Nepali Times
Thinking nationally, acting locally


Ten years after it transformed Nepal's media landscape, Nepal's network of radio stations are now being threatened by the dominance of national-level news and the control of the airwaves by politicians and businessmen.

"If the process of centralised network broadcasting continues at its present pace, local identity and capacity will be eroded," warns media expert Binaya Kasaju.

There are now 69 FM stations all over Nepal with another 27 going on air soon. Existing stations are now filling airtime with up to four hours of nationally-syndicated news and current affairs programs daily.

Communications Corner, for instance, simultaneously broadcasts its news programs through 22 stations nationwide. Antenna Foundation has talk and discussions like 'Nepal Chautari' going through 29 stations. BBC Nepali Service is broadcast every evening through a dozen stations.

FM stations are by definition local because of their signal reach, but networking has allowed them to have a national character. Local content allowed these stations to voice community concerns and reflect Nepal's ethnic, linguistic and geographical diversity.

The reason for the loss of local character is that although most FM stations are in the 100-500 watt range, high-power transmitters up to 10,000 watts are being permitted. There is no criteria for deciding who gets what transmission capacity, and there are no limits to the number of licenses in an area. Kathmandu Valley alone now has 18 FM radios.

National media players are also expanding aggressively to other urban areas. Kantipur FM which used to broadcast to the whole of eastern Nepal now has license to set up FM radios in Nepalganj, Butwal, Bharatpur and Pokhara. Image FM is following suit.

Not everyone agrees all this erodes local content. Gopal Guragain of Communication Corner who is launching a satellite-syndicated service called Ujyalo National Network with 18 hours of programming daily says the unique selling point of community radios is still local content.

"Of course not everyone wants to just hear about how to keep water buffalos healthy," he adds, "there is also a great hunger for national news. So there has to be a balance between national and local."

A recent listenership survey showed that Saptakosi FM in Itahari had nipped the powerful Kantipur FM in ratings in Morang and Sunsari. Community radios that broadcast in local languages also have a powerful advantage over nationally syndicated content. Birganj FM's Bhojpuri and Janakpur FM's Maithili programming are popular not just in the tarai but also across the border in India. In fact, both are now selling commercial time for Indian products.

In the ongoing tarai unrest, radio stations in the plains, while pressing for a fair deal for madhesis, have raised their voices for communal harmony and to keep the agitation peaceful.

Some analysts aren't as worried about nationally syndicated content as they are about politicians investing in radio. The Maoists have just bought Paschimanchal FM in Palpa through a Butwal-based front man. Programming chief Ramesh Poudel openly admits his station's aim is to propagate the Maoist agenda. Paschimanchal relayed a live broadcast of Pushpa Kamal Dahal's 13 February speech from Kathmandu.

The UML's Pradip Nepal is involved in Saptakosi FM in Itahari, and another party member owns Suklaphanta FM in Mahendranagar. ML mayor of Tansen Ashok Shahi is involved in Muktinath FM. The RPP's Rajiv Parajuli has put his brother in charge of Birganj FM. Jivan Shahi of NC-D has got the license to operate Kailash FM in Simkot. The Kabhre NC president and a central committee member have got permissions for stations in Kabhre and Janakpur.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)