Q&A With Stephen King, Director of the BBC World Trust Service

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A not-for-profit unit in the BBC, the BBC World Trust Service focuses on issues in the developing world and in the last decade has worked in over 40 developing countries, helping to train staff at broadcasters and working local media outlets develop programming. The radio, TV and increasingly new media programming they develop in those markets with local talent in local languages is designed to a social impact, and provide people with better information about health education, governance, human rights, and a number of other issues. But, as the Trust’s director explains in a lengthy interview with the editor, the focus isn’t just public service spots and talk shows; the Trust has also created a number of soaps and other entertainment programs that are meant to entertain as well as educate.

Q: You do a lot of work in developing markets like Cambodia where broadcasters have very few resources. Tell our readers a little about some of the work you did in Cambodia?

A: We produced a medical drama in Cambodia with funding from the Department of International Development, which is the U.K.’s aid arm.

We always do research [to see what will work best] and we found that the most popular programs were imported, dubbed Thai and Chinese dramas. There was no indigenous Khmer language drama at all and very few locally produced programs.

In markets like India and Nigeria where you have a strong film and TV market, we work with local producers but because there wasn’t much of an infrastructure in Cambodia, we had to bring in outside expertise. We brought in Matthew Robinson, who was first executive producer of EastEnders, which is a very popular in U.K. soap. He set up the production from scratch by going to Universities, karaoke bars, you name it, to find actors and we trained from editors, directors and the rest of the crew from scratch.

In the end, it was a huge success, which was being watched by 67% of the TV audience on a regular basis. It was the first drama produced in Khmer and unashamedly a soap opera with all the interplay between the doctors and nurses you would expect. But it was also a fantastic vehicle to explore issues around maternal and child health and AIDs.

Q: How hard is it to sustain those kinds of productions in markets like Cambodia where most of the programming is imported and the TV industry is very limited?

A: Markets like Cambodia are obviously much more of a challenge then a market like India that has a very vibrant industry. In a market like that, one of the challenges is setting up an industry and training people from scratch.

Then, once the donor money runs out, the issue becomes “how do you sustain that?”

In Cambodia, Mathew Robinson created a local film company that is now making programs for the local TV and as we start to develop more of these in the future, we’ll need to find a way to attract investors at an early stage. That is where the more conventional film industry and perhaps some of the more entrepreneurial foundation could play more of a role.

Q: Another difficult market where you’ve done some work is Afghanistan. How do you see the media developing there?

A: We’ve had a long history of working in Afghanistan, though mainly from outside up until the fall of the Taliban.

We had a very successful radio soap opera which has been produced for about 12 years in Persian and Pashto called New Home, New Life. During the Taliban period our BBC services were one of the only sources of information people were getting and the soap opera was hugely popular because it one of the only ways people had of being entertained. We didn’t have much competition from the state owned broadcaster.

We always send in research and evaluation teams to see what kind of impact our programs are having and we did that even during the Taliban period.

On one occasion, one of our teams was stopped by the Taliban and asked “have you seen anyone from the BBC? We hear that they are in the area.”

The team said no, they hadn’t seen the BBC. They explained that they were just on their way to a cousin’s wedding, which was the cover story our teams used because we couldn’t operate in the country.

The Taliban troops gave them a knowing look and said “well if you do see them ask them what is going to be happening to the lead character in the upcoming episodes. The local commander is interested in finding out.”

So we knew people were listening.

Since the fall of the Taliban is we’ve relocated our production to Kabul and now we are producing two programs a week in Persian and Pashto. In addition to the drama, we are also producing discussion, educational and kids programs on the radio and we do a lot of work to train and support Afghan journalists.

TV is just starting to take off. There are private TV stations in Kabul and some are beginning to be started in other parts of the country. So, we’re talking with some TV production people to see if we could do a TV show that would be a spin-off of some of the popular characters of the radio drama.

Q: You have also done some work in Iraq?

A: We have helped set up an independent TV and radio station Al-Mirbad in the Southern city of Basra in 2004. Because of the security situation, we had to withdraw any international advisors we had by the end of 2004. So we were providing support to a TV and radio setup that was entirely Iraqi run and we’ve worked with them to produce a mix of news, current affairs, discussion programming, children programs and entertainment.

It has now gained a very strong reputation for independent broadcasting and has carved out an identity for itself as a regional broadcaster.

Under Saddam Hussein and even now a lot of media and TV had been centralized in Baghdad. There are Kurdish TV companies in the north, but not a lot of independent broadcasters in the south. So having an independent view and covering local issues have been important for them.

Q: Articles on TV in Iraq have noted that there has been an explosion of TV stations but that many of the stations are allied with a particular political faction. Is that you sense as well?

A: Absolutely. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, there was a massive explosion in media outlets--radio, TV and newspapers. A lot of those fizzled out quite quickly and the market has shrunk quite a lot, partly because there hasn’t been that much advertising available…and there has been a growth in politically aligned media.

I think where Al-Mirbad has succeeded has been in steering to the middle ground, giving equal voice to all groups and parties, maintaining an independent perspective and covering local issues.

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