No glitz or glam

If you think the world of television is all glamour and glitz you obviously haven't visited the studio for Soweto TV in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West.

If you think the world of television is all glamour and glitz you obviously haven't visited the studio for Soweto TV in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West.

Housed in the abandoned Thloreng Primary School, the conditions are challenging.

Broken windows, doors and chairs strewn about and a precariously hanging ceiling that looks ready to implode at any moment.

In fact, even the "Recording Studio" sign is hanging upside down.

All this in what is probably the most famous street in Soweto.

But despite the conditions they have to work in, a group of 40 aspiring producers, cameramen, announcers, researchers and reporters enthusiastically go about the business of producing daily news updates and programmes for the greater Soweto area.

Having received a temporary licence in 2005 and 2006 for limited broadcast times, they hit the jackpot last July when the Independent Broadcasting Authority granted them permission to broadcast daily for a year.

Based on the community television structure so popular in many overseas countries, Soweto TV is striving to make an impact on a playing field dominated by giants.

Head of programming Steve Mokwena says: "Of course, we can't compete with the likes of, SABC etc, but what we are trying to do is bring quality TV shows and news to the people of Soweto."

Having joined the station last November, Mokwena is only too aware of the challenges facing his organisation.

"The majority of the young people working here are volunteers with no experience at all in television, but what they lack in knowledge they make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to learn.

"It is a particularly challenging situation for me. Part of my job is to equip these youngsters with the skills to become a force in the media industry," says Mokwena.

A father of three young children himself, this historian, writer and curator - with his dreadlocks and wooden pendant of Africa dangling from his neck - is passionate about what he does and oozes enthusiasm.

"On the one hand you have young people who need opportunities and, on the other hand, you have a community station that needs talent."

Born in Rockville, Soweto, Mokwena has studied and worked around the world - from the giddy heights of Paris to the glitzy lights of Latin America - but you get the impression that it is in the dusty streets of Soweto that he is most at home.

"Soweto is the theatre of an ongoing drama. It is not just a geographical space, but a window into how people are living in the 21st century. It is a kaleidoscope of people's experiences and we aim to bring this to our viewers."

Training and educating the youth is one of his passions.

He explains: "We are busy working on a model where young people will come and learn and work and then go on to bigger things.

"The volunteers come from various backgrounds. Some have degrees and others have very little formal education, but we are trying to accommodate them all in a training programme.

"At the end of the day we see ourselves as a feeder to the bigger stations, where our students will enter, survive and strive in this challenging industry.

"Everyone is welcome, but not everyone is suited to what we do here," says Mokwena.

Talk to just about anyone about the new entrant into the broadcasting world and the comments are usually unflattering.

To his credit Mokwena takes it on the chin. He admits all is not well and it's a long road he and his team have to travel.

"We know from our end some things are not working. The two basic building blocks of television - picture and sound - we can do much better.

"In terms of programming mix and strategy we definitely need an overhaul. There are challenges, but it is up to my team and I to meet those challenges and overcome any obstacles we encounter," Mokwena says.

As with any business, it's the bottom line that determines whether a company survives or folds, and Soweto TV will be no different.

Chasing advertising is a ruthless business.

Whether it be for newspapers, radio, TV and more recently Internet sites, it's the advertising revenue that keeps a product afloat and this is something Mokwena is acutely aware of.

"Not only have we recently seen an increase in advertising, but a number of advertisers are waiting to see what happens when we reapply to extend our licence next July," he says.

"Hopefully it will be for four years, which will be great for us in terms of generating advertising revenue. It will give a stability to the product and that is always something advertisers look for."

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