THE CALMING RAYS OF CATHODE © Duncan Graham 2007
Cynics claim that owning a television station licence is like having a permit to print money. Read on to learn about a TV mogul who's licensed to spend, not earn.
Mogul? In this case the cap doesn't fit bald Bhiku Dhammavijayo, boss of East Java's Dhamma TV, a station with no advertising.
This means viewers can enjoy a programme from go to whoa without being urged to purge dandruff and find true romance, ride a motorbike that never sees thicket-thick traffic, or whiten skin for instant popularity.
With this most welcome quality there has to be a downside; no police reality shows where ghouls gape at corpses, sinetrons (soapies) with lovelorn teens - or news. The first two are no loss, but a telecaster without breathless reports on the day's events is like a warung with no rice.
"All other stations have news so you can turn to them, then come back to us," said Dhammavijayo breaking the first commandment of a television producer: Thou shalt not suggest viewers might finger the remote control once they're married to your wavelength.
But Dhammavijayo has smashed all conventional ideas about this rapacious industry and the people who feed its hungry jaws. Yet again a correction is necessary – for Dhamma TV the metaphor is too brutal.
"We always seek the peaceful way," he said. "We must be positive, never negative. We must develop goodness.
"The programs we transmit must not disadvantage people. They must not be dangerous or cause suffering. What's important is what we can give, not what we can get."
When he's not calling the shots, woops, calmly directing activities among the 15 staff and numerous volunteers at Indonesia's only Buddhist TV station, Dhammavijayo is a monk. (Dhamma means the teachings of Buddha).
Born in Surabaya into a Buddhist family with a car accessories business he found information on the religion's teachings hard to find. This was during the Soeharto era when the regime's steel grip on politics, information and the economy extended to faith.
He went to Thailand for eight years and trained in monasteries. On returning to his homeland he became a missionary and publisher, distributing books and pamphlets about Buddhism around the archipelago.
While this was fine, the message wasn't reaching the masses. "At every monastery I visited I urged them to open a radio or TV station," he said. "All agreed it was a good idea but only at Samarinda (in East Kalimantan) did they start broadcasting.
"Most thought the job too big or impossible to achieve. So I had to do it myself."
By now the Orde Baru era had ended and with it the rigid controls on telecasting. New licences became available – all you needed was kilowatts of cash and a contact list of mates in high places. But the Buddhists were able to do things differently.
"Actually it wasn't difficult at all," said Dhammavijayo. "We were very fortunate. We found someone who had already secured a licence and had the equipment, but after three and a half years of preparation couldn't go ahead. Actually it was going to be a Christian station.
"You can only succeed if you have a social mission. (There goes TV commandment number two.) If only money is your god then you won't. You can't take money with you when you leave this world."
So on 15 January last year the station powered-up from its tower in the village of Oro Oro Ombo, 1000 metres up the mountain slopes outside the central East Java town of Batu.
This area has been allocated to all telecasters and is a forest of red and white steel structures. Many are mighty affairs alongside intimidating buildings inside high fences with lots of staff, as befits a megabucks machine.
Though not Dhamma TV. Its control room is a tiny roadside cottage alongside a sapling antenna dwarfed by its giant neighbours - though building of new Rp 600 million (US $ 67,000) facilities are underway nearby. Two squashed blokes tweak knobs and finesse transmission.
Though the catchment area has 8.5 million souls, Dhamma's signal is not as powerful as the big operators. Those who do receive can watch imported wildlife programmes where nature is red in tooth and claw and decidedly not peaceful, education, talk and travel shows and, of course, a bounty of Buddhism.
Has this created problems? Haven't fundamentalists rushed into the foothills to fell the unprotected mast and kill messages that might induce faith changes?
"We haven't had any difficulties," said placid Dhammavijayo. "We're not seeking to convert anyone. We only want to explain our beliefs.
"The truth is not for Buddhists alone – it's for everyone. All we are doing is trying to find the best way.
"Not all the workers we employ are Buddhists. We need people who can do the job."
Many are communication students huddled over screens in an editing suite where the insertion of one extra VCD might cause the walls to rupture. More generous quarters are being built. There's no studio so all programs have to be shot outside. If staffers weren't barefoot this could be described as shoestring TV – running on only Rp 25 million (US $2,800) a month.
Like to buy some airtime? It won't require an overseas loan. For just Rp 2 million (US $220) you can have an hour to reach the masses. Don't bother applying if you sell smokes, but if you have a different religious message – no worries.
And don't expect to be hustled by leggy marketers with promotion plans and desirable discounts. This station isn't into selling space. However if you ask nicely and aren't offering anything offensive then a deal might be done.
Neither Dhammavijayo nor the station manager Jemmy Mulyono (an electrical engineer) had any prior experience of TV. Consequently they haven't imported the awful culture of the industry into Batu.
There are no up-themselves executives screaming in phones, hiring and firing in the same breath, no wannabe stars willing to murder for a flickering moment of fame, no grotesque displays of raw emotion.
How many people watch Dhamma TV? Stand by for another shock – the producers have no data and seem unconcerned. They don't subscribe to the ratings system and like any sane person doubt the veracity of the statistics that power decisions in the industry.
"Looking back over the past year we've been told by many that they find our programs interesting and comforting," said Dhammavijayo. "Viewers who have been depressed and suicidal have been helped.
"Our station is also recommended for those who have problems sleeping. If you watch our meditation program at night you'll have no trouble dozing off."
A TV boss honest about his product being soporific? As noted at the start of this story, Dhamma TV is no ordinary station. Happy birthday!
(If you're in the Malang area you can catch Dhamma TV on Channel 3.)
(First published in The Jakarta Post 15 January 2007)