Radio at the crossroads
Nepal's community radios risk alienating the communities they claims to
FROM ISSUE #576 (28 OCT 2011 - 03 NOV 2011)
Community radio in Nepal is frequently celebrated as a model for radio
broadcasting in South Asia. There are almost 200 licensed community stations
on air across the country, often broadcasting to impoverished and remote
areas. In theory, community radio props up grassroots democracy but there is
a growing gap between the promise and reality of community radio in Nepal.
The phenomenal growth of community radio in Nepal has been without
oversight. Ownership is increasingly dominated by local elite who start
stations in the name of the community. Privileged class and castes and
well-connected males hold licenses through cooperatives or NGOs, whose
limited objectives are often politically motivated, may be out of touch with
the communities they serve.
Publicity is the lifeblood of politicians, and the widespread ownership of
radio sets has naturally made community radio a targeted publicity tool for
politicians. The Community Radio Support Center estimates that political
parties directly or indirectly operate up to 60 per cent of community radios
currently on air. A look at a map of community radios shows clusters of
three or more stations in many areas across the country, an indication of
counterbalancing efforts among the three main parties. Beyond the problem of
the manipulation of news and views that may come with the politicisation of
community media, competition means a push towards larger transmitters.
Increased overhead costs lead to heavier reliance on commercial sources of
revenue and a reorientation of community stations towards the market.
In a market-based model of media sustainability, the sponsors and
advertisers are the buyers while the readers, listeners, and viewers are the
consumers. Buyer demands usually overrule consumer demands, at least as long
as they don't hamper the credibility of a media outlet to the extent that it
turns off the media consumer. But the sustainability of community radio lies
not in commercial sources but in the creation of social capital. When
community stations rely on the market, they risk alienating the community.
Other than profit or non-profit status, there is nothing to distinguish a
community station from a commercial station in Nepal.
Even though many stations broadcast in several languages, the actual amount
of time devoted to local language programming is small. Many programs in
Nepali may not be fully relatable to local language speakers. Where stations
increasingly rely on commercial sources of revenue, this situation is
unlikely to change. Local language programming may have little
attractiveness to advertisers due to a lack of purchasing power among local
language listeners, exposing the market's limitations.
Syndicated programming centrally produced by NGOs and private production
houses comprises a large percentage of community radio airtime. While this
is a way for stations to cut costs and broadcast quality programming, it
does reinforce traditional Kathmandu-centrism, eroding local orientation.
Stations outside of Kathmandu have been shown to have more news programs
than stations established inside the Valley, primarily sourced from content
providers based in Kathmandu and dominated by national politics. As such,
community stations can be said to be as national in outlook as any
Investigative pieces probing local corruption are seldom carried out,
perhaps a result of safety concerns or pandering to political or financial
patrons. While centrally produced programs on crucial issues such as
constitution-making and federalism do incorporate local voices and offer
quality analysis on complex subject matter to resource-strapped stations, it
is clear that some of the most important decisions facing Nepalis are
largely out of the reach of real grassroots participation.
A true community station requires local orientation and community
accountability. Ownership by traditionally dominant local groups and
political parties goes contrary to this ethic. There are numerous community
radios which do exhibit excellent practices, but in many cases the word
"community" has been captured for self-serving ends.
The Community Radio Performance Assessment System, a point-based method of
scoring the "health" of community stations, is now identifying model
community stations while providing incentives and support for stations with
lower scores. Almost half of the total score is devoted to the local
orientation of programming and community ownership and participation. The
results should offer a good baseline from which an appropriate system of
classification, development guidelines, and regulation can evolve in a
sector emerging from its infancy. It is in the effort to reclaim the title
of "community" that democratic processes in community radio can flourish and
community radio can endure as a principal agent of democratisation.
*Anthony Wille is with the Graduate Program in International Affairs, The
New School, New York.*
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