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Nepal Leads South Asia In Radio Growth

By Frederick Noronha

Nepal has moved far ahead of its other South Asian neighbours in its attempts to open-up its air-waves, and Sri Lanka has the longest history of promoting 'community radio' initiatives. So what's the fate of this powerful medium in this populous part of the planet? Ask Ian Pringle.

"Bangladesh may soon see some interesting developments on this front. India
could be a most interesting place in many respects... Once the reluctance of the government (to open up community radio stations) is overcome (much could happen here)," says Pringle. In his early thirties, this Canadian volunteer has been closely connected with attempts to promote community radio in South Asia.

Ian Pringle
Pringle fell in love with alternative radio broadcasting even while still a college student back in Canada. Later on, he spent months in Kathmandu, helping to prop up the first community radio station in South Asia -- a unique experiment called Radio Sagarmatha. Currently, he is an 'international cooperant' with the Canadian Centre for International Studies and Cooperation, one of the largest Canadian networks in humanitarian development.

Recently in Bangalore, Pringle points to Nepal's opening up of its airwaves.
"There are three community radio stations in Nepal, and a license has been
given for the fourth. Besides, there are (other) stations airing more community radio-style programmes. There is also a station put up by the municipal government of Kathmandu," he says. After overcoming reluctance over granting licenses to radio stations in the mid-nineties, Nepal has come a long way. In the Kathmandu Valley, there are five commercial broadcasters, and six more outside the Valley. Some 15 more parties have applied for licenses, according to Pringle. In contrast, India has made little headway. In the mid-1990s, there was much expectation that this country would give its citizens a voice on the
air-waves. The Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that the air-waves cannot be monopolised by the government, and belonged to the public. The National
Front governments at the Centre went ahead with almost approving plans to allow community radio stations.

But then all this drastically came to a halt. So abrupt was the change, that
UNESCO-funded radio station facilities have even come up in places like
Medak, Andhra Pradesh. These centres are left high and dry with all the
technology and skills, but no permission to broadcast their programmes!

Perhaps the basic question is: why radio?

For over 50 years, radio has been seen as a key tool globally for participatory communication and development. Radio clearly has its advantages. It is cost-efficient, both for the station and for listeners. Secondly, it is ideal for a population that includes many illiterates and poor, as in South Asia. Thirdly, it is relevant to local practices, traditions and culture. Fourth, once initial investment is made in equipment, sustainability is feasible. Fifth, in terms of geographical
coverage too, radio scores. Lastly, the convergence between radio and Internet is providing new strengths to community radio. But in South Asia, things have been different. India, for instance, shifted from having government-dominated air-waves to a commercialised scenario where

licenses to broadcast cost millions of rupees. Besides, the satellite TV boom has led elites here to believe that radio is a dead medium which hardly deserves much attention
Pringle also points to the long community radio tradition of countries like Canada. "Quebec has a very strong tradition of this," he says. AMARC, the
world association of community radio broadcasters, also has its international secretariat in Canada, as Pringle points out. Canada's first community radio stations came up in the 1970s, after a broad based movement on this. Earlier too, in the 1950s, Canada had a very well known programme in farm radio broadcasting. Other experiments were done in interactive two-way communication, and the use of radio to mobilise people. Over the years, he says, community radio stations have done well in Canada. "There have been very few closures of stations. On the other hand, a lot of innovation has gone into making such stations sustainable," he points out. One way is by linking up such radio stations with higher education institutions, thus giving them a strong financial base and a sustainable number of eager volunteers. Currently, Canada has about a couple of hundred community radio stations, Pringle estimates.

Even if Nepal has gone ahead, he suggests that there is some reluctance in
promoting radio stations there. For instance, a license feel to set up a small 100watt transmitter costs about Nepali Rs 50-55,000 (about Indian Rs 30,000) per year.

"In Nepal, sanctioning community-radio licenses is a funding source for the
government. This is perhaps the greatest impediment to sustainable community
radio stations. Upto one-third or half of what any village needs to set up a basic radio station goes to paying the license fee," he explains. In contrast, in Canada it just costs Can$25 (about US$18) to set up a radio station. Of course, this has lead to the overcrowding of the frequencies in some major cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. So new stations can't be set up there; but they can in other areas. Low powered FM transmitters in any case don't block too much bandwidth; the same frequencies could be used by another station in another geographical area. In India, the government permitted private players to bid for costly radio-broadcasting licenses, which costs upto a few million rupees. So far, educational institutions (including universities) or not-for-profit
organisations and NGOs wanting to set up their own radio stations are neither given permission nor denied permission for the same. In Nepal, Pringle also sees "political impediments" in granting licenses. Not everybody making a good application is assured of a license. "We (in South Asia) have a long way to go for providing a good structure to promote the growth of community radio," say he. "In South Asia, you could have thousands (of low powered, FM radio
transmitters)," argues Pringle. In Canada, advertising is allowed on community stations. But some stations prefer not to take ads, as it changes their character. In Nepal, no distinction is made between commercial broadcasters and community ones. Pringle says he fell in love with radio while still in college at Montreal's McGill University. "It's fun.... I like it," he says. He started off as an unpaid volunteer in his varsity station.

More seriously, he notes: "Community radio offers a model as no other media
does. It can be very grassroots, and very democratic, in the true sense of
the word," he says.

Despite the problems, and government reluctance in India, Pringle is optimistic. "You have an extremely well developed NGO sector. There are organisations in India that can support community radio -- either business ones or foundations. You have lots of metropolitan areas with markets to sustain community broadcasters, and sufficient technical skills. India would be less dependent on foreign (technical and other skills)," he says.

Source: The Hoot

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