Back in 1992, when democracy was young, several Nepali organisations got together to apply for a licence to operate a private radio station, Although there was nothing in the new constitution banning private stations, we were sure the application would be rejected.
The Communication Policy Task Force headed by Narahari Acharya had just come out with its recommendations, and one of the key elements in the document was the provision to allow private broadcasting on the FM Band. But it was the bureaucracy that was the main hurdle, and their argument was that even India hadn\'t yet allowed private broadcasters, so how could we?
To our surprise, not only did the government decide to adopt the recommendations of the Task Force, it also drafted a National Communication Bill with a provision for private FM broadcasting. The bill passed through parliament without a hitch. It was at that point that the bureaucracy started dragging its feet. It took five years for Nepal\'s (and South Asia\'s) first community FM station, Radio Sagarmatha, to receive its licence and that too with much difficulty.
Grassroots FM stations can make information accessible through low-power transmitters in the 20-to 100-watt range for small communities and 500 watts for commercial stations in cities and large valleys like Kathmandu, Pokhara or Surkhet. Radio Nepal uses a 1,000-watt transmitter for its FM station in Kathmandu but this is because the rules don\'t seem to apply to a government station. Radio Sagarmatha had to wait one full year for its licence because the government wanted Radio Nepal to be the first to start an FM station in Nepal.
I remember discussing the importance of FM radio stations with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in 1992 at a Baluwatar tea party in the presence of UNESCO\'s Carlos Arnaldo. The Prime Minister\'s reservation in allowing private broadcasting was that the air waves could be used to hurt the sentiments of our powerful neighbours and jeopardise relations. Arnaldo assured the prime minister that many countries had community stations and they had become a key component of development. There was a glimmer of interest in the Prime Minister\'s face. He looked at me and said, "Let\'s go ahead then." The present Minister for Information and Communication, Jaya Prakash Gupta, was then the Prime Minister\'s Press Adviser and was present at the meeting.
The announcement last week of a licence for the Kantipur group to start a powerful FM station at Bhedetar in Dhankuta district, therefore, appears a bit lopsided and not in the spirit of the government\'s Communication Policy. What we need are not more large commercial stations, but a network of small community stations. This is evident from the experiences of some Asian countries where people are generally fed up with commercial stations and are asking for more serious debates on issues that affect their lives. In The Philippines, where there are hundreds of private radio stations, there is now an effort to convert many of the commercial stations into public service stations. A similar effort is underway in Indonesia after democracy. Public debates on political, social and economic issues are now possible and radio stations have become more vibrant and popular despite the continued growth in TV channels.
Nepal still leads countries of South Asia in public broadcasting. Our experience has generated a lot of interest among media professionals in neighbouring countries. But, unless the licensing process is speeded up and more community stations are established soon, it will lose this lead. Granting licences to powerful, well-endowed commercial houses tends to discourage those communities that have taken steps to establish local radio stations. When news that Kantipur had received a licence was announced, the promoters of an FM station in Fikkal in Ilam district called us to ask what would happen to their initiative. We had to assure them that theirs was a public station for a small community, and as it was not driven merely by a profit motive, but by genuine concern for the needs of the audience, it would not affect their own effort.
Nepal already has some good models of public broadcasting. Radio Sagarmatha has established itself as a professional, relevant and independent public station with a large listenership in Kathmandu Valley. In Madan Pokhara in Palpa district, a small station with local volunteers broadcasts seven hours a day to most of the VDCs in the district, Its popularity is growing. In Manigram of Rupandehi district, Lumbini FM broadcasts six hours a day to towns like Butwal and Bhairawa and to many surrounding villages. Both are public stations developed on the Sagarmatha model and their programmes provide information and education to many rural areas. Presently, the Community Radio Centre in Kathmandu is working closely with a number of communities from Bajhang to Ham keen on starting FM radio stations.
Any community that wants to establish a radio station must carry out technical and economic feasibility studies before making a formal application for a licence. There are now 23 applications pending at the Ministry of Information and Communication. Among the existing stations the ownership patterns are also different. While the Madan Pokhara station is owned by the local VDC. the one in Manigram is owned by a cooperative which put up the money for the whole project.
Nepal\'s pioneering work with community radio can only go ahead if the liberal licensing process that is in place is implemented. This calls for political will. After all, FM stations are still the most cost-effective broadcasting units. Low-cost FM receivers are more readily available now, and can even be manufactured locally.
Then, there are new possibilities for connecting them into a network with the Internet. Given Nepal\'s rugged topography, its low literacy and widespread poverty, such a decentralised network would be the best way to use communications for development.
(Bharat Koiraia is the General Secretary of Nepal Press Institute.)