Monday, October 22, 2018

The Oldest Broadcaster In The Bahamas


1540 ZNS-AM is one of the oldest and strangest radio stations in the West. It is a 50,000 watt station based in the Bahamas, but has the protections of a Class A, clear channel station under NARBA. So it's audible throughout the Bahamas, most of Cuba, and even parts of southeastern Florida. It is the only clear channel station on an island and the only one in the whole Carribean. (Note: Cuba was going to have clear channel stations but they bailed on NARBA in 1959) Despite that Class-A status, ZNS shares a frequency with KXEL in Iowa. This may be a consequence of it operating at only 5,000 watts when NARBA was signed in 1947.

Today ZNS is part of a network is run by the Broadcasting Corporation of the Bahamas (BCB).  It consists of 1540 ZNS-1 AM (and its repeater on 104.5) 1240 ZNS-2 AM, which is simulcast on 107.9 in Nassau; and 810 ZNS-3 AM which simulcast on FM 104.5 in Freeport. Their TV network includes only 2 transmitters - serving Nassau and Freeport. ZNS published an excellent network history in 2006 on their 70th anniversary, 200+ pages [LINK]

ZNS stands for Zephyr Nassau Sunshine. Zephyr apparently means balmy breeze. The book Third World Mass Media and Their Search for Modernity by John Lent describes the station (in 1976) as being "...under the supervision of an independent five-man commission, under the consultation with the prime minister. Actually, however, the prime minister does the appointing of personnel to the Bahamas Broadcasting and Television Comission.  The commission itself is responsible to the minister for internal affairs. ZNS personnel think of the station as neither a public service department nor a public corporation, but something in between it's structures." He goes on to point out that ZNS receives no money from the public treasury... which was not exactly true. But more on that in a bit.

The Bahamas then colonial government launched ZNS as part of the Telegraph Department, just in time for the coronation of Britain’s King George V, on May 12, 1937. (Ham radio was active as early as 1932 ex. VIBAX)  ZNS's first studio location was in the Snappy Hat Shop. By about May of that year they installed a 500 watt transmitter and were broadcasting 2 hours a day. The population of the whole nation of islands was only 66,000. Their programming consisted of BBC news, news from local news papers and a bit of recorded music also from the BBC. Until 1950, ZNS was entirely funded by the government as a non-commercial service. More here.

Their TV service  started in Nassau in 1977, with no specific public charter. Their programming was for entertainment, education, and news. So their aired a mix of everything: music, sitcoms, sports, and dramas. Back then the Bahamanian government argued that it had to protect ZNS from competition and denied "numerous" radio applications to do so. In support of their TV outlet they blocked the deployment of cable television services until 1995! Some of this argument was cultural integrity, similar to Canada's content laws. But there seems a bit more to this.

 In 1992 the BCB tightened up the format to a more CBC, NPR or BBC-like news and public affairs format. But to the ire of Bahamanians, ZNS-TV in particular did little to promote Bahamian culture, but a great deal to promote Bahamian politicians. [I'm paraphrasing pundit Larry Smith there.] LINK ...And by 2006 it was costing the 13 million dollars a year to do so.

Consequently for decades the Bahamanian government and citizens have been at a loss what to do with the network. In 2009, the Bahamanian government slashed its funding by 50%. In 2010 Michael Moss of the BCB proposed they add a cable television fee to fund the station, specifically stating that "Creating a new funding system tied to specific legislated sources of revenue will reinforce ZNS’ autonomy as a public service broadcaster..." the news outlet Bahamas B2B called the plan "crazy" though the BBC is funded similarly.

The Nassau Guardian newspaper asked rhetorically in 2011 if the station should exist at all. [LINK] The URCA (Utilities Regulation & Competition Authority) proposed just days later that the government to put more money into the Broadcasting Corporation of The Bahamas if it is to fulfill its planned public service function. The problem gets lip service from politicians, but little more and the stalemate continues to this day. [LINK]