[Viewpoint] Dramatic changes at MBCIt’s been widely known that the origin of the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation was the Busan Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation. Busan MBC was created when Jeong Hwan-ok, who operated a radio store in Busan, recommended that Kim Sang-yong, a former department owner who had been searching for a new business opportunity, launch a private broadcast station. At the time, Japan’s broadcasting waves dominated Korea’s southern coastal areas and radios often picked up Japanese programs.
The Postal Ministry at the time permitted Busan MBC to operate, and Busan MBC aired its first program on April 15, 1959, opening up the era of private commercial broadcasting.
Busan MBC, however, soon faced hardship. Facilities investments were critical, but it was not easy for investors to pay for their stakes. While production costs were so much higher than estimated, income from advertising was small.
The country was then hit by the notorious Typhoon Sarah, and the economy faced more problems. Not long after, the broadcaster faced a management crisis, and in September 1959, the company was sold to Kim Ji-tae, who owned Busan Ilbo at the time.
After Kim’s takeover, the broadcast corporation was rejuvenated. A protest erupted in Masan, South Gyeongsang to denounce the outcome of a general election one year after the takeover, and Busan MBC reported on the situation quickly, despite government oppression. Busan MBC played a crucial role in helping the movement in Masan to spread to Busan and Daegu. When the April revolution succeeded, the Democratic administration of Chang Myon praised Busan MBC’s contribution to democratization and gave it an award.
Believing that there were limits to managing a broadcast station outside the capital city, Kim decided to launch a private broadcaster in Seoul. In 1959, the Postal Ministry had already approved four broadcasters’ operation in Seoul. Kim, therefore, purchased the right to operate a broadcaster and launched a network in 1961. MBC, the first commercial, private broadcasting network, was established in Seoul on Dec. 2 of that year.
At 6 a.m. on the launch day, MBC aired the national anthem and the company song. Then, “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s “Aida” was played as background music and Choi Gye-hwan, the chief anchor, declared that the broadcaster was formally in operation. The broadcaster’s executives and staff shed tears of joy. Although MBC had suffered some financial hardships during its early stage, advertising soon flooded in and the broadcaster’s business stabilized shortly after the launch.
Although MBC intended to enjoy its “triumphal march” to success longer, the network faced an unexpected challenge. Kim, the owner, was denounced by the Park Chung Hee government as a corrupt businessman.
Under immense pressure, Kim eventually surrendered his rights to Busan MBC and Busan Ilbo to the May 16 Scholarship Foundation in May 1962. The military regime, which won the power through a coup d’etat, used the same force to seize the management rights of the MBC group.
Even after the scholarship foundation became the largest stakeholder, MBC maintained its qualities as a private broadcaster. However, it had to undergo a number of changes after the military regime of Chun Doo Hwan forcibly shut down the nation’s media on Nov. 14, 1980. MBC was forced to hand over 70 percent of its stake in 1981, losing its title as a private broadcaster.
The state then invested the MBC stake into the Korea Broadcasting System, making KBS the largest stakeholder in MBC. Through such an extraordinary process, MBC became a public broadcaster.
In 1988, an act on broadcasting and culture promotion was established and MBC became a public service corporation under the law. The Foundation for Broadcast Culture was established under this law and the foundation became the largest stakeholder in MBC by subscribing to 70 percent of MBC’s shares.
This means the government has the right to appoint the board of directors of the foundation, and the broadcaster’s independence became nothing more than an empty slogan.
MBC is about to see more dramatic changes. Although the newly appointed head of the Foundation of Broadcast Culture said it was merely his personal opinion, it was made clear that the network will be privatized.
The plan has been anticipated, but it is not an issue to be decided by the foundation, which is formed by the advocates of political interests. Of course, it’s not a matter to be decided by the government. People’s opinions should be surveyed and opinions of those who have built MBC must be respected.
MBC must now head down a path that ends with self-ownership, looking toward what’s good for the people, rather than being guided by the will of political power.
The writer is a professor at Korea University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
by Kim Min-hwan