Actor, musician, writer and broadcasting creative director – Akwasi Ansah is a true polymath. As part of IBC’s Changemakers programme, he will explore the inclusive creative vision that propels the broadcasting network he co-founded, Omroep ZWART, writes David Davies.
Every five years, something truly remarkable happens in the Dutch broadcasting system. NPO – the system’s umbrella organisation and one of its constituent broadcasters – opens the door for new television and radio services to join its ranks on the basis that they can accrue at least 50,000 paid subscribers.
For Amsterdam-born rapper/actor/writer Akwasi Ansah, there had long been an awareness that the existing Dutch services were failing to represent people of colour. “There were different broadcasters for religion, economics, welfare and so on, but there wasn’t one focused on representation and inclusivity,” he said. “I did not see myself back on Dutch TV or radio, and if I wanted to do that I had to go to the BBC or some stations in the States.”
If the impetus to develop the broadcaster that ultimately became Omroep ZWART (which translates in English as ‘Broadcaster Black’) had been there for a while, then the dramatic events of the last few years provided a final catalyst – sometimes in a manner that had a profound personal impact on Ansah.
“After the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, it felt like there was such a big momentum,” he said. “I come from a certain history where I am outspoken, and [during this period] I said a few things about the situation in the Netherlands – including about Zwarte Piet [a controversial Dutch ‘blackface’ tradition that takes place each November and dates back to the 19th century], which seems almost medieval at this point. I mentioned some aspects related to the history of colonialism and there were some people who did not like that.”
This is putting it mildly: Ansah’s comments were followed by a highly unsettling period in which “my character was assassinated and people cancelled me. I received death threats and for a while had to go out with security.” But despite the bleakness of this moment, it was evident that it also provided an opportunity to establish a new force for inclusivity in Dutch media:
“I thought, Why not use this momentum to gain impact in the form of a new broadcaster? It was a huge risk, but the plan worked out. I did not expect to be a director but now I am! And it is very exciting to be doing all this fun stuff and setting the narrative.”
Expect to hear many insights into the present and future of Omroep ZWART when Ansah presents his keynote session as part of the IBC2023 Changemaker Programme in the Forum on 17 September. Entitled The Creative Centipede with an Inclusive Soul, the talk will cover both Ansah’s personal story and his vision for a digital-first landscape which is equitable, inclusive and accessible.
It is clear that the broadcaster – which launched online on 1 January 2022 – has already made huge strides on all of these fronts. From day one, noted Ansah, the emphasis with The Netherlands’ “first intrinsically inclusive broadcasting station” has been to create and deliver content with people drawn from all backgrounds that can “inspire, fascinate and excite” viewers.
At present, much of the content is primarily non-scripted and includes choice imported shows such as Fight the Power, the acclaimed BBC/PBS four-part documentary series executive-produced by Chuck D that explores hip hop’s first half-century. It’s a key series for Omroep ZWART because it also provides a starting point for correcting a major historical oversight in the Dutch media: “Hip hop has been like a curse word here in the Netherlands; we don’t have a [station like BBC Radio] 1Xtra here. So we want to be an ambassador for the sound and influence of hip hop.”
Other recent content includes Idris Elba’s Fight Club – which charts the transformative effect of intensive physical training on the lives of eight young people – as well as a series addressing under-reported episodes in history and a “tongue-in-cheek” meditation show for children. The station has also just acquired the Dutch rights to That’s My Jam – a music game show spin-off from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon – and is advancing plans for more of its own scripted content that it hopes will reach fruition in the next few years.
For the imminent future, however, the primary emphasis will be on “developing our journalism” in order to report extensively on the 2023 Dutch General Election, which is due to take place on 22 November. “We want to focus on getting the next generation to vote and raising their awareness of politics,” said Ansah, adding that the inclusive newsroom he and station co-founder, film director Gianni Lieuw-A-Soe, are developing will be able to “address all kinds of inequality – social, gender, racial – as well as climate change and many other political issues that concern the next generation. There is a big lack of journalists of colour as editors-in-chief in the Netherlands, and that’s something we want to change as well.”
‘Amsterdam is our home’
Omroep ZWART also has another distinctive characteristic in a Dutch media landscape that is increasingly concentrated around the Media Park in Hilversum – its decision to be based in Amsterdam, 25km away. “I go to the Media Park every week, but we opted to have our HQ either in Amsterdam or the metaverse, but not in Hilversum, as Amsterdam is bigger than the Netherlands outside the Netherlands,” explained Ansah. “Also, I am proud to be born and bred in Amsterdam, and it is our home [as a station], which means it defines and distinguishes us, too.”
Invited to consider the main message that he wants to convey in his IBC Changemakers session, Ansah responded: “I think that purpose is very important; the whole question of ‘why am I doing this?’ Obviously this station is beneficial for the media landscape in the Netherlands, but no one hired me to do it and the reason I am doing it is that I saw there was something missing in the media here.
“As I say, you can’t be what you can’t see; representation matters. As well as outlining our vision for ZWART and giving an update on what we are doing and how we started, I want to explore why it’s so important to be curious and to meet people who don’t look like you, and to convey why inclusion is so essential.”