MEMBER DG INTERVIEWS published on 17 May 2021

Interview with Zurab Alasania, Director General of UA:PBC from 2014 to 2021

Interview with Zurab Alasania, Director General of UA:PBC from 2014 to 2021
Zurab Alasania

Zurab Alasania, Director General of UA:PBC from March 2014 to May 2021, talks to Radka Betcheva, Head of Member Relations Central and Eastern Europe.

You were the first Director General of a public service media organisation in the Ukraine. Can you explain the journey of changing a rigid state organization into a public broadcaster?

When we began the process of reform there was a history of almost 90 years of state broadcasting in the Ukraine. A significant number of problems had accumulated, both financial and organizational, as well as technological. However, the biggest problem was the human factor. We’ve been through three phases. The first was about building a common goal. People in the company weren’t used to working together around a common idea. There was simply a routine of coming to work at 9am and staying until 6pm. In the second phase, people united around preserving the old order and resisting reform. It’s crazy, but even negative ideas can unify people. The third phase is now. While about 5% of staff continue to obstruct reform, over half have accepted it and the rest are actively supportive and engaged. The numbers supporting reform (35%) are actually much higher than the average in the Ukraine. And this is not the end of the reforms.

However, we also have to look at the human factor outside the company: audience and stakeholders. Here the picture is different. Following the wave of emotion after the revolution of 2014 people expected immediate change under new leadership. However, the whole company had to change for the content to change. The idea was to eliminate the toxic content and ensure independent development.

UA:PBC is a big enterprise with two national channels, 24 regional channels, 26 radio channels, a recording house, music groups and an online presence. You have changed the regional structure. Why was this necessary?

As part of the restructuring into PSM we were required to integrate all state media entities across the country. Today, the regions are the greatest hope for the development of UA:PBC and a distinctive feature in the national media landscape. As regions across the Ukraine adopt more decentralization, we have a unique opportunity to react first to these changes thanks to our strong local presence. We call this hyperlocal achievement of news. We start with the branches and build up into the regions.

Our model is one strong national channel with windows for different regions at certain times of the day. We will continue to offer third-party content from Kiev, like shows, films, entertainment programmes, sport, while local news, debates and talk shows will be produced in the regions.

Financing is a challenge. The EBU recommended 0.39% of the annual state budget for financing UA:PBC. However, the government made a very simple calculation, taking all the budgets of all companies and coming up with 0.2 %. This was a simplistic calculation, not a formula that was thought through and it was without a plan or development. They just put together everything and voilà, work with it.

UA:PBC has good trust figures but a low audience share. How do you explain this?

We rank in the top three of media companies in the Ukraine for public trust. This also reflects our efforts during the pandemic when people needed to get precise and verified information of what was going on and our audience grew. When the worst of the crisis was over, audiences went back to their favourite channels to look for entertaining content.

Audience measurements are only done for our main channel, UA Pershiyi, and this explains why the picture suggests low audience share. However, weekly reach is 16 million, which is one third of the population. For UA Pershiyi, we inherited the audience of the former state broadcaster. This is an aging audience of 45-65 plus across the Ukraine, including in cities with population of fewer than 50,000 people. This audience is conservative and also loyal. When we removed what I call archaic, toxic content, we lost this audience. We need to bring them back with entertainment programmes. For younger audiences, from children to 45, we will reach them via our digital platforms (mobile …), which we have been ramping up over the last six months and they have become one of the five information leaders in the country.

So, you are not too worried about the audience share?

Of course, we do worry because stakeholders demand audience share. We know a certain type of content can deliver audiences and ratings. And we also know this is different from the remit of public service media, where it is more difficult to get audience and good ratings. At the beginning of the pandemic, public service media had to show lessons from first to eleventh grade during the pandemic. The audience ratings were close to zero, but the social value was high. 

You personally moderated pre-election programs for presidential and general elections in the newly formed public service media. Your style got a lot of attention. You basically invented a new style of political dialogue with no taboos. Why?

MPs and the government think that the state budget, including the public broadcasting budget, is their own money. They think, inappropriately, that they give us their money and we don’t give them visibility in return. We invite them on air, but the terms have changed. Before, it was a microphone, the MP and a monologue. Now we tell them: here is the expert, here is the journalist and here is the MP – the floor is yours! But this is not what they want, and they refuse. So, when the time comes for parliament to discuss the budget, they crack our neck with great pleasure, and we get maximum 64% of the budget. This immediately impacts on our procurement, and our ability to buy high-end entertainment content and, as a consequence, we are losing audience. In effect, we don’t just need to reform the broadcaster from state media into public service, but also the political culture.

You refused to be a mouthpiece for a rigid state/government propaganda and at one point even handed in your resignation.

Journalism and propaganda should be clearly separated. This is one of the most important principles. Now the world is changing with a new concept of “healthy propaganda”. And they talk about war, that we need to support… I received severe blows even from journalist colleagues! I strongly believe that we should not betray good journalism. Good common sense should prevail and good journalism shouldn’t be the last bastion! 

With regard to time for MPs in our programmes, we have two laws, which complicates the situation. One is about the status of MPs and the other about public service media. According to the first law, we are supposed to give MPs 260 hours of time on TV per month and 75 hours on radio. The law on public service media does not have such requirements. So, the laws are in conflict with one another. We were using them and refusing the time to MPs.

What would be your advice to new DGs who are exposed to political pressure?

This is the biggest question of my life. The roles of journalism and media have changed, and they have changed very fast. In the last 10 years there have been tremendous changes in technology and in business models. This means that the way we were operating will not work anymore. However, we have not yet found a new model. Why do people need us? This question continues to pursue me.

Professional journalists and the media need to work together to survive in this period. I am convinced that people in this age of more populism and chaos still need factual and trustworthy information to take an informed choice. But it’s difficult to say how long this will last. I believe that professional associations like the EBU will help Members survive. No other option will work. We have to help each other.  

UA:PBC has been under constant financial pressure, receiving about half of the funding prescribed in the law. How have you been managing this?

We take a pragmatic approach. We know that the government “loves us” and we prepare three options in the financial plan—minimal, middle and maximal—and develop plans for the next year accordingly. When budget talks reach the final stage and we have a sense of the outcome, we are already prepared to adapt. In most cases, cuts cover administrative costs. Even within a minimal budget we always find some money for development, but that’s why the reforms are slow to implement. We have built a solid and strong foundation, but people want to get in the building and have the light, metaphorically speaking. If there is no light, there is frustration. Our home is still not fully ready and alive.

This year is the first when you are going to get the full budget.

Formally, we have the full budget. Capital expenditure is about 40% of the budget. However, the government has transferred this part to a new fund created this year, which gets income from the gambling industry. We are not counting on this money and we haven’t received it so far.

What have been the main impacts of the pandemic on UA:PBC? How has it changed your leadership style and communication?

First, I would like to pay tribute the people who got infected by COVID-19. We have 4,200 employees and until now only 451 cases. Two people have died, of whom one was a confirmed victim of COVID-19.

We developed strict and thorough protocols, with clear instructions on how to proceed when a colleague gets sick. We also managed to transfer all meetings online and get colleagues to work from home. There have been financial consequences, of course, with 10% of our budget cut in 2020. In terms of content, we launched news marathons both on radio and TV. We focused on a calm tone based on verified information. We kept the public informed on a daily basis and addressed practical problems.

The management team of UA:PBC is small, with six members. We decided that the management team would mainly work from home except for one member who worked exclusively from home, so someone would be able to take over if needed.

Communication has become more distant, from a small office where I held all my meetings to a big conference room and social distancing. I have had to compensate for distance with better interpersonal skills.

There is some irony in the situation. I have always believed you should work whenever it’s suitable for you. But as long as we have a state budget, this was considered impossible. Now, work flexibility has become mandatory and we are closer to the more modern way of functioning of tech companies, wherever you want and whenever you want. The result is most important. And this works very well most of the time. The company has become more flexible. We have accelerated the transfer to electronic file exchange. Initially, we invested less in software development, but now we have accelerated the process because we need it. The team has worked faster and we have practically concluded this transition.

Modern leadership is a lot about empowering people and encouraging their creativity. Is this applicable in a broadcaster coming from a recent history of extensive state control?

We have not fully emerged from a state straitjacket, so it works badly – this is the truth. The state continues to budget the company, is suspicious and doesn’t understand experiments. You know that you have to make ten programmes because only five may get broadcast. And then comes the state for regular inspections (we have 12 inspections a year). They open their eyes wide and ask what you have spent the money on. Every day is a battle.

This year we will create a research and development department to test different ideas. We will finance this activity from advertising revenue that we can spend in a much freer way than state money.

You leave UA:PBC after seven years at the helm. Do you believe in the future of public broadcasting?

I absolutely believe in the future of public broadcasting. I think that in 10-15 years people will either come back to common sense and will look for trustworthy information or there will be no place to come back. Really, either we all lose all sense and everything is finished, or people will come back to a normal reasonability and common sense.

Our European partners and in particular our colleagues, our partners and the EBU have done more than the state to help us develop. It seems the EBU wanted the reforms more than the state. For all these last years it seems to me that without this international and diplomatic support they would have closed us.

Contact detail

Radka Betcheva
Head of Member Relations Central and Eastern Europe

+41 22 717 2006