Radio Madanpokhara In Nepal:The old, the new and the hybrid radio

Many of us who grew up in the seventies in the last century, when we loved the western movies, are familiar with Clint Eastwood and his western classic ‘The Good, Bad and the Ugly’. The good guy Clint at the end of the movie was the winner. The moral of that classic was there are always good, bad and ugly in a society, whether it was the lawless western society, or the present day emerging ‘information society’, the combination of its all results always the good winning. In the context of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) also there are old, new and hybrid ICTs and it so seems that in so called developing countries, the hybrid emerges the winner.

Radio Madanpokhara (RM)
In Nepal, one of the so called least developed countries in Asia, which implies in terms of ICT also, a farmer in Madanpokhara village, located 8 hours drive from the capital city of Kathmandu, in the western part of Palpa-Tansen hill district of Nepal needed to sell his buffalo. He had to spread the word around in his village. Here it’s better to use the jargon ‘communicate’. And there was no other better means to market his buffalo then to make an announcement through a community radio in his village by paying a very nominal fee. And he sold his buffalo.

The Nepali farmer made the announcement and sold his buffalo by the virtue of an ICT hybrid community radio, serving to give a voice to the community. Such an access to ICT, hybrid it may be of old and new media, has been possible for a farmer in a far-flung village in Nepal and the voice of the community is finding an outlet. Thanks goes to successful operation of the ICT hybrid community Radio Madanpokhara (RM) for the past four years in a rural setting in Nepal.

The humble beginning
After a long struggle for obtaining the license from the Nepali government, when RM went on air with a 100 watts transmitter in 2000, with initial technical support from UNESCO and Radio Sagarmatha, the first public radio in Nepal based in Kathmandu, the radio station’s studio was located in a small space adjoining the cowshed of the station manager. In addition to UNESCO’s support, RM was started with a trust fund of 65 members each paying annual membership fee of 1000 rupees. In few years, it collected about Rs 400,000 and by the summer last year, had constructed its own building and has a studio now which is as good as any other commercial FM radio station in the urban spreads of Nepal. It has also now 500 watts transmitting capacity.

Besides the annual membership fee, the running cost for Radio Madanpokhara is met by the annual contributions from their development budget by the Madanpokhara Village Development Committee (VDC), which officially owns it, and Palpa-Tansen District Development Committee. It also earns small revenue from selected advertisements and sponsorships. Only few station staff receives small remunerations, and others work as unpaid volunteers. Monthly income of RM is roughly Rs 30-50,000 and the expenditure is around Rs 25,000. The station does not carry commercials for Coca-cola, Fanta, Chow Chow (readymade noodles) and other such products. It entertains mainly births, marriages, deaths and community-based announcements, like the one of the farmer, that are aired as commercials, rather ‘community commercials’. “It is not only to select commercials, we are careful with what songs we play also”, says Gunakar Aryal, a local from Madanpokhara, and the station manager of RM. He adds how the radio as an ICT, a globalisation technology, can be used carefully to retain the traditional values of a village, may it be social, cultural or economic. All the more, the RM has completely relied on local human resources, the communities, and volunteers for running its show. Volunteers from Radio Sagarmatha initially trained representatives from 20 village development committees and one municipality as reporters and producers in Palpa-Tansen. There were an additional 11 volunteers from the local area. Since then, the numbers of volunteer trainers and reporters have now increased significantly. 

This truly community radio broadcasts to many parts of Palpa and some parts of seven adjoining districts, reaching around 400,000 people. Though the radio station is owned by Madanpokhara VDC, it is managed by a media committee board. The management board has seventeen members from various fields, groups and organisations in the village, thus very well representing the various communities in Palpa. As for what voice of the community the Radio Madanpokhara is giving, it is very much community focused as programmes are centred on topics that affect the everyday life of the local community. In addition to everyday periodic local news, there are programmes on natural disasters such as landslides and fire, farming, disadvantaged sections of the community as well as songs and music. It has mobilised women and integrated gender issues also as the station involves a number of women volunteers who produce and present programmes. There are regular programmes on children’s issues, gender and other development areas. ”

These days I listen to Radio Madpokhara for local news and for entertainment. I am sure that most of the people in my village listen to Radio Madapokhra rather than Radio Nepal”, says a young lad Ram Magar, who has just returned to his village from his three years stint in the middle-east. The RM is broadcasting 8 hours a day currently, although on special days/occasions there are additional hours of broadcasting. It is more popular than the state Radio Nepal that does not have much space for local community concerns to voice themselves.

Marriage of the old and the new ICT
As when globally the so called ‘digital divide’ is transforming into ‘digital opportunities’, Radio Madanpokhara is also not left behind in the global ICT race. Keeping pace with the new developments with ICTs, in the last couple of years, the RM has married the application of digital technology with its traditional analogue production and broadcasting capacity. As a member of FM Radio Network Project, initiated by Kathmandu based South Asia Regional Office of Panos, with technical and grant support from Media Development Loan Fund, Prague, Czech Republic and a local media organisation Communications Corner in Kathmandu, RM has been using new ICTs, like computers, digital recording and editing hardware and software in its production and broadcasting.

From January this year, it has further upgraded its digital capacity under the same project to wireless satellite technology for distributing and receiving audio data and files through satellite audio channels. RM has been equipped with satellite receiving system like encoders, decoders and radio modems and it now receives news and other development content programmes from the central hub of the network, based in Kathmandu everyday through a satellite. It also distributes its programmes to other member radio stations through the same satellite audio channel networked through the Kathmandu based ISP and the radio network hub.

Hybrid friendly policies?
Since the liberalisation and promulgation of ICT policies after the restoration of democracy in Nepal, there have been significant growth of private radio FM stations. Currently there are about 60 licenses issued to operate public radio stations on FM frequency, and half of them are already on air. The current private radio policy that includes the licensing fees (for radio modems, satellite links) and code of conduct, however, does not differentiate between commercial and community radios. As commercial radios have commercial investments and they relatively earn also likewise, a common regulation does not portend well for the non-profit people focused community radios like the Radio Madanpokhara. “Every time I come to Kathmandu I visit the ministry and tell them about the problems community radios have with the current radio policies. I also tell them RM is a ‘model’ and governments willing can be replicated in all the villages of Nepal and help communities to communicate for development”, says Gunakar.

There is no denying in what Gunakar says. The RM four years ago had a humble beginning, but it is certainly a success story. Radio Madanpokhara is an outstanding example of successful community initiative in Nepal’s effort for development in general and development communications in particular. In this era of information revolution and globalisation, information and knowledge management is becoming central to development of communities and so called information based economic ‘information society’. Information and knowledge can empower communities for development. Though there has been efforts by the government in Nepal to develop rural telecentres or call these knowledge centres, or whatever jargon you have for it, using hardcore new media ICTs like PCs and Internet. The best bet for countries like Nepal is the marriage of old and new media ICTs for development or ICT4D. And in that case, with Nepal’s both grassroots as well as policy and technology experience, marrying radio with new ICTs is the best bet.

If policies are favourable for hybrid ICTs, then the ‘community communication commitment for development’ promises to bring about change, as is the sole purpose of hybrid ICT like Radio Madanpokhara.