| 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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,
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.