Radio helps make relief distribution and post-earthquake recovery more transparent, accountable and responsive
Reporter Deepak Khatri (below) interviews earthquake survivors in Chautara last week for his program. Photo: Madhu Acharya
Sitting on mismatched mattresses inside the tent that houses Radio Sindhu’s transmitter, desktop, mixer, microphone, and telephone hybrid, Station Manager Ratna Prasad Shrestha points down to the three-storey building that was once a vibrant radio station.
The station’s antenna, perched precariously atop a 3-storey building in Chautara broadcast to Sindhupalchok and Kavre districts before the earthquakes. Even now, it towers above all else in Chautara and is a testimony to media’s reach in the Nepali hinterland.
Information and communication are ‘critical need items’ and their absence prevents disaster survivors from accessing services and making the best decisions for themselves. The earthquake gives us a chance to assess Communication with Communities (CwC) and take stock of how far Nepal has come since the first independent FM radio station went on air in 1996. Without this, any intervention involving radio as a CwC tool will be off-target and ineffective.
Within hours of the first quake, Radio Sindhu staff rushed into the station, grabbed a few broadcast essentials from inside the damaged building, and set up camp in a clearing overlooking the Tundikhel. A thin bamboo pole now serves as the station’s antenna.
Shrestha wants to go in and retrieve the remaining equipment, a larger 5 kVA backup, field recorders, microphones, some furniture, etc. But the Nepal Army has declared the building unsafe and advised him not to go back in. Before the quake, Radio Sindhu had 12 paid staff and six volunteers. Shrestha does not know how long he can ask his staff to continue working without pay, and the volunteers have stopped coming.
Radio Sindhu takes roughly an hour of content each day from Kathmandu-based production houses. The remaining 17 hours is produced by local reporters. While professionally produced content from Kathmandu fill a few slots, it is the local reporters and local programs that are the core content of the stations in the earthquake-affected districts. The best investment in CwC is to directly support local radio stations. These independent FM stations have many urgent needs: production and broadcast hardware, field recorders, tents, sleeping mattresses, solar chargers, mobile phones, SIM cards and money to pay reporters and keep the stations going.
While the Nepal government can help FM stations in earthquake affected areas by waiving license renewal fees and not taxing annual income this year, humanitarian organisations can step up to support local radio stations in the earthquake affected districts so they can retain staff and keep providing critical information to the affected communities.
A national survey carried out in 2014 showed that 86 per cent of Nepalis have access to mobile phones and 40 percent listen to radio on their mobile phones. With a majority of young men working in the Gulf, most households in Sindhupalchok have mobile phones. Cell phones are used not just to communicate with relatives abroad, but also to dial call-in programs at radio stations, which have now become the mainstay of local radio stations.
Radio Sindhu broadcasts in Helmu, Nepali and Tamang languages which before the earthquake used to focus on information useful for migrant labourers: how to go about looking for overseas work, what legitimate recruiting companies look like, how to guard against exploitation, fraud and corruption.
However, in the weeks following the earthquakes, FM stations have changed their programming. Radio Sindhu, for example, has dedicated morning programs that interview representatives from district’s agriculture, forestry, livestock, water, health or sanitation departments and afternoon call-in programs that allow citizens to pose question to VDC Secretaries or their assistants, political party representatives and civil society organisations.
While radio producers have learned to ask questions of local government, political parties and development workers, they have yet to learn to report on humanitarian aid agency processes. Last week Radio Sindhu wanted to produce a program about relief distribution. It got a list of organisations providing health services in Sindhupalchok from the UN office, picked random VDCs from the list, and called Secretaries and political party workers to find out what work the organisations in the UN’s list were doing in that VDC. Neither the VDC secretaries, or the political party workers had heard about the organisations that were in the list. The radio station gave up after a few phone calls and the program was never aired.
Local radio stations have been critical in providing information to Nepalis for the last two decades. They have helped people make sense of politics, and local development and now to know about post-quake issues.
Development projects in Nepal have traditionally used radio as an outreach tool for nutrition, safe motherhood, conflict mitigation, transparency and government accountability.
Radio helped development projects overcome the challenges of terrain, linguistic and ethnic diversity and low literacy. In the aftermath of the earthquake, radio can play an even more important role in rebuilding. Those working in relief, recovery and reconstruction need to reach out to local radio stations and open themselves up to questions from local reporters.
Like VDC Secretaries, political workers, and local government officials, relief and recovery agencies need to learn to communicate with local communities. By reaching out to local radio stations, humanitarian organisations will be committing to local accountability and helping make relief distribution, post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of the local communities.
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The new radio revolution, Rubeena Mahato
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Nepal must be radio active, Birat Koirala