The growth of community radio has long been retarded in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, states that inherited centralised systems of state control over electronic media. The experiences of Nepal and Sri Lanka suggest that innovations are possible and that lessons can be learned all around.
After years of resistance to community radio in many parts of Asia, national governments are beginning to see its value. Thailand and Mongolia recently established their first community radio stations and Indonesia has moved forward with enabling legislation. In January, the government of Pakistan issued an ordinance liberalising airwaves and opening the door for community radio. India’s Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, has been discussing the possibility of allowing All India Radio (AIR) transmitters to be used for ‘narrowcasting’ by educational institutions, which is a small but encouraging step for the many Indian NGOs working to make community radio a reality.
For the champions of community radio, whether they work in development, culture or communication, the arguments for it are self-evident. It is now widely recognised that top-down economic development does not work. Development has to come from a two-way process where the community is not just at the receiving end but an active participant, something that community radio is uniquely suited to accomplish. It is a potent and affordable instrument of self-help, education and development, as well as a means of entertainment.
Local vs global
In South Asia, where the nation-state often seems overwhelmed by the size of the problems it faces, and where national broadcasters are under pressure from satellite channels and becoming increasingly commercial themselves, community radio offers a chance to strengthen local culture and empower local communities. Community radio therefore is a means of reviving and reinforcing the ‘local’ — a necessary counterbalance to the pressures of economic and cultural globalisation.
Globalisation means ever-bigger companies working in ever-bigger markets, but it also provokes a countervailing trend of sharper local and regional loyalties demanding recognition. The centralised nation-state is caught in the middle and is only slowly learning how to face both ways at once. One powerful argument deployed against community radio is that it might threaten national security. Politicians and bureaucrats fear that community radio could fall into the wrong hands and be used to foment insurgency or communal violence. “Government has a responsibility to society to create a friction-free environment”, explains Kumar Abeyasinghe, Secretary to the Media Ministry in Sri Lanka. “If community radio is to be extended there would have to be a charter, a code of ethics, a set of articles to be observed… There is a need for greater autonomy but I don’t think the government should wash its hands of it. Government should be an enabler”.
Wijayananda Jayaweera, a UNESCO official who has done much in the area, accepts that there need to be rules hut he believes that security tear-, are based on a misunderstanding of how community radio works. In fact, he argues, far from threatening the nation-state, community radio is a means of integrating local communities. It is the disempowered and the alienated who threaten national integration, whereas the decentralisation of the media is a means of giving local cultures and marginalised communities a voice and a sense of belonging. He says that militant groups do not usually target community radio stations because they do not wish to alienate local communities.
This has certainly been the experience of Nepal during the Maoist insurgency. Maoists have not yet attempted to interfere with the many private and community radio stations that now exist or with their programmes. Bharat Bhusal, the manager of Lumbini FM, a community radio station in the Nepal Tarai, explains that “when the Maoists call a strike, the whole town comes to a standstill but the radio station is allowed to function uninterrupted”. The country’s latest community radio station, Swargadwari FM, is in Dang district in the west of the country, an area considered the locus of the Maoist insurgency, yet the rebels have not attempted to take over the station or to influence its programmes.
Nepal is well ahead of its neighbours in licensing community radio stations, a phenomenon whose roots can be traced back to the People’s Movement of 1990: the monarch became a constitutional head of state, power was transferred to parliament, and the new constitution gave guarantees of freedom of expression. Those who understood the possibilities for radio in a democracy began lobbying to break the monopoly of the state-owned Radio Nepal and working to create the enabling legislation. Nonetheless, it was 1997 before Radio Sagarmatha, the first of the new stations, went on air. Even though the law providing for private radio stations was passed relatively quickly, it took time to frame the regulations and to issue the licenses. At each stage there was hesitation and resistance from politicians and bureaucrats.
Bharat Koirala, one of the architects of Radio Sagarmatha, says that the station was established in the capital to show radio’s potential to policymakers. “Educating officials is more difficult than educating the people”, he says. Murari Sivakoti, a former station manager, says that the Nepal advocacy campaign employed myriad methods: recourse to the courts, lobbying of officials and politicians, interventions by diplomats and donors, unauthorised test transmissions, and the willingness of those involved, if necessary, to go to jail for their beliefs on the need for radio, which ultimately led to the license being issued to Sagarmatha. One lesson they learnt, says Sivakoti, was the need to mobilise a range of pressure groups – including teachers, politicians and the print media – to build an alliance across civil society. A second was to be “a little balanced”, to know when to exert pressure and when to hold back. A third was to take what was on offer and argue for more afterwards. Though the license finally came with 15 onerous conditions they took it with both hands.
There are now some 22 independent stations in Nepal, the majority of which are in the Kathmandu Valley, the country’s largest and most prosperous conurbation. But there are a growing number of small stations outside the Valley, four of which claim to be ‘community stations’. The rest operate as commercial businesses, though many of them claim a public service role in the range of the programmes they offer.
Nepali law does not recognise any difference between community and private radio stations. License fees are tied to transmitter power and not to the purpose of the station. Small community stations like Radio Lumbini and Radio Madanpokhara claim that the law is a disadvantage for them, as theirs is the performance of a public service. But private stations point out that most community stations do take in advertising revenue and thus the differences between the two are less clear than the community stations claim.
Prabhakar Adhikari, Nepal’s former Officiating Secretary of the Ministry for Information and Communications, says that the government thinks the present system works well and is flexible enough for different sorts of stations to apply under the same rubric. In Adhikari’s view, the government’s main concern is “to maintain cultural integrity” in the face of the existing challenge to the state. The people needed to be “well informed” but now the government is considering whether the time has come to put limits on programme content.
Whatever the worries, it is clear that the existing licensing system has permitted the emergence of a number of different models and that this has been the strength of Nepal’s experience. Apart from commercial stations, there are stations run by NGOs, local government bodies and co-operatives. Dr Vinod Pavarala of the Sarojini Naidu School for Communication in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, says that one of the lessons to be learned from Nepal’s experience is that “a multi-model approach works best”.
However, Nepal, like the rest of South Asia, suffers from major shortcomings in transparency. Critics point out that the government of Nepal has started going slow on issuing new community radio licenses. Some 25 applications have been pending for a while, including several for community stations. Observers say ministers and officials seem to favour commercial bidders and make ad hoc decisions without thinking about the impacts affecting other parts of the sector. The government has recently licensed Kantipur FM, one of the capital’s most successful commercial stations, to broadcast on powerful new transmitters in the eastern half of the country and there are fears that this will undercut the survivability of some of the smaller stations. Typical of this case is the problem that Samir Nepal, the owner of Manakamana FM, a commercial station operating out of Hetauda in the central plains, anticipates. He worries that the new station will lure away some of his national advertising, which accounts for some 70 percent of his income.
The sustainability of community radio is a key issue. The calculations are surprisingly positive from the small Nepali stations. Radio Madanpokhara, the only community radio station to be set up in a village so far, reports a monthly income of NPR 30-50,000 and monthly expenditures of NPR 25,000; likewise, Radio Lumbini reports a monthly income of NPR 120,000 and expenditures of around NPR 100,000. It is not these small stations but Radio Sagarmatha, operating in the more competitive Kathmandu market, which is having difficulty balancing its books.
Since much of the capital expenditure for community stations was met by donors, with UNESCO and the Danish agency, DANIDA, taking the lead, the smaller stations are already beginning to break even. Financial problems do arise when equipment fails, and the station does not have a back-up transmitter or studio. Radio Madanpokhara shows what can be done, however, if communities put their shoulders to the wheel: after two years of broadcasting, it is now moving to a purpose-built station that has been entirely funded by local resources.
The voice of peace
The Madanpokhara station operates in the unique setting of a partially converted residence, with a traditional household functioning side-by-side the broadcasting room. The Village Development Council (VDC) supports the radio station with an annual payment of NPR 80,000 and the chairman of the VDC is the chairman of the station’s management committee. The village is considered a leftist stronghold and the level of education is high. When asked whether the station is used for political propaganda, the chairman points out that if it were to do so, the community would object. The station provides a forum for villagers to thrash out their problems and a means of holding others to account. After a local politician promised electricity and no progress had been made in two months, the radio station chased the story. At times the radio station has intervened with the local administration on behalf of villagers. On one occasion it enabled the redress of a villager’s grievances by the powerful Chief District Officer. Additionally, the station is trying to encourage local artistic talent and it makes a point of not playing Hindi music. As an elderly committee member remarks, “There is enough Hindi music all around. It is our local music that should be preserved”. The station has produced two cassettes of folk songs and these are now on sale to help raise revenue.
For Radio Madanpokhara, obtaining the radio license was a long struggle and eventually involved the assistance of local politicians. There is some lingering resentment that the community station has been made to pay a license fee and is taxed on the income it generates. “We have not received a single cent from the government and now they are trying to tax us”, says the principal of the village school. “It is unfair to treat us as a commercial concern”.
The wall of the village school is daubed with Maoist slogans, although for the moment the Maoists have not interfered with the radio station. Ian Pringle, a Canadian community radio specialist familiar with the village, explains that “this community radio station is heavily dominated by the elders and prevailing structures. More than change, it facilitates continuity. That’s OK as long as that is what they need”.
South from Madanpokhara, in the plains, Radio Lumbini is just half an hour by bus from the birthplace of Lord Buddha and calls itself the “Voice of Peace”. Its full-time staff of 19 broadcasts 12 hours a day and the station is run as a co-operative, with 96 shareholding members. Membership fees were much lower when the station started but now it costs NPR 20,000 to join, of which NPR 17,000 is a non-refundable deposit. People from disparate political parties, castes and ages have joined the co-operative — the majority being farmers. The station has been actively involved in villagers’ lives, including participating in a programme to revive the lift irrigation system in the neighbourhood, and the broadcasting of programmes in Nepali, as well as, uniquely, the Bhojpuri language that is spoken in this part of the Nepal Tarai and adjacent regions in India. There have been some problems with shareholders defaulting on payments, but as station manager Bharat Bhusal explains, “We went to the extent of warning the farmers that if you don’t pay up without a valid reason we will broadcast the names of the defaulters. The majority paid up and the system was restored to a great extent”.
As the station is situated close to India, it gets some advertisements from across the border as well, charging an extra 10 percent for advertisements promoting Indian goods. The station has to pay a four percent tax on revenue earned from advertising. In a few months, a commercial radio station will start broadcasting from the nearby town of Butwal, so competition is definitely on the way. But Bharat Bhusal is confident that the station’s cooperative structure gives it the resilience to maintain its position.
For NGOs petitioning governments for licenses in other parts of South Asia, it is heartening to see aspirations realised in Nepal. For people who only associate radio with official buildings and tight security, it is a new experience to walk into a village house or a three storey building on a busy commercial road and to see villagers or college students preparing to go on air. This is radio located in the community, not telling it what to do from a distance.
Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country to have successfully integrated community radio into the national broadcasting system. Mahaweli Community Radio, set up 20 years ago to serve communities settled on newly irrigated land created by the Mahaweli Project, has maintained its reputation for innovation with the recent creation at Kothmale of an Internet facility in an effort to bridge the digital gap between town and country. Sunil Wijesinghe, the Controller of Broadcasting at Kothmale, has developed a special relationship with Colombo, which allows him to say that the station is “truly under the control of the community with minimum supervision”. Wijesinghe and his team have managed to orchestrate a new creative equation between national broadcaster and community but it is not altogether clear whether this is a matter of personality or systems. The jury is also still out on whether this model will succeed in its digital ambitions. There is no shortage of evidence that the station has become a centre for computer training and Internet use by members of the community but the precise role of broadcasting in spreading knowledge of new technologies is less well documented.
In India, Dr Sreedhar of Indira Gandhi Open University in New Delhi is the official custodian of the community radio ideal. A former broadcaster with AIR and Doordarshan, he has been given the task of setting up 40 ‘community radio’ stations in collaboration with educational institutions in different parts of the country. Where studios already exist, they are being reactivated under the project; where they do not, the Open University is building new ones. Dr Sreedhar believes that the smaller stations of AIR should also be mobilised for community radio purposes. This was the unrealised vision of broadcasters like K Anjaneyulu, who set up the first district FM station at Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s. There are almost a hundred small AIR stations in different districts of the country but they are perceived more as the voice of the central government than as local radio stations.
The National Foundation of India has shown one way forward with its interesting collaboration with All India Radio Jharkhand. It is helping village communities to make their own programmes and paying for them to be aired weekly on AIR’s Daltongunj FM. The response at village level has been very positive but there are questions about the sustainability of the venture when the funding runs out. In a more ideal world, this is the kind of work AIR would be doing on its own.
In the face of present realities, community radio activists in India argue that they should not focus exclusively on radio but exploit whatever spaces are available in other media. A group called ‘Voices’, in Bangalore, has begun a community media experiment called Namma Dhwani – ‘Our Voice’ – at Kolar on the Karnataka/Tamil Nadu border. This is an area where AIR does not have a station and where the mix of languages is not catered for by existing broadcasts. The aim is to empower the local community, which is for the most part impoverished and illiterate, by helping them to make programmes on, for example, women’s health, education and access to credit. A low-cost audio production centre was established there in 2001, with analogue equipment and field recorders. With the establishment of Gyan Vani, an educational radio network that sources its programming from different educational institutions such as the University Grants Commission, the National Centre for Educational and Research Training, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, the Indian Institute of Technology and the Distance Education Council, issues of ownership and management have become more palpable. Gyan Vani operates through various FM stations, including one in Bangalore. ‘Voices’ has been invited to collaborate with Gyan Vani but there are some reservations. As Ashish Sen of ‘Voices’ puts it, “It is not clear how democratic that process will be”.
The most extraordinary community radio story in India actually is from Pastapur in Andhra Pradesh, where the Deccan Development Society has built a studio, set up a transmitter and trained a staff, but still cannot get government permission to go on air. UNESCO provided the equipment and All India Radio engineers erected the mast but as one government gave way to another the expected permission failed to materialise. This is a station staffed by women from disadvantaged communities, who are operating as narrowcasters within their community in the hope that one day they will be allowed to go on air. Narsamma, one of the women, expresses the village’s disappointment at receiving the information and broadcasting ministry’s letter that they should work more closely with AIR. She says, “We have our own way of doing things. This is not just about radio. It is about our way of life”.
Bandana Mukhopadhyay, a former AIR broadcaster who is at the forefront of the attempt to develop community radio movement in India, believes that the government is slowly moving towards permitting community radio. The Convergence Bill, by which a ‘super regulator’ will be created by combining the ministries of information and broadcasting, communications and IT, had initially made no mention of third=tier broadcasting or community radio but there have been some signs of a rethink. There is an evident concern for safeguards – a requirement for proper technical specifications and a clear code of conduct – but legislation is apparently being drafted to create some limited new space for educational and community media. It is perhaps the nature of things that India, the largest and most culturally diverse of all South Asian countries, should be the slowest to give media recognition of its own diversity. The message is however clear; civil society across the region is increasingly convinced that community radio has an important role to play in development, democracy and bridging the digital divide. The quicker community radio is allowed free reign, the better.