‘Yo Krantikari Radio ho. Hami mukti morcha ko sangram bata boli rahe ka chau.” The booming voice of freedom fighter Narad Muni Thulung marked the beginning of Nepali radio broadcast history. The year was 2003 B.S and the location was Dingla, Bhojpur.
Although the date of the beginning of the operations of Krantikari Radio remains unknown, it has been documented that the show, though run in an irregular manner, aimed to overthrow the then-existing Rana rule. It was an initiative that was supported by both the Nepali Congress and the then-Communist Party of Nepal, with technical assistance from the Japanese. After a year’s operation, the equipment was transported to the Biratnagar Jute Mill, where Prajatantra Radio was set up. The station aired progressive songs and speeches by leaders such as B.P Koirala and Manmohan Adhikari. In 2006 B.S., sensing the defeat of the Ranas, the equipment was brought to Lalitpur, where Nepal Radio was established. With the ushering in of democracy in 2007 B.S., the equipment was taken to Singhadurbar, and, on Chaitra 20, 2007 B.S., Radio Nepal was formally established with official assistance from the Japanese government.
Fifty eight years down the line, Radio Nepal remains the most powerful media in Nepal. “Radio Nepal reaches 83 percent of the Nepali population,” claims Dhanendra Bimal, head of Programme Department at the station. According to him, the state-owned station broadcasts programmes in 20 languages through short wave, medium wave and FM frequencies. And while the last 20 years have seen a boom in private FM stations, Radio Nepal doesn’t see them as any competition. “They are no threat to us as we have a much larger and more intense geographical reach,” Bimal says.
Despite Radio Nepal’s comparative advantage in geographical reach, FM stations have not stopped mushrooming across the country. The Ministry of Information and Communication has issued 325 radio station licenses till date. “We are not sure if all the stations that have obtained the licenses are operating, but we hope that they are,” says Dr. Krishna Bahadur Ghimire, section officer at the Audio, Visual, and Broadcasting Department at the Ministry.
However, this trend of mushrooming licenses is also perceived to be a rather novel approach to garner donor money. Hem Bahadur Bista, managing director of Nepal FM, says, “Presenters now pay station owners to go on air.” He concedes that as an operator himself, the new stations are giving a tough competition to old ones. Five years since its establishment, Nepal FM hasn’t broken even, according to him. But that doesn’t hold him back from saying that radio stations have become more influential, with his observations in “some places of the Far-West”.
Dipendra Khaniya, managing director of Radio Audio, gives a different idea of the radio market today. He talks of it in a corporate tone, and urges upcoming stations to think differently. “We broke even within three months of operations because our theme of comedy struck an instant chord with audiences.”
Khaniya is equally vocal about the influence that radio stations have had in dissemination of information in regions where print or visual mediums of media cannot reach. “Now, people in Jumla can know about the headlines in newspapers published in Kathmandu through recitations on the radio. It would have been impossible for them to read the papers due to infrastructural and literacy barriers.”
Commercial and community radio stations have both grown in number in recent years but the lines that distinguish them remain blurry. No government body defines the terms; it’s the professionals who have popularised the product. “We are now using the term ‘swatantra radio’ instead of commercial or community radio,” says Bishnu Hari Dhakal, president of Broadcast Association Nepal.
Winner of the 2002 Magsaysay award in Journalism, Literature and Communication Arts, and also known as the father of community FM in Nepal, Bharat Dutta Koirala says, the geographical, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity of Nepal means there is a scope for many more radio stations to focus on these issues. Commercial stations can be based in urban centres, while “community stations should be broadcasting for the local people, preferably by local people and in their own languages”.
Exemplifying the recent revoking of at least a 100 licenses of owners that didn’t set up radio stations, Koirala says an independent body should be set up to regulate frequency, content and the number of stations depending on factors such as population. He says that it was thought a maximum of 10 stations would be enough for the Valley, keeping the size and population of the Valley in mind. However, there are now 34, and many of them are struggling to stay afloat, such as Nepal FM.
During the 2005 royal coup, FM stations were banned from broadcasting news and current affair programmes, but most radio stations supported the April movement in 2006 and boosted it by broadcasting news and encouraging people to join in. It was precisely this kind of activism that has both sustained the popularity of the radio, and led to the development of different stations throughout the history of this medium.