Air Waves from a Land­locked Land

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of Nepali FM sta­tions em­braces both re­wards and chal­lenges.

Southasia - - Media - By Amit Pyakurel

From an eco­nomic and prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, an FM ra­dio would be an ob­vi­ous choice to dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion, es­pe­cially to lower in­come groups who pri­or­i­tize ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion in their daily lives. It is af­ford­able, ac­ces­si­ble, com­pat­i­ble and ef­fi­cient. Tran­scend­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal bound­aries, the Nepali ra­dio is a vi­tal tool for in­for­ma­tion, ed­u­cat­ing Nepali ru­ral masses who oth­er­wise have lit­tle ac­cess to the out­side world. The ra­dio has also played a cen­tral role in cre­at­ing aware­ness about Nepal’s po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments, cul­ture, health, and ed­u­ca­tion.

Un­like priv­i­leged ur­ban masses who have easy ac­cess to more so­phis­ti­cated in­for­ma­tion me­dia, FM ra­dio has be­come in­dis­pens­able to most of the coun­try’s ru­ral pop­u­lace. FM ra­dio chan­nels in Nepal have strived to sus­tain and en­hance in­di­vid­ual tal­ent or en­tice an en­tre­pre­neur­ial mind­set at the lo­cal and na­tional lev­els.

Nepali pol­i­tics has un­der­gone dra­matic up­heavals in the past 15 years or so. In­ter­est­ingly, the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity gave rise to numer­ous in­de­pen­dent ra­dio sta­tions, some of which con­tinue to func­tion from a sin­gle room. The coun­try also wit­nessed a dra­matic in­crease in the over­all pres­ence of FM net­works.

Among the 300 plus FM sta­tions cur­rently on air, some are solely de­voted to en­ter­tain­ment pur­poses while most oth­ers are sig­nif­i­cantly driven by po­lit­i­cal news, talk shows, in­ter­views, and analy­ses. In a coun­try that is rapidly trans­form­ing, news re­lated to lo­cal and com­mu­nity ac­tiv­i­ties also get on-air time. Most ra­dio sta­tions op­er­ate with min­i­mal fund­ing and a com­pro­mised pro­fes­sional and aes­thetic qual­ity. Few

sta­tions, in par­tic­u­lar those af­fil­i­ated with the coun­try’s main­stream me­dia houses, like Kan­tipur FM and Im­age FM, have thrived both eco­nom­i­cally and pro­fes­sion­ally. Ac­quir­ing a strong hold in the coun­try’s broad­cast­ing plat­form, they have fur­ther man­aged to broad­cast through­out the coun­try rather than op­er­at­ing within a lo­cal spec­trum.

Due to a large num­ber of ra­dio sta­tions, the in­creased traf­fic has forced broad­cast­ers to ob­tain a high trans­mis­sion power, thus in­creas­ing start-up costs. Apart from fac­ing tough com­pe­ti­tion, skilled man­power and state-of-the art equip­ment has also be­come a ne­ces­sity, adding fur­ther to the cost. Hav­ing to rely solely on mea­ger rev­enues, ra­dio sta­tion man­agers have also pro­vided too much lee­way for ad­ver­tis­ers to choose the cheap­est air­time, slim­ming down the price of ad-space.

In most cases, the start-up costs of the in­de­pen­dent FM sta­tions have to rely on the owner’s fund­ing un­less they are state owned or are third-party funded com­mu­nity ra­dio sta­tions. How­ever, a weak econ­omy and un­steady pol­i­tics have re­duced the chances for the government to fi­nan­cially sup­port even a tiny num­ber of such ra­dio sta­tions. Be­sides fur­ther­ing the need for ed­u­ca­tion and pro­mot­ing en­ter­tain­ment, FM sta­tions also raise po­lit­i­cal aware­ness among the pub­lic. Fur­ther­ing a lib­eral agenda, some FM sta­tions also cover demo­cratic move­ments and of­ten join events or marches. Based on the me­dia friendly laws in­tro­duced in 1990, pri­vate FM sta­tions be­gan to mark their pres­ence among the gen­eral au­di­ence af­ter 1995, end­ing the mo­nop­oly of the state owned Ra­dio Nepal. The new in­terim con­sti­tu­tion en­shrined af­ter the success of the 2006 peo­ple’s move­ment en­sured stronger re­quire- ments re­gard­ing rights to in­for­ma­tion, which was fol­lowed by a rapid pro­lif­er­a­tion of new FM sta­tions in the coun­try.

Even th­ese friendly ges­tures how­ever, could not save FM sta­tions from po­lit­i­cal on­slaughts. Dur­ing the era of the royal regime, FM sta­tions came un­der at­tack fol­low­ing the re­stric­tion to broad­cast news. Even in to­day’s con­text, not all pri­vate sta­tions are free from party pol­i­tics as some have es­tab­lished them­selves as the mouth­piece of cer­tain po­lit­i­cal par-

Nepali pol­i­tics has un­der­gone dra­matic up­heavals in the past 15 years or so. In­ter­est­ingly, the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity gave rise to numer­ous in­de­pen­dent ra­dio sta­tions, some of which con­tinue to func­tion from a sin­gle room. The coun­try also wit­nessed a dra­matic in­crease in the over­all pres­ence of FM net­works.

ties. This trend started when po­lit­i­cal par­ties be­gan op­er­at­ing their own FM sta­tions that gave room to bias rather than ob­jec­tiv­ity.

Apart from the com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers, state au­thor­i­ties have failed to pro­vide sup­port or fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives even to com­mu­nity FM sta­tions which are obliged to pri­or­i­tize their sus­te­nance more than their ser­vice. As a re­sult, com­mu­nity broad­cast­ers seem to shy away from fo­cus­ing on the non-com­mer­cial is­sues like lo­cal and so­cial ser­vice ori­ented con­tents. On the other hand, pro­vid­ing li­censes to new FM sta­tions has proven to be hap­haz­ard due to the lack of con­crete jus­ti­fi­ca­tion pol­icy which is of­ten marred by po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and cor­rup­tion.

Be­yond this re­al­ity, some com­mu­nity FM sta­tions along­side the com­mer­cial ones opt to broad­cast the syn­di­cated con­tent from other pro­fes­sional medi­ums, which has helped them in eco­nomic sus­te­nance as well as pop­u­lar­ity. For in­stance, Sagar­matha FM, the first in­de­pen­dent com­mu­nity ra­dio in South Asia, daily airs 30 min­utes of pro­gram, passed on from the BBC Nepali Ser­vice.

With grow­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, the long-term sus­te­nance of the in­di­vid­ual FM ra­dio sta- tions in the coun­try al­ludes to a bleak fu­ture. How­ever, their fame and ef­fec­tive­ness hangs in the bal­ance. In such a me­dia en­vi­ron­ment, the eco­nomic and pro­fes­sional sus­te­nance along­side the qual­ity of ser­vices of ra­dio sta­tions are likely to progress at a grad­ual pace. FM sta­tions have played an ex­tra­or­di­nary role to ad­dress the or­di­nary masses’ crav­ing for in­for­ma­tion and ed­u­ca­tion. Eco­nomic sup­port and ap­pro­pri­ate reg­u­la­tions from the state is nec­es­sary to en­sure steady progress of FM sta­tions.

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