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Community Radio in Nepal

An Interview with Bharat Dutta Koirala published on BRIEFING DOCUMENT: COMMUNITY RADIO IN INDIA, Proceedings of an Internet Conference on The Hoot
November 30, 2001 to February 10, 2002

Interview by SEVANTI NINAN

Q: What is the current status of community radio in Nepal, how many independent stations are now running? Could you please give some names and locations.

Out of the 22 independent radio stations now operating in Nepal, four can be called community stations. The others are referred to as commercial stations but most of them have strong public service contents in their programming. Nepal's National Broadcasting Act does not provide clear distinction between commercial and community stations. The community radio stations are identified by their ownership and the power of the transmitters they use. Since license fees are based on the transmitter's capacity, from Rs. 50,000 for using a 100 watt transmitter to Rs.200,000 for using a 500 watt transmitter, the communities prefer to use low power (100 to 200 watts) transmitters since they have very limited financial resources. All of the private stations are on the FM band since the law specifies that private groups can operate radio stations only on the FM band.

Of the four community radio stations one is located in Kathmandu and the other three are in western Nepal. Radio Sagarmatha was established as a community radio with a 100 watt transmitter. But since it has been providing its service to listeners in the whole Kathmandu Valley, along with six other commercial stations, its role has gradually changed from that of a community station to a popular public service station. It has been constantly expanding its programmes, in terms of time and diversity, and because of this expanded role it decided to increase its transmitter's power from 100 watts to 500 watts.
The other community radio stations are: 1. Radio Madanpokhara which is located in Palpa District of Western Nepal. It is is owned and operated by the Village Development Committee of Madapokhara. 2. Lumbini FM is located at Manigram which is close to the industrial and commercial town of Butwal, also in Western Nepal. It is owned and operated by a cooperative formed by local entrepreneurs and journalists. 3. Swargadwari FM is located in the town of Ghorai, the headquarters of Dang District in Western Nepal. It is the newest among the community stations and has just started its test transmissions.

Of the private commercial stations there six in Kathmandu, four in Pokhara (a tourist town in Western Nepal), one in Bharatpur (Synergy FM) to the South of Kathmandu, one in Hetauda (Radio Mankamana), one in Itahari (Saptakoshi FM) in Eastern Nepal, one in the industrial town of Biratnagar (Koshi FM) and the re-transmitting station of Kantipur FM at Bhedetar in Eastern Nepal.
Metro FM owned and operated by the Kathmandu Municipality, the environmental station in the process of being wset up and owned by an environment NGO (SEF) and the Spiritual FM (also in the process of being established) are three stations which have definite target audiences and have a public service motive.

There are at least 25 applications pending with the Government. No licenses have been issued in the past few months.

Q: How many of these are community owned and managed?

As already described above four of the existing 22 stations are owned and managed by local communities. Radio Madanpokhara is owned by the Village Development Committee, the lowest rung of the government structure. Radio Lumbini and Swargadwari are owned by local cooperatives and Radio Sagarmatha is owned by Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists. Among the 25 applications yet to be reviewed by the govlernment many of lthem are for community stations. In most cases local individuals have set cooperatives and then applied for licenses. However, in all cases there arfe broad-based broadcasting committees that oversee the work of the stations and are involved in making policies and deciding on programming.

Q: What has been the experience of Nepal in financing community radio? Has finance been easy to come by? Is it possible to give an approximate figure of what it costs to set up a small community radio station? What would be its reach?

The first two community stations in Nepal, Radio Sagarmatha (set up in 1997) and Radio Madanpokhara (set up in 1999) were financed through IPDC (UNESCO) grants. They have since then been supporting themselves both through donor assistance for specific projects and through their own income from advertising and sponsored programms. Both are now largely self-supporting. Lumbini FM at Manigram was set up by a cooperative with an initial investment of US$10,000 raised from among the members of the cooperative. Since then they have expanded their facilities both through their own income from advertising and sponsorship and a grant from DANIDA to set up a second studio and to buy a new transmitter. Swargadwari FM in Dang, too was set up by a cooperative with their own money but DANIDA provided the initial expenses to buy transmitting and studio equipment. They seem confident they will be self-supporting once they go on the air with their regular programmes. Finance has not been the main problem with the community radio movement in Nepal. Many communities that have applied for licenses plan to raise their own investment money, and in some cases, they have already done so. There are several donors who realize the value of community broadcasting in a country like Nepal and ready to offer assistance in setting up community stations. The real bottleneck is in the licensing process. Even though the process is very clear in the National Broadcasting Act and the National Broadcasting Regulations, the government has failed to promptly review the applications and grant licenses where the pre-requisites have been met.

It is difficult to say exactly how much it costs to set up a community radio station since a lot depends on the local circumstances. From our own experience we have found that a station like Radio Sagarmatha which serves a population of over a million people requires more than US$30,000 to set up the station. The operating costs are also relatively high. A really rural station like Radio Madanpokhara was set up and fully equipped with less than US$20,000. Based on these experiences we figure it will cost US$15,000 to make a rural-based station fully operational while an urban-based station will cost about US$30,000.

But, it must be remembered that community radio can be set up and broadcast with much less since all it takes is a transmitter and a few microphones to go on the air with local programms. What is required is the motivation and enthusiasm of the local community to use the medium.

Q: What is the most common source of financing, is there any financing by the community? Is there any revenue from advertising?

In all cases there has been some local financing. While some received initial funding from UNESCO or DANIDA, there were others that raised money locally both to set up and operate their stations. In the case oworried about financing. In tghe case of the Manigram station, they have so much advertising that they are no longer worried about financing. Radio Madanpokhara has saved enough money to money property and building a new structure to house a studio and offices. Swargadwari FM has raised enough money to operate the station; donor money was used to buy equipment. Madanpokhara holds period meetings of the community to discuss how more resources can be mobilized to make the station sustainable. Yes, there is some advertising revenue in all cases. These stations, not being commercial, have a policy to broadcasting limited number of advertising messages and be more selective in the type of advertisements to be accepted by the station.

Q: Is there much interference from the government in running community radio?

Surprisingly, there has not been much interference from the government. One of the conditions imposed at the time granting the license is to broadcast Radio Nepal's main news, which all stations do. Recently, the independent stations received a letter from the government to use 25% of their time in broadcasting programms of Radio Nepal. The stations decided not to do it and the Minister of Information and Communication claimed he was unaware of such a letter. On the whole the stations are quite independent. What is sad is that the government is not issuing licenses on a continuing basis.
Q: In countries like lndia fear of misuse in insurgency is cited as a common reason for not permitting community radio stations. Given the Maoist insurgency in Nepal how has community radio managed to be permitted by the government?

Fear of misuse in insurgency is only an excuse for not granting licenses to operate community radio stations. In Latin America where there are thousands of community radio stations, there has not been cases of such stations being taken over or misused by insurgents. In the Philippines where there are many community radio stations, even in the area most affected by insurgencies, the radio stations continue to operate and serve their communities. Insurgents are not interested in local stations, they would rather capture government stations which are better endowed and have wider reach. Besides, insurgents are often members of communities that operate the stations and would, therefore, like to see the station continue to inform and entertain the community.
In Nepal, none of the stations have become the targets of the Maoist insurgency even though the stations exist in some of the most sensitive areas. Frankly, the flow of information that local radio stations generate is the best safeguard against insurgency. Local stations are the most effective means of promoting democratic education.

Q: What sort of safeguards are there against such radio stations being hijacked by people with political agendas? Have the Maoists established or attempted to establish any radio stations?

It is true that unscrupulous politicians could try to hijack such stations with their own political agenda. But there are enough safeguards to prevent this from happening. First, the legal framework should provide the initial safeguards. In the case of Nepal, the National Broadcasting Act clearly states that private radio stations should not be used for a political purpose, rather it should be a medium for the education and entertainment of the people. Second, the broad-based broadcasting committee which the community appoints to oversee the work of the station should be so balanced that no individual or party can hijack the station. Third, since the stations are on the FM band, they are able to reach only the members of the community who react promptly to any attempt by politicians to impose their agenda.
There was a piece of news a few weeks ago which spoke about a Maoist radio station in the mid-western hills. It did not specify where exactly the station was and what it broadcast. There has not beenany other information to corroborate the published news item.

Q: Now that stations like Sagarmatha have been running for a few years,What sort of problems are cropping up here, or elsewhere if any?

Yes, Sagarmatha has been running since 1997 and it has been able to establish itself as a free, independent and high credible station. Since most of the private radio stations are of commercial nature, Radio Sagarmatha has the distinction of being the only public service stations that could survive the competition. There several problems that the station has faced. First, how to survive with limited advertising and more educational service-oriented programmes. Second, how retain creative and dynamic journalists and producers in a competitive world. Two such producers are working at the BBC in London. Third, how to learn management techniques (of running radio stations) on a continuing basis. Fourth, how to create a marketing strategy and a dynamic marketing team in a small, low-cost station. Finally, how to motivate volunteers who could produce programmes without posing a burden on the limited resources.

Q: Is sustainability becoming a problem or not?

Sustainability is a topic that always comes up when there a is discussion on community radio stations. I found the same thing in the Philippines where there are many community radio stations that have been operating for a nunmber of years. The question of sustainability comes up because many such stations have been set up through grants by donors with the initial misgivings that the communities would not be able to manage the stations once the support is with drawn. The very fact that most of the stations are running, many of them are doing very well and some have even saved enough to expand their facilities and services confirms our belief that community radio can become fully sustainable. But, to be able to do so, the community must be intimately involved in the planning, establishment and operation of the station. Once the people feel that it is their station, that they must run it, and that it must continue to serve the community, the station will become sustainable. Any outside support should be limited to purchase of new equipment and training in techniques and management.

When we have many stations, there will be some which will do very well,some will manage to exist, while a few may even close down. This is a fact of life we must accept. But, looking at the present status of community radio in Nepal there is every reason to expect the existing stations to become fully sustainable.

Source: The Hoot

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