/In Conversation with Mr. Shashi Shekar

In Conversation with Mr. Shashi Shekar

Mr. Shashi Shekhar Vempati has been the Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati Broadcasting Corp. since June 2017 and has been its Part-Time Director since February 19, 2016. An IIT Bombay alumnus, he has worked as a Product Strategist and Digital Innovator at Infosys for more than 16 years and was responsible for incubating many cutting edge technology-based Digital Innovations and Initiatives working globally with Fortune 500 clients across various sectors including Retail/CPG to Mobile, Digital Services and Energy/Utilities and others.
In April 2013, he shifted gears and joined a News Media Platform named NitiCentral.com as the CEO. He has also played a crucial role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Mission 272+ during the General Elections 2014. Shashi Shekhar Vempati has also been crowned with the Dataquest Pathbreaker Award for Innovation 2014 on behalf of PM Narendra Modi’s Digital Campaign for 2014 elections. Vox Populi got the opportunity to interview Mr. Shashi Shekhar Vempati during his visit to the campus.

Q. There’s a lot of discussion about fake news that needs to be controlled in journalism. How can established media bodies, which have accountability over their content as compared to perpetrators of fake news, combat fake news, given the high pace at which fake news spreads?

I believe that we need to address fake news at multiple levels. The most common form of fake news is morphing photographs or putting up wrong photographs. This form can be tackled easily through technology if all the industry bodies come together. Collective action to ensure verifiability of available content is easily achievable and important at the baseline level. The second step is the fact-checking websites that authenticate content. But often even the fact-checkers get it wrong or the time involved in the verification process allows the fake-news to spread to a large number of people. The fastest counter to these problems is an individual response. If you’re someone who verifies content credibly and consistently then your influencer base will trust you as far as flagging fake-news is concerned.
I don’t think that any one solution will solve it and we’ll have to address the issue at all these levels. The need of the hour is a culture of vigilance. Most of the people unthinkingly consume information, assuming it to be true because their relatives or friends shared the information. There is no natural instinct to question the available information even if it doesn’t look to be true. So what we need to create is that culture of vigilance and questioning so that you don’t just automatically take what is dished out and put in the effort to go to the next level of checking. I think that if that happens together with all these measures then we can combat fake-news.

Q. DD News and All India Radio are probably not that popular with the youth of the country. How can we increase the popularity of such mediums so that the youth is motivated to consume more from these channels?

The first step for this is engagement, because if we don’t engage with the youth then we don’t know what they want. One of the things that I have been pushing is to have more engagement with the audience. The easiest way to engage is through social media. We’ve taken the first step towards achieving this and have created a social media presence. Right now it’s a one-way conversation where we are just blasting information and we are not really listening. The next step will be to start listening to people and engage better. The third step is through our app where we’ll have more interactive features to take feedback and do surveys. The fourth step that we have planned is going to be the most interesting step. We plan to involve the youth in content creation. One day of the week we plan to invite students to run the newsroom. These kinds of experiments will ensure that we develop the kinds of formats that the youth can relate to. Being more open to experimentation and innovation is ultimately what will get us that engagement.

Q. How can we improve the global reach of public broadcasting channels to have a greater presence in international journalism?

There are two paths to this. The first one is the traditional path of terrestrial TV, satellite TV and so on. On that front, we have to tie-up with various entities as we have done with Korea. Subsequently, we’ll move on to other countries for collaboration to get us the traditional reach. The other, faster path will be the digital path. We’re not looking for mass reach by targeting the entire population of other countries. Rather, we want to target the opinion makers and influencers, a large part of whom are moving to digital media in most democracies. Our approach for them would be to have DD India along with our app and all our international content from our radio be packaged in a digital interface which can then be used to target these segments in other countries. These will be the two paths that we will use.

Q. There appears to be a gap in what the rural population is consuming and what the urban population is consuming. For example, print media is still popular in rural areas whereas it’s not as popular in urban areas. Is it necessary to bridge that gap?

No, I don’t think that it’s necessary to reduce that gap. In a democracy of our size, we often miss out on this and this is my biggest complaint with the foreign media as well when they report on India. They go by the opinion of the English media of Delhi which is catering to a micro-minority of the country, while India is a much more diverse and a much more complex. If you look at it, the US is the next closest democracy and is one-fourth of our size. So basically when you are reporting on India, that means you are reporting on four United States put together. We need to take in mind the complexity and diversity of India and understand that this is not going to change overnight. Hence, I don’t think that we have to bridge the gap, instead, we have to understand why those different gaps exist and report accordingly. For example for the north-east, English is very important apart from their local languages. So some of my best English content is actually getting created in the north-east.

Q. Would it be possible to create quality content for both the sectors, given that we have a divide in what the two sectors consume?

That precisely is the challenge of the public broadcast sector. The private sector will never report in 23 languages and 178 dialects as we do in the public broadcast sector. We have to be relevant in all those segments and all those languages and yet do it in an interesting way. And hence, technology is going to be important in the way forward. For example, if I create some high-value content, I should not have to produce the same thing in a hundred languages. Instead, technology should allow me to disseminate that content in all these languages.

Q. What should be the role of campus journalism bodies in campuses like IITs and IIMs and how should these journalism bodies be progressing?

I have a very strong view that campus journalism is a natural segue to public broadcast. If you look at the United States, for example, many of the public radio stations are actually operated of campuses. The community radio model is a viable method, but that has limited reach. I think that there should be a lot more synergy between the talent within campuses and the airtime on public broadcasting so that a lot more content is generated and to enhance our engagement with youth.
I believe that there is a second aspect to campus journalism. When we were in IITs, it was a different era where the IITs were a little shy of taking a stance on the larger issues of the country. IITs were like an island, completely disconnected from the rest of the country in that sense. Campus journalism has a second role which is to spread more awareness and to ensure more engagement with the issues of the country. In that light, campus journalism is essential in engaging the broader community with the IITs.

Q. Any final message for the young readers who follow Vox Populi.

I think it’s a great time to be young. You have the right kind of leadership and the right kind of environment in the country. An enabling environment has been created across India where we have access to technology and capital and a lot of investment is being made in the country. When we were graduating, to think of a start-up was just impossible because you wouldn’t have had the money or the ecosystem which would have incubated you and given you a springboard. Now all of that exists and it’s a great time to be here. So don’t think small and don’t think individual, think big and think for the country.

Credits: Kushagra Gupta, and Anmol Chaman