Muchlis L. Usman

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2009
This description of Muchlis L. Usman's work was prepared when Muchlis L. Usman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009 .


Muchlis L. Usman is serving the public’s need for quality information and engagement with the local government in Indonesia by building community television as an alternative to mainstream media.

The New Idea

Muchlis is pioneering a movement of community-based television across Indonesia. Established in 2003, Kendari TV is currently attracting 85 percent of its target audience, while dismissing the myth that setting up a television station is too expensive for citizens to do on a limited budget. Ordinary people are now using this powerful media as a tool in their communities where they can own, design, and use their information to develop effective citizenry.

Kendari TV is a start-up organization that uses the resources available in the community. Muchlis’ passion is to create a new pattern in television broadcast, where the driving motive is not profit, but for people to be active participants in issues that have an impact on their daily lives. Through active programming, in which more than 50 percent of the programming is on public dialogue, news, and social issues that provide a venue for the citizen to become an active audience, he has been able to create a strong social investment and maintain independence from commercial networks. Kendari TV has therefore been able to sustain its programming for the past six years due to strong public ownership which reinforces community participation.

Muchlis has used this success as a platform for replicating eight TV stations in four big islands, training other citizen organizations (COs) to build their own community television networks. An exception is a local government station that buys programming from Kendari TV. To further speedy development of community TV, Muchlis established the Indonesian Association of Community Television (ASTEKI), in 2008, along with other COs in Kalimantan and Sumatra that had already replicated his Kendari model. Through support from Free Voice, Kendari TV has also shared its successful model with COs in Asia and Africa.

The Problem

Television broadcasting is one of the fastest-growing industries in Indonesia, with more than 50 stations across the nation. This burgeoning business is well-positioned to create public awareness and drive societal perceptions. Yet there is broad public concern about the quality of TV programming, and to many, it is clear that the industry has failed to serve the public interest. Rather than examining social issues responsibly, stations tend to dwell on violence, pornography, the supernatural, and other entertainment subjects that attract larger audiences and advertisers.

The enactment of the Indonesia Broadcasting Law No. 32/2002, which established that broadcasting was a matter of public interest and therefore subject to regulation, was a strike against the broadcasting monopoly that had been sustained by the Suharto government and created a window for the citizen-sector to participate in creating independent journalism to serve the public interest. Indeed, hundreds of community radio stations have quickly emerged and become popular. Many of these, however, do not last for too long, as they are not established as sustainable enterprises. Meanwhile, some local companies have built television stations by syndicating capital with national partners. Between these two factors, the opportunity to develop a community television has been largely unrealized.

Furthermore, the current television industry faces a vicious circle. In order to attract audience numbers that satisfy advertisers, the industry continues to invest in conventional programming. Network television has not been able to break through and depart from this perceived high capital investment, mass entertainment mind-set. Though it is now legal to create local programming, producers still face the challenge of finding an audience and resource base.

The Strategy

Muchlis believes that ordinary Indonesians can own a television station and produce programs that respond to their interests. This is reflected at Kendari TV, whose slogan, “All for All” is rooted in the aspiration to make the audience at once the protagonist and the subject of TV. All of his 67 staff members are trained in programming and journalism to ensure the information delivered meets journalistic principles. Kendari TV broadcasts 15 hours of programming every day to a potential audience of 1.2 million across seven districts in Southeast Sulawesi Province. Using a random sampling method, Kendari TV recently commissioned a study which found that 86 percent of the city population watches Kendari TV.

An “active” audience was developed based on Muchlis’ insight: Public participation and support can be achieved by diversifying programming. Half of Kendari’s programs are rooted in news (e.g. public interactive dialogue and scientific films), 20 percent is entertainment (e.g. cooking and sport), 15 percent education and religion (e.g. documentary films on environmental and social issues), and 15 percent commercial (e.g. a second-hand live trading marketplace).

Kendari TV has created means for a dialogue between the local government and civil society, involving citizens not just as information consumers but as producers who propose democratic action. In a weekly program, “My Village,” citizens engage on air with the local government responsible for public infrastructure i.e. roads, community drainage, or clean water. Through this program Kendari exposed corruption in the local government-owned drinking water company, which resulted in sanctions on the responsible officials and a story on timber theft and trespassing in a national park prompted the governor to propose a replacement for the head of the national park authority. Kendari has started a program, Indera: “Sense what you see, feel and hear,” which accommodates people’s suggestions and complaints about government services. The city mayor attends the program and responds to people’s concerns. Although Kendari TV has become very effective as a source for understanding what the public concerns are, Muchlis wants to avoid Kendari TV evolving into a complaint center and has urged the government to establish a process of its own to hear citizen complaints.

The City Parliament Program routinely covers activities of the City House of Representatives, allowing the public to comment on, or provide input directly to, their elected members. Recently, the enforcement of a member-generated regulation on alcoholic drinks was postponed due to popular response via Kendari TV: The objective being to open public discussion about how to best foster the responsible use of alcohol, especially by youth. In this time of growing decentralization, Kendari TV is creating a mechanism for both community members and local government officials to speak, thus nurturing democratization and making decentralized governance work better.

Muchlis and his staff are developing a range of Kendari TV programs that serve the interests of different communities in the city. For example, participants may prepare and present on how to work on cars to an audience. Kendari TV is also involving youth in its mission to create an active and informed citizenry. While participating in the “My Village” dialogue, students reflected that Kendari TV programs on democracy did not relate directly enough to them. Thus, Muchlis developed the program, “Student Color” to serve the interest of high school students. Student’s design the program, co-produce it with Kendari TV, and publicize their in-school activities.

Kendari TV’s formula for sustainability is tied to operational efficiency: Citizens produce more than half of all programs, mostly in low-cost locations like village meeting places. Not only does this lower production costs, it reinforces a sense of community ownership. These communities do not give money, but rather, provide in-kind donations for the programming. This community-building strategy increases the audience circle and thus builds a base for local advertising. A big media investor from Jakarta once proposed to buy Kendari TV due to the strong and active engagement of the audience, recognizing the valuable “social investment” it was making. Kendari TV also receives revenue from merchandise sales and the sale of air time to private and government organizations, and also from collaborations with the local government on programs that serve both interests. One successful programming partnership is with the Kendari City Government of Southeast Sulawesi Province in a program called “Clean City.” The program has been able to mobilize the city dwellers to clean their neighborhood which resulted in the city receiving the environmental Kalpataru Award from the Ministry of Environment.

Citizens are also invited to be owners of Kendari TV. Some 14 percent of shares belong to the company’s founders, 76 percent to employees of Yascita, the parent organization, and 10 percent to members of the Yascita cooperative, which is open to the public. More than a source of capital, Muchlis sees the shareholder structure as a process that encourages feedback as well as a sense of community ownership. Muchlis is also identifying an advertising strategy through branding to serve the interests of a small city, which he sees as different from conventional TV advertising. He is working with local institutions and businesses to build their brands and focus on their contribution to the community. Muchlis’ assessment of impact lies in three levels of behavior change. At the citizen level, Kendari TV has given people the space to speak and feel comfortable doing so, enough that people now voice their concerns directly to government officials. On the other hand, the government is more responsive to citizens’ complaints or concerns. The City House Representative Members have become more open to the citizen voice and are willing to be on air to serve the public. Initially reluctant to appear, they have come to see Kendari TV as an effective way to boost their electability.

Through the work of ASTEKI, Muchlis tries to create impact at the national level. Besides capacity-building among members, providing tools and maintenance training, or collectively selling programming to commercial local/national TV stations, ASTEKI encourages other COs to found their own community TV in their regions. To help COs start their own stations, ASTEKI usually begins by conducting workshops or doing presentations. After the workshop, the participating CO prepares to set up the station by purchasing and setting up equipment. Once a team has been hired and the CO is ready to move to the next step, they send some of the staff for on-the-job training provided by Kendari TV. Finally, the staff of Kendari TV will visit their station to further assist when required. For this project, Kendari TV received resources from the Media Development Loan Fund and Free Voice to expand the community TV circle and audience.

In the near future Muchlis plans to spread his work to other strategic locations as well. For example, Aceh is an important target due to its long endurance of armed conflict; Papua due to its geographical isolation from the rest of the country; and, Jakarta because it has long lacked an alternative to entertainment-based programming.

The Person

Born in 1971, Muchlis was raised in a family of respected civil servants in Makasar, South Sulawesi. Young Muchlis learned from his family the value of collectivity and helping other people as his parents welcomed teens of his extended relatives to live in their house. After graduating from junior high, he moved with his parents to Gorontalo, Northern Sulawesi. He finished his high school and moved to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi to study economics at Haluoleo University in 1990.

As a university student, Muchlis was very active in environmental activities and joined the student Nature Lover’s Club. During trips to a mountain site, he and his friends often discovered evidence of environmental degradation and destruction. This prompted him to gather all the field findings and further investigate the causes and solutions for this problem. When he graduated from university his family expected him to become a civil servant. However, Muchlis found his passion working in the citizen sector together with his environmental activist colleagues.

In 1998, with his friends from the Nature Lover’s Club, Muchlis co-founded YASCITA, an organization to preserve and manage the natural resources in Southeast Sulawesi. He continued investigating environmental destruction and providing this data to the public through reports and articles. However, local newspaper agencies and radio stations were unwilling to post the investigative findings, since it involved government officials. In response to this challenge, Muchlis and his colleagues established their own radio station, “The Voice of Nature” in 1999. It has become a popular radio station, featuring active participation from the audience as field reporters. To achieve the next level of impact, Muchlis founded Kendari TV in 2003.