Six years after allowing public FM radio, Nepal's pioneering efforts in liberalising licensing regulations for independent broadcasters is losing steam.
Nepal was one of the first countries in South Asia to allow non-governmental groups to broadcast on the FM band when Radio Sagarmatha 102.4 went on the air in 1996 in Kathmandu Valley. That opened up a flurry of new private
commercial stations, but the original intention of allowing communities to set up their own local FM stations got sidelined in the rush to profit from the new medium.
Even so, the government has given out operating licenses to 25 FM stations all over Nepal-half of them outside the Valley. The Ministry of Information and Communication is sitting on another 25 applications, some of them since 1996. "The applications are technically okay, but we are waiting to hear from the decision-making level," says Anup Nepal of the Frequency Division of the ministry.
Although they don't say it, officials have spread the explanation that the licenses are delayed because they don't want the new stations to fall into Maoist hands. However, local communities which have been waiting for their licenses say this is just an excuse to favour private licences for lucrative commercial stations. No licenses have been issued since the state of emergency was declared in November.
The existing FM broadcasters have been divided into community, commercial or co-operative stations, depending on the type of ownership. And this makes a marked difference to the content of the material broadcast. Community radios focus on locally relevant information and discussions, co-operative stations have a good mixture of entertainment and news, while the commercial stations are almost entirely entertainment-based and cater to the younger generation of music listeners.
"The main problem with licensing is that government policies do not make any distinction between for-profit and non-profit broadcasters," says one applicant for a radio license. The legal and financial obligations are similar, and all stations have to pay a government levy of 4 percent on net profits, and license fees apply to both profit and non-profit stations.
"Insensitivity of the government officials is killing public service broadcasters, and this is against the spirit of the country's communication policy," says Vinaya Kasajoo, a promoter of community-based media in Nepal. Since the post-democracy Communication Policy is guided by the principle of enhancing people's rights to information, Kasajoo argues that official policy should give more weight to grassroot initiatives to set up community radios.
Community radios like the Madanpokhara FM in Palpa and Radio Lumbini in Butwal are mainly information-based, and have higher running costs and less advertisement revenue than similar commercial stations. Because they cater to listeners at the village level who do not have the purchasing power, community radios lack of advertisers and sponsors for their programmes. According to the Association of Advertising Agencies-Nepal (AAAN) the advertisement turnover of the Kathmandu's seven FM stations totalled at Rs 33 million last fiscal year. The largest chunk of this went to private commercial stations. The commercial station, Classic FM for instance earns four times more in revenue from advertisements than Radio Sagarmatha with its public service orientation.
In almost every part of the world, public service broadcasters like the BBC or CBC in Canada are subsidised by the government. "It is ironical that in Nepal programming that is geared for independent information in the public sphere is taxed by government," says Bharat Koirala, whose lobbying efforts in the early 1990s were crucial in getting the government policy on licensing public service FM stations.
After its initially bold National Communicaton Policy which amended the National Broadcasting Act in 1997, thus ending the monopoly of Radio Nepal over the airwaves, the government has lagged behind, and hasn't implemented these progressive legislations. "FM has developed as an alternative largely because of the new policy," says Narhari Acharya who was chairman of the drafting committee of the National Communication Policy. "But the government has not been able to fully implement the recommendations we made to promote community radio."
The Policy document has even recommended that Radio Nepal be governed by an independent board modelled after the BBC, and stop functioning as the propaganda arm of government. But that seems to have been too radical a proposal, and that provision was subsequently dropped from the Act. However, there has been nothing to stop the government from implementing the other provisions in licensing community stations.
"The government must not see it as community broadcasters snatching control away from it," says Koirala. "It must see this as a way to strengthen democracy and giving voice to the diversity and plurality of Nepal."
A 1996 radio listenership survey in 1996 reported that there were 1.2 million radio sets in Nepal and an average of nearly four people listened to each set. This figure has now gone up, but the increase has been mainly in new FM sets. Still, it is Radio Nepal, broadcasting in the short and medium wave AM bands that commands most of this listenership.
For the first time, though, the spreading network of FM stations is taking listeners away from Radio Nepal-especially from urban areas. And this is hitting Radio Nepal's advertisement revenues. Already hurting because of a cutback in government subsidy, Radio Nepal has had to go commercial on
Most independent media analysts agree that private FM stations are not fulfilling their public service role by being overwhelmingly entertainment dominated. The Communication Policy identifies FM radio stations as mass media, but stops short of listing their social responsibilities. In the absence of a clear-cut guideline, radio stations for their part are confused about their own roles and responsibilities towards the public. "We clearly define FM radio stations as mass media and expect them to respect the media ethics," said Prabhakar Adhikari, Joint Secretary at the Frequency Section at the Ministry of Information and Communication. But the ministry doesn't seem to be doing much to ensure that this is happening.
In January last year, Information and Communication Minister Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, himself a former journalist, issued a directive banning independent news and current affairs programmes from non-government broadcasters. It took a Supreme Court directive recently to scrap the government edict. Most FM broadcasters are used to circumventing the license stipulation that they cannot broadcast "news" by calling the programmes "flash" or "daily diary".
"Unless the commercial channels are made aware about their social responsibilities, an increase in the number of stations may not help in keeping the public better informed," says Gopal Guragain who has launched an initiative to share news and current affairs between seven community stations outside the Valley (see box).
Nepal's FM radios have revolutionised the quality of broadcasting and dramatically changed listening habits in the past six year. They have contributed in increasing people's access to information and media-in places where Kathmandu's major newspapers reached a day late people can now listen to reviews of the contents within hours of publication every morning. They have contributed in making radio programmes interactive. Listeners are now the deciding factor in the kind of programmes to be aired. People's demands are forcing even hardcore commercial stations to produce more relevant news and current affairs programmes. Producing independent news bulletins and devoting at least half an hour every morning to current affairs programme is the latest trend in FM radios.
How big does a radio station need to be? Broadcast trainer and community radio supporter, Raghu Mainali (right), thinks it needn't be bigger than a box. And he can prove it with his mobile FM radio station which he lugs around in a suitcase. Mainali set up Community Radio Support Centre (CRSC) two years ago to "demystify" radio. Mainali maps out "strategic" villages with cultural and linguistic distinctness where a small FM radio station can make real impact and gets the community fired up about the idea. CRSC has identified Humla and Namche Bazar as areas with huge potential for local FM stations. Communities there are now working on plans to set up their own radio with help from CRSC which helps with technical feasibility and other training.
"By helping communities establish their own media we want to help them preserve cultural richness and indigenous knowledge," says Mainali. CRSC also helps prospective radio station owners with lobbying in the labyrinths of the Kathmandu ministries with paper work for licensing as well as lining up donors for specific projects. So far, Mainali's group has already helped non-profit stations like Radio Lumbini, Radio Madanpokhara, Swargadwari FM in Dang and Himchuli FM.
Mainali told us: "Private commercial stations are mainly urban-centered. They ignore social issues which they think are not popular with listeners. Someone has to step in to fill the gap in content between commercial stations and state radio."
Another group, Communication Corner in Kathmandu is also working with community radio stations that are already on the air by networking with them for exchange of news, current affairs and other radio magazine programmes. The organisation works with seven community radio stations to which it sends a daily 15 minute news and current affairs programmes and is encouraging members of the network to exchange material with each other.
The original plan was to link the stations together through the internet, but the bandwidth within Nepal was too narrow. Communications Corner is presently doing it via phone lines and will upgrade to internet audio files as soon as the bandwidth improves. "What we are trying to do is to magnify the voices of small community stations," says the centre's Gopal Guragain. "By making them a part of a network, the whole is bigger than a sum of the parts." From his studio in Kopundole, Guragain beams a news package every morning which is heard simultaneously in Butwal, Hetauda, Pokhara, Itahari, Palpa and Kathmandu.
With help from the Media Development Fund in Prague and the Panos Institute South Asia Communications Corner has equipped members of its FM Radio Network with computerised digital audio equipment. Besides news, a half-hour programme called Alopalo and Radio Ma Pustak and 15-minute KayaKairan are aired on member stations. The member stations pay for the daily KayaKairan, but get the two additional programmes for free on the understanding that they exchange their own productions with other members.
What distinguishes community stations in Nepal as well as their socially-minded commercial counterparts is that they see their public service role as a priority, and not just the profit motive. "Of course, we need to make ends meet, but informing the public has much greater importance in a democracy, and as a radio producer it gives you much greater satisfaction," says Guragain.