Kalpana Dhakal and Jitendra Raut read out letters for the feedback segment at the BBC Nepali Service studio in Naxal with Technical Manager Shyam Nepali (left)
Every evening at a quarter to nine, from Darchula to Ilam, Nepal resonates with a familiar jingle and a well-modulated voice from London: "Yo BBC Nepali Sewa ho".
Over the years, as the country lived through democracy movements, conflict, absolute monarchy and censorship, the daily news on the BBC Nepali Service has been the station most Nepalis have turned to for credible news and analysis. Today, even though the conflict is over and there is constitutionally guaranteed press freedom, Nepalis still turn to the BBC to make sense of what is happening in their own country.
The latest survey has shown that an estimated 5.2 million people tune into the BBC for its half-hour broadcasts every evening, relayed through 103FM in the Kathmandu Valley and a network of 150 stations all over the country. A further million people listen to the BBC online.
BBC Nepali will probably experience a slight drop in audience numbers as it will stop broadcasting in shortwave from next month, but hopes to make up for the loss by expanding its syndicate partners. Even so, it already rivals Radio Nepal for the highest audience numbers in Nepal.
But BBC Nepali's impact goes beyond just numbers. This may be what saved the Nepali Service from the latest budget cuts in London last week, which resulted in the axing of five language services (see box). The cuts will cost the BBC 30 million listeners worldwide, and have been subjected to plenty of criticism.
"Despite being small compared to other world services, we have consistently managed to survive cuts because of the impact we have and the value that we add to the broadcast," explains Rabindra Mishra, the head of the Nepali Service, based in Kathmandu.
BBC Nepali's listeners come from a broad swathe of society, from political bigwigs to ordinary people. Despite clashing with primetime TV, the news and current affairs programs are so popular, politicians are known to carry FM earphones in their pockets to avoid missing the evening bulletin.
Says avid BBC fan, Nepali writer Kumar Acharya: "It has become a habit, I listen to it every day to make sense of the politics. BBC gives me a synopsis, whereas other TV and radio bulletins leave me confused."
Letters from listeners flood into BBC's studio in Naxal, Kathmandu, from all over Nepal and the world. The online listenership ranks among the top ten in the BBC despite Nepal's relatively smaller diaspora. Unlike radio, with online service, audience do not have to wait till evening for the news and can listen to programs again and again. Says Mishra, "What gives the Nepali Service such an impact is that it speaks to a large section of society. Everyone wants to hear what is happening, after all."
Mani Rana, who retired in 2003 after working for BBC Nepali for over 30 years since its inception in London, remembers the heady early days. "Our audience numbers rose dramatically during the 1990 democratic movement," he recalls. "The state media had no coverage of the movement and the BBC Nepali Service became the only source of factual information."
This happened again during king Gyanendra's rule, following his coup in February 2005 when there was complete censorship, and during the second movement for democracy in April 2006.
Apart from its core staff in London and Kathmandu, BBC Nepali has correspondents and stringers across the country, and quite a few of them are women. Although the staple fare continues to be politics, the programming has shifted to make room for social issues, art, entertainment, and sports.
BBC Nepali has also responded to audience complaints about world news being given priority to news from Nepal by kicking off its bulletins with domestic news. It is also looking into having short morning bulletins.
Mishra sums it up: "Our audience wants more news about Nepal and more airtime, and we are looking into doing just that."
Audio link to BBC Nepali's program
Off the waves
On 27 January, the BBC announced the closure of its Albanian, Macedonian, Portuguese for Africa, Serbian and English for Caribbean regional services. It also said it was stopping programs in Azeri, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Ukrainian. Medium and short wave transmissions will be phased out with content available online.
Short wave transmissions in Hindi, Bahasa Indonesia, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes service (for Rwanda and Burundi) will be terminated in March. There are now 26 language services left and the BBC hopes to save GBP 46 million a year with these cuts.