Saudi Broadcasting Corporation marked its 50th anniversary with a grand celebration on April 20, 2014. In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Abdulrahman Al Hazza’a, President of Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, talks about the journey of Saudi TV and Riyadh Radio over the past five decades, the organisation’s priorities and his vision for the media entity […]
Saudi Broadcasting Corporation marked its 50th anniversary with a grand celebration on April 20, 2014. In an exclusive interview with Vijaya Cherian, Abdulrahman Al Hazza’a, President of Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, talks about the journey of Saudi TV and Riyadh Radio over the past five decades, the organisation’s priorities and his vision for the media entity
Last month, hundreds of Saudi nationals working in the broadcast sector gathered at King Fahd Cultural Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Saudi TV and Riyadh Radio. Abdulaziz bin Mohieddin Khoja, Minister of Culture and Information, and Abdulrahman Al Hazza’a, President of Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, were some of the dignitaries who participated in the event.
The evening began with a spectacular stage performance that combined drama and audio-visual elements, and took the audience on a nostalgic journey, recreating those days when Riyadh Radio and later, Saudi TV were introduced. This performance was interspersed with footage from some of the best programmes and musicals broadcast over the years on Saudi TV and it immediately created a feeling of oneness with members of the audience, who began to clap and sing along as some of them were played on screen.
Entirely produced in-house by SBC staff, it encapsulated the broadcast entitys journey over the last five decades.
At the end of the presentation, all of the six previous Ministers of Information who had led the broadcast entity since its launch, were commended for their contributions.
Perhaps one significant difference between Saudi Arabia and some of the other GCC countries is that its media entity is primarily manned by Saudi nationals be it on the programming side, operations or even those serving their delicious native tea. What is even more comforting is the stability the organisation enjoys, with most of the management having served in different departments over the years and worked their way up the ladder.
The same is true of Abdulrahman Al Hazza’a, who was appointed the first President of Saudi Broadcasting Corporation last year by royal decree. Last month, Al Hazza’a also completed 40 years in the media industry. The golden jubilee of Saudi Broadcasting Corporation, therefore, served as a double celebration for the President.
I have also completed 40 years in the media this month. I feel at home here; it is a familiar environment for me, says Al Hazza’a, who began his career as a news editor in 1975 in Saudi Arabia and then moved on to work in radio, TV, the press and the ministries in various roles, acquainting himself with every part of the business all the way from content, engineering, operations and more importantly, the management side of the business.
I was associated with Saudi Press Agency and was General Director of TV news for 15 years. I was in the thick of the newsgathering process at one point, when we covered the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf War and other major events in the region. I understand politics and how the ministries operate while I have also been in operations. Today, the experience I have gained over the last 40 years working in the media in Saudi Arabia has helped me hugely in this position, he says.
Saudi Arabia is like no other GCC country. As Al Hazza’a points out, our country is so large, its almost like a continent.
We have 13 provinces, which needed to be connected, he says.
As a result, every project that the government entity has had to undertake to equip each of these provinces and connect them and build the broadcast infrastructure from the ground up has been massive and runs into millions of dollars.
We have started building centres in each province. We have radio and TV studios as well as OB vans deployed all over the nation to cover events. These are all linked to our central headquarters in Riyadh, explains Al Hazza’a.
Our plan is for the main Riyadh station to complete the transition to full HD in the coming months. Our news channels are all HD. We have the 24/7 Makkah and Madinah channels that are already in full HD. Achieving these goals involved long-term planning and a phased approach. With the support of our staff and others directly or indirectly involved in our projects, we have successfully moved towards fulfilling these goals, he says.
Therefore, the 50th anniversary of SBC was indeed worthy of celebration, according to the President.
We have come a long way in the last 50 years and this occasion gave us an opportunity to look at the past and plan for the future. As you saw, the turnout was great. It was such an overwhelming experience. But it was an opportunity to see what the journey was like. Our past is built on a solid foundation from where we have a good view of the future, he says.
As part of the celebrations, attendees were privy to a small exhibition of photos spanning fifty years of Saudi TV’s existence and a showcase of some equipment now obsolete both from the radio and the TV side of the business. While the latter gave us the opportunity to view some really old broadcasting technology, the former offered us a quick view of some of the milestones in SBCs history.
In the meantime, Al Hazza’a is well aware of the need to move with the times, both in terms of the technology as well as audience expectations.
We are dealing with a more vocal audience today a new generation with different aspirations. Our viewers have now become our partners and have a greater role to play in our growth. They no longer merely receive content but also generate content. Their needs influence what we offer not just in terms of programming but also how we offer it i.e. the platforms we use to reach out to them. We no longer control the viewers; they also seem to exercise some control over us, he explains.
Al Hazza’a himself is very active on Twitter with 35,000 plus followers and responds personally to the queries he receives on Twitter.
You have to understand your audience and what better way than to be amongst them to hear what they to say, he says.
We have hundreds of channels that are competing for the viewers attention. Our people are now well travelled; they are educated and their minds are open, so as they’re exposed to more, their expectations are much higher.
When asked how SBC can possibly take its content forward when the religious and cultural norms of the country demand a more conservative approach, Al Hazza’a makes one point clear: We are at the heart of the Islamic world and this places a huge responsibility on us. We are very proud of this identity and do not desire to become someone else.
In fact, I made a promise to the King last year, when I was appointed President of SBC that religion would be our first priority and our country, next. I have a huge onus to take the station forward keeping in mind our Islamic and cultural traditions.
So yes, we are well aware that we have to operate within that mandate. But I believe we can use that to our advantage rather than being tied down by it, he explains.
Already, the two channels broadcast out of Saudi Arabia one for the Holy Quran and the other for Sunnah, which broadcasts from Makkah and Madinah are hugely popular, claims Al Hazza’a.
In fact, when Saudi nationals travel abroad, they tune in to these channels to stay connected to their home. Muslims all over the world love to watch the holy mosque.
We also have a Quran radio station. We have religious programming through our TV station but our role doesnt end there. We realise we have to integrate Islam into a more modern society and we are aware that we need to make religious programming more appealing to the younger audience, so we have to constantly reinvent our offerings. We are looking to encourage a cultural dialogue to bridge the gap between different religions. Islam is our first priority and it is our responsibility to show it in a good light.
Besides religion, Saudi TV has also invested heavily in sports content and this has attracted a huge local audience as well.
We want to be in step with the times but we have no desire to shed our identity, reiterates Al Hazza’a.
The idea is to make the content we provide more palatable to a younger generation and I believe we have begun taking steps on that front.
Also, the broadcast entity is evolving on several other levels.
While the attempt to make content more attractive is one, the entity is also due to open a huge training centre in Riyadh in August 2014 to upgrade the skills of its staff before opening it out to the public.
We need to train our staff to make the maximum use of the technology that we have deployed, says Al Hazza’a.
The project is underway and is located just across the street from our headquarters. We have two HD studios and radio stations as well as a training lounge there.
“We are in talks with training centres abroad to bring in experts to conduct workshops and training programmes in all fields of radio and TV from content creation to production and editing. This facility is due to open in August 2014. It will cater to our staff primarily but eventually, we will also allow film and television schools to offer training here. Rather than sending our people abroad, which may be culturally very different to Saudi Arabia, this facility will offer everything under one roof in the same environment, where they will work, continues Al Hazza’a.
Essentially, it will be like field training, which we cannot have if we train them in London or Paris. We may not be able to conduct many courses at the same time. Here, we could host one course very month. It’s just more practical, he says.
This is part of the change that Al Hazza’a has initiated since he took charge of SBC. Al Hazza’a has a huge task ahead of him as SBC has inherited around 7000 employees from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.
It’s not going to be easy, he confides. Our real challenge was to absorb all of the Ministrys staff and use them efficiently. Many of them are old school but we have to try and take them forward. At least, one hundred of our staff will retire this year. It gives our organisation an opportunity to hire young people, who will come with new ideas and help take SBC forward.
Saudi Broadcasting Corporation is also revamping its web site, which is scheduled to relaunch this month.
The new web site will have information about each channel in the SBC bouquet. We will also soon launch a YouTube channel to offer catchup TV for our viewers. A mobile application for our TV station is also on the cards. There’s a lot to do but we will get there, Al Hazza’a promises.