When Hari Bahadur Karki, 72, learnt last May that his grandson, Arjun, was diagnosed with blood cancer, he was devastated. He had heard about a local radio starting up in Katuwal Danda in Palung VDC. He walked up to the hilltop where station manager Bishnu Hari Dhakal and his staff were preparing for test transmissions and got straight to the point.
"My grandson has blood cancer," Karki said, "The doctors say he will not survive unless he has chemotherapy." Karki had no idea what he would accomplish by rushing up to the station. The radio producers ushered Karki into their newly constructed studio, turned on the microphone and asked him to tell his story. The result was a 30-second radio spot:
My name is Hari Bahadur Karki. I live here in Palung I have been a road labourer all my life. I have 11 daughters and four sons. My 17-year-old grandson, who goes to Janakalyan High School and is in the school's volleyball team, has been diagnosed with blood cancer. I am poor and have no savings. Please help save his life.
Over the next weeks, Palung FM played the spot many times. "The response was overwhelming," recalls Karki. "People I barely knew stopped to inquire about Arjun." They would reach into their pockets and pull out 100, 500 or even 1,000 rupee notes. "Six-year-old students handed over lunch money for Arjun's treatment."
Others who did not know where the family lived came up to the studio to leave their envelopes. It became difficult for the station to keep track of people's contributions, so the station asked Palung Multipurpose Cooperative Bank to open an account for Arjun Karki. In the two months following the first broadcast, Rs 150,000 had been raised.
Proponents of community radio believe this to be the spirit of local FM radios: they are sensitive to have the tools to serve the needs of communities they operate in. In countries as ethnically, geographically and linguistically diverse as Nepal, they says hundreds of local FMs should be allowed to bloom. One national broadcaster may hold the country together with nationally relevant content but it will never address the needs of local communities.
When it started in 1996, Radio Sagarmatha in Kathmandu became a pioneer of public service broadcasting and a symbol of free airwaves not just in Nepal but in South Asia. Since then, a rainbow of 57 FM stations have been launched with a listenership of eight million and providing employment to over 2,500 people. The ownership pattern is diverse but even the most commercial stations have one thing in common with community stations: local content and local programming. Local FMs are more relevant to local needs. Radio Nepal may aim to reach all 25 million Nepalis but community radio has catered to villages all over the country.
While state broadcasters in the region serve as propaganda arms of the government of the day, local FM use airtime covering local issues-politics, governance, development, culture and society.
Until 31 January, Nepal was the only country in South Asia to have opened up the airwaves to independent community and commercial FM stations. We were unique in that our broadcasting rights which included our right to independent news and analysis. While governments of other South Asian countries were hesitant to let go of the airwaves Nepal became a beacon of hope to people who believed in the power and potential of independent FMs in empowering local communities.
Now with the 4 February circular from the Ministry of Information and Communications that FM stations limit themselves to broadcasting 'pure entertainment-based programs' and not broadcast 'news, information, articles, thoughts/ideas and expression' the space for educational and information content on radio will shrink.
Thousands of Arjun Karkis in Palung, Baglung, Ilam, Chitwan, Nepalganj, Jumla and across Nepal, who had come to depend on their local FM are now deprived of credible and relevant information and can't use the medium to communicate with their communities.