Underutilised domainCommunity radios have established themselves as indispensable, but the air time value remains largely misspent
Community radios are emerging as an alternative media practice. UNESCO and the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC) have also termed community radios as an alternative medium. Community radios in most countries are operating with low transmission capacities, covering narrow geographical areas with a confined scope of content. However, community radios in Nepal entertain unique value and presence among the overall media sector.
While broadsheet national dailies and television channels operating from Kathmandu are considered national mainstream media, they have a limited presence in rural areas mainly due to issues of affordability and the ability of targeted audiences to grasp the content. Despite the popularity of mainstream media, community radios have established themselves as indispensable in the last two decades of broadcasting. This was most recently seen during the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, when people relied heavily on community radios as a source of information.
Though community radios are praised in Nepal for their substantial contribution in expanding the access people have to news and information, the air time value is still largely underutilised. With the advent of a rapid technological evolution, people have multiple media at their fingertips. These new media have replaced classical modes of communication and sources of information. Besides this, there are a number of factors that are creating barriers for the utilisation of momentum created by a strong presence and huge public investment.
Hangover of mainstream journalism
The first community radio in Nepal, Radio Sagarmatha, attempted to present newsworthy information in a flexible format rather than by using the traditional news casting format when it was established. However, the trend set by Radio Sagarmatha did not last long. While community radio broadcasting was in its expansion phase, deviations in the nature of the content were frequent and widespread. Community radios were heavily influenced by mainstream journalism as they found it easier to replicate.
Therefore, the boom of community radios has embraced mainstream journalists in their key positions. Whereas, newcomers have found an entry point into journalism by following the trend of prominent media such as Radio Nepal and BBC Nepali Sewa. Nepali broadcast journalism in recent times has been largely influenced by the style of notable journalists such as Rishi Dhamala and former journalist Rabindra Mishra. Though this practice has generated several Dhamalas and Mishras in local radio stations, this has detached community radios from the values of community broadcasting which should be content-oriented and participation orientated.
There are more than 700 FM radio stations operating in Nepal. A large numbers of these stations are based in urban areas while around half of the community radios are functioning in remote areas. Along with an increase in the number of national radio networks, trends of self-production of content is decreasing. At present, more than half a dozen radio networks are functioning to produce and supply radio content to these stations. If this number grows, this trend will limit radio stations to functioning only as relay broadcasters of national radio networks.
Forgetting local issues
Unlike global practices, news broadcasting is a unique privilege enjoyed by Nepali FM radios. This is widely practiced and has proven beneficial in the Nepali context as mainstream media has failed to reach all locations.
Presence of community radios in remote areas has helped people keep updated on national and international issues. Relay broadcasts of news bulletins by Radio Nepal, BBC Nepali Sewa and other radio networks have increased access to national and international news. Of course, local radios should have also prioritised local news and issues on their news bulletin, but this space has been taken by national and international news.
Some community radios such as Radio Gurbaba and Radio Rubaru have a strong connection with their communities. However, one of the challenges of community radios is that the operation and content production is controlled by a handful of people. Until community radio operators expand their membership and attract direct
participation, community radios cannot ensure that they will continue to function. Community radio broadcasters are labelled with political tags due to the promoters and senior staff’s political affiliation. However, studies have shown that contents of community radios are not biased and mistrusted. In a Nepal Media and Democracy Survey (2016) done by Sharecast Initiative Nepal, 85 percent of the respondents have rejected that FM radio supports any political party. Interests of community radios will be best served if station managers, journalists and program presenters could keep themselves aloof from political affiliation as they are perceived as public figures.
Audiences’ preference and priorities are rapidly changing and there is a growing availability of alternatives in media technology. So, this is a right time to review existing practices by community radios in Nepal. The community radio broadcasting sector is at the stage where formulating and endorsing country specific values would be an appropriate move.
The timing is also favourable due to the recent formulation of the Media Policy-2016. This policy has recognised the community radio sector for the first time and prescribed directives to prevent growing domination of radio networks. Likewise, there is precise guidance for community radios to specifically focus on the issues of locality in close proximity to the community. However, the policy is still vague regarding the participation of common people as producers besides the profile of audiences in community broadcasting sector. This issue should be addressed by upcoming laws which are required to implement the policy.
We shouldn’t forget that the community broadcasting sector has accumulated a huge public investment and large numbers of human resources are involved. Besides, community radios are serving as most accessible for news and information in a large number of places in Nepal. So, community radios need to survive and thrive by thoroughly applying their unique value and principles despite cut-throat competition as a result of rapidly changing technology and up-surge of commercial media.
Adhikari works as the Program Director for the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB) Nepal