact” who was “on the spot”.

The Caricom Single Market and Economy (CSME), he notes, is going “to happen.” – it’s not a matter of if but when. We, (media workers and everyone else in the region) can no longer afford to continue operating as separate entities:

“We here in Barbados cannot continue operating as if Barbados is the biggest country in the world or in Jamaica as if she is the biggest country in the world and on her own. We are all, whether we like it or not, linked and interdependent,” he stressed.

“If something goes wrong with the Barbados economy, the Trinidadian economy will feel it. If something goes wrong with any of the OECS countries’ economy, the Trinidad & Tobago economy is going to feel it. I am saying Trinidad specifically- because they are the wealthiest country in the community – but their economy depends on how well we do,” he added.

In terms of developments which have affected us in the media the most, he points to the Internet as being one of the major influences in the way we cover news. He notes that the Internet is allowing the media to get the public more involved with what we are doing on a daily basis.

Thus, there are some media houses hosting blogs to which the audience can respond and some newspapers are also “looking at Internet television.” Price reveals that the Nation’s sister paper in Trinidad is doing “Internet television” in a major way.

“The Stabroek News, they have changed their Web site and also doing clips from interviews. This allows for interaction and that interaction is really necessary in terms of the longevity of the press,” he muses.

Media freedom – media responsibility

He does not mince words. He is the assistant manager and acting editor of St. Vincent’s SVG Broadcasting Corporation Ltd. (SVGBC). I ask him direct questions and he gives me direct answers.

“What passes for talk shows,” he tells me rather bluntly, “especially the politically driven talk shows, if we were in Jamaica or Barbados, a lot of those stations would get locked off the air.”

The media here, he explains to me, is rather young. Therefore, quite naturally, there are some challenges to face – and the broadcast media in St. Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG) still has some way to go

If one were to examine the radio stations, he tells me, one might find one or two trained individuals – but more likely than not, what one would also find is a lot of people with good voices but no formal training in broadcasting.

The broadcast media on the island, he reveals, is in a “transitional period” – there is a certain “looseness” in terms of standards and ethics.” There has been, he opines, since the deregulation of radio in the late 1990s, a “loose embracing of broadcast ethics and standards.”

He explains that with the late 1990s deregulation of radio came a number of “business ventures” seeking to exist in a sector that had traditional standards. But what these ventures brought was a “paucity” of trained personnel.

Consequently, he says, “there’s a lot here which would not make it anywhere else.” Whilst it is true, he opines, that they in SVG may compare themselves to countries which have a longer history of broadcasting and say “we know what we should do”, there is the fact that they are still in this “transitional period”.

Currently, there are some nine radio stations, one cable television company and one television station – a far cry from the fewer numbers of two decades ago. Growth in the broadcast media, he holds, has allowed people to “see” broadcasting as a field in which to seek employment. Things will get better, he is sure, they will just take “some time”.

Of the nine radio stations operating on the island, he says quite openly: “we have too many.” But it’s not just the number which poses the problem but the lack of policing – self or otherwise.

He knows his radio station has been guilty: “I mean even here at Hitz FM we play songs that are borderline. They would not be played in Jamaica, he told me.”

He explains the rather curious situation to me:

“You see for example, we have imported the dancehall culture, but the dancehall culture exists not in mainstream Jamaica. It exists in the clubs, and in the ghetto clubs, not in the mainstream clubs and certainly not on the air.”

He adds: “A lot of the music which we import and play on air here – we really shouldn’t if we were strictly adhering to broadcasting ethics. We have some cleaning up to do.”

The “fuzzy areas”, he holds, are being worked out. For instance, he notes, while the radio station he manages might decide not to play music that is “violence oriented” – no gun songs and the like – there might be a particular group which might complain about another set of songs. Like a women’s right group might complain about songs with strong sexual biases). Such is life in the broadcast media. But have you ever wondered about …

A typical day in the broadcast media:

He is the assistant manager and acting editor of St. Vincent’s SVG Broadcasting Corporation Ltd. (SVGBC). His name is Richard MacLeish.

So… you hear, read or see the final product on the radio or the television and you might offer up your assessment. Perhaps you think “this element” was simply brilliant whereas “that element” was simply not.

But have you ever wondered about all the work (from the ground up to management) that goes into “making a day” in the broadcast media? Have you ever pondered what a typical day might be like for the workers in TV or Radio Land?

For Richard MacLeish, a typical day at the management level is “madness”. He is in both TV and Radio Land – he is assistant manager and acting editor (as well as assistant editor) of St. Vincent’s SVG Broadcasting Corporation Ltd (SVGBC). SVGBC was formed in 1980, at least the “television part” of it was. The radio bit began around 1997.

At present, the privately owned SVGBC with a staff of about 40 workers (including part-timers) covers one television station (SVG TV – the national television station) and two radio stations – Ezee Radio (born 2006) and Hitz FM (born 1997). The fourth component of SVGBC (the Web site) still exists but hasn’t been updated for a while.

“I hit the ground running in the morning,” MacLeish tells me, “I go straight through until the evening making sure all our news products are complete. So there is not much time for anything else.”

According to MacLeish, the company has recently realised the need to brand the different entities (the radio stations and television station) as well as the corporate body separately and develop a mission and a vision which will drive the operations of each entity.

They are “winging it,” MacLeish tells me, “the overarching driver has been basically to inform, educate and entertain” the audience(s).

The content and target audience of each entity differs. Ezee Radio, he tells me, is a niche market: it’s all easy listening music – “more music let’s talk”. Ezee Radio targets the 25 and over age group. Ezee Radio has no talk shows.

Its predecessor, Hitz FM does: “On Sundays we have a two-hour talk show on social issues which does not necessarily fit our young people format but we still try to live true to our broadcasting ideals of contributing to society significantly,” MacLeish says.

Hitz FM targets the 15-35 age group and focusses more on urban Caribbean music – the so-called “young people music.” The television station, SVG TV, which is an affiliate of the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC), CBS and CNN, offers a combination of local entertainment and satellite television. SVG TV depends heavily on foreign programming, though as MacLeish points, out, they have begun producing “more local content” to combat that. SVG TV targets a general audience.

As far as the radio stations go, there is no sort of “strict programming.” MacLeish reveals that whilst, for example, for Ezee Radio there might be different schedules for gospel, jazz, and so forth, it is left up to the announcers to determine what the show “would be.”

“We’re not programmed like other stations where you can actually tell who’s going to be a hit. With Hitz FM, we leave it up to the DJs and to some extent the audience to determine what is popular. We don’t use the jukebox method,” he declares rather proudly.

SVGBC, he tells me, is by no means the “new kid on the block.” The only company in SVG which is older than SVGBC is the national radio station which began as the Windward Islands Broadcasting Service (WIBS) and had been in operation for quite a while.

FM radio, MacLeish proudly informs me, began with SVGBC when Hitz FM (which is younger than SVG TV) was started – around the time when radio was deregulated.
In the media in the 21st Century - Part IIB
Wednesday May 28 2008

So … how does SVGBC – the not so new kid – keep its fingers on the pulse of the nation?

It’s quite simple really. According to MacLeish, the most effective form of marketing is viral marketing. SVG is a small society, it is therefore easy to pick up (on) trends.

“If people have complaints, we have the talk shows on the radio. We have probably the largest contingent of DJs who operate in dancehalls and clubs on weekly basis so they interact with public from a music point of view,” MacLeish muses.

“I think that’s reflective of what is played on the air, so we use that, we do some informal marketing – we pay attention to what people say and in the talk shows we hear what they want,” he adds.

The future – the media

So … we (Richard MacLeish and I) get to talking about the future of and in the media.

I ask him about the role of the media. For once, he falters. “That used to be an easy question to answer” he smiles, “but the media now, with technology, is so diverse.”

The consumers, he says thoughtfully, are now becoming broadcasters. The consumers, he adds, are determining what they want to hear, listen or see. And in the midst of all of this, he opines, the “traditional media” is being challenged to adjust to this changing landscape.

Information technology, he notes, has impacted on the way we in the media do what we do. It has, for example, made some things much easier – one could run a radio station from a computer!

If we in the media, stick to our traditional methods of “doing things”, he muses, we could very well be looking at a shortened existence. Media houses must not think that their roles have changed – we in the media are still charged with informing, entertaining and educating the populace in a responsible manner.

However, what we must realise is that the “mode of doing” what we have been charged over the decades to do is changing:

“Everyone’s going on the Internet now with live streaming or Web sites. I don’t think the role has changed, but the methods have changed significantly and we must respond to that.”

As far as standards and ethics go, he remembers when SVG-TV was the only private media entity. Then there was the deregulation of radio and the influx of several other radio stations.

“I believe, subject to correction, that the deregulation of the media was a precept to deregulating telecommunications in terms of mobile phones and the Internet. So you have to set the environment where competition could come in to deal with (the) monopoly that Cable & Wireless had,” he remembers.

The deregulation period was an OECS phenomenon – “we all started doing it about the same time,” he notes.

“I think in our haste, we as countries gave out the licences and freed up the market before we set specific standards to adhere to,” he adds.

The media, he explains, was pretty much self-policed with no “official” standards or policy existing prior to deregulation. He thinks that governments in the region are now grappling with either trying to enforce standards to guide the media or waiting for the media to grow to the point where it would be more responsible (police itself).

MacLeish remembers when a Vincentian association of journalists was vibrant up to the 1980s. It fell apart and a media workers association (of which he was an executive member) came into existence. He also remembers the resistance of the traditional journalists towards the DJs and announcers. It was felt that the latter were not as qualified and therefore it was felt “not on the same level”.

“Normally, these organisations are vibrant when there are issues against the workers. The Media Workers Association was vibrant when one or two people thought they weren’t treated fairly by their company, and after those issues were sorted out, that was it. It has been dormant since then,” he explains.

Association or no association, MacLeish remains optimistic about the face of the media in SVG in the future. He maintains that there are too many radio stations given the size of the island. He is not sure how it’s all going to pan out in the future; there must be strategic partnerships, he thinks.

MacLeish is hopeful: “At end of the day, the media will continue to keep society honest in terms of being there to basically convey the pictures, the songs and stories which reflect life as we know it. Hopefully, we will assume more of our role as educators and as influencers in terms of where we are going as a culture and people,”

Though he can’t say where the media is headed for the future, he is hopeful, that all involved will be sufficiently mature to embrace the traditional ideals of the media.

The roads leading into the Sandy Bay Community left me in awe for all the wrong reasons. The distance from the capital kept urging me: “retreat…retreat.”
It hadn’t struck home after my frantic calls to various mobile phone numbers failed.
And it still didn’t strike home when I kept thinking how isolated from the outside world the signs which read Garifuna Bakery and Garifuna Radio seemed to make the community.

I’d taken it for granted that “back home”, at least to the best of my knowledge, I could get reception from “any angle” I chose to “turn”. And … I’m not talking mobile phone …but radio.

We sat in the Learning Resource Centre which housed the radio station. It was strange to hear him say that prior to the founding of this media house, they were locked off to issues being aired on the national stations. I tried to understand what he meant when he said they had to rely on television stations from neighbouring islands since the local station was inaccessible to them in their location – “behind God’s back”.

He introduces himself as a reporter and announcer at Garifuna Radio. He is Owen Baptiste. He is Garifuna.

He hails from Sandy Bay on the northern side of St. Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG). Sandy Bay is known as a Garifuna community. Garifunas are what we would call the Carib or Kalinago people.

In SVG, if you ask about the Garifuna, Sandy Bay is the first place people tend to mention as being a “Garifuna Community.”

“Garifuna radio began on the 12 Jan., 2006. We officially went on air on 14 March 2006,” Baptiste recites for me.

“We are called Garifuna Radio because we are in the vicinity of the community known as the Kalinago – the indigenous community,” he does not wait to be prompted.

“One of our main aims for the radio station was to highlight issues which have been affecting us for a very long time,” he says.
Garifuna Radio, he tells me, started with seven employees who worked “free of charge”. Then the community, realising the workers had bills to pay just like everyone else began making contributions – the workers began receiving stipends. The community also readily became very active participants in the activities hosted by the radio station.

The community, Baptiste tells me, had realised the necessity of a community radio station as they felt cut off from the rest of Vincentian civilisation because of their location.

It was from a UNESCO initiative that the radio station was born.

“Garifuna Radio is the most listened to radio station here in the northern part. We are looking to transmit further into the wider Vincentian populace and also on the Internet but because of the barrier of the Internet service not being available where we are, this is why we’re not reaching out on the live streaming at this time,” he explains.

Garifuna Radio, Baptiste tells me, is “programmed” from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., after which it goes “automated” and as a community radio station, “looks out” for everyone, young, old and middle aged.

Baptiste is not shy in identifying himself as a Garifuna. He attempts to bring me up to speed with the progress of the community. He tells me individuals living in the Garifuna Community are still moving on with their daily lives. The older folks still try, he reveals, to pass on some “tips” on how their ancestors used to live:

“Even though some persons might say ‘why you’re not doing like the Dominicans?’ Well, we think that we keep our culture alive. It’s not gone to the ground. We’re not supposed to be living the way we used to live before,” he reasons.

He tells me they were currently in the process of creating a heritage village in which individuals can catch sight of the ways of yesteryear.
He is solemn as he tells me that they come from a group of people who were scorned and labelled “cannibal”. He remembers that when there was a vacancy in any office or plant, the individual who was Garifuna was always rejected. Fortunately, he says, that is not happening now. That is all in the past:

“Vincentians have started to think ‘these people were the first to be here. They fought to be here.’ So people have started to respect the community of Sandy Bay – black sand beaches and rivers,” he beams.
The 28-year-old Baptiste has been with Garifuna Radio since its inception. Prior to that he worked within the hospitality industry and before that, he was a police officer for almost six years.

According to him, Garifuna Radio plays a great and vital role in reducing the isolation of the indigenous community. It broadcasts issues related to the community or bringing certain events to those who are stuck at home.
“The community relies on us to go out there and bring them information. We do community stories; do a lot of features in the community. Even in St. Lucia, they listen to us. We are looking into live streaming, then people will hear more about Garifuna Radio,” he beams.

The station established by UNESCO is now run through the government via a management board. It operates on 65 per cent local material though Baptiste points out, that they are currently looking at more local materials which might push the content up to close to 100 per cent.

“Maybe we could move up to, I wouldn’t say 100 per cent, because we need to play Caribbean music. Normally, we play some music out of Belize.

“Last year, we did a project on 'Let’s talk Garifuna' and brought in lecturers, and teachers from primary and pre-school. The children gravitated towards that,” he explains.

Though he does not speak the Garifuna tongue, he tells me how proud he is to be Garifuna.

He is happy that everyone in SVG, due largely to the media, is gaining a greater awareness about his people and their special place in history.
He looks away from me and into the distance behind me beaming: “I think everybody respects the culture we have. When they have national activities, we are the first ones they call to perform.”