Intro from Jay Allison: As ever, the death of radio is imminent. Maybe. For those of us still entranced at the magic of radio waves floating through the sky into our ears, at the accidental encounters with invisible strangers, at the uncanny power of voice, it’s encouraging to remember that radio remains full of life in the developing world. Newspapers, TV, the Internet: they depend on literacy, easy terrain, electricity, expensive receivers--all of which are obstacles in countries like Nepal, and all of which are overcome by radio. A few years ago, we at Atlantic Public Media helped Madhu Acharya create a Nepali version of our series, This I Believe. Earlier this year, I had the privilege of teaching radio in Kathmandu to station representatives from all over the country through Madhu’s organization, Antenna Foundation Nepal. Transom’s Sydney Lewis interviewed Madhu to put together a manifesto about his hopes and dreams for radio in his country. If you love radio, you’ll want to hear about projects like Doko (carrying transmitters in a backpack to remote villages) and the song of “The Woman Who Walked.” For a dying medium, radio is full of power.
Dreams of Radio in Nepal
Coming to Radio
Edited from a 2-hour Skype conversation between Madhu Acharya, one of the founders of Antenna Foundation Nepal and Sydney Lewis of Transom. Some audio clips from the interview are included below.
Madhu: I got into radio by chance. My father used to have a radio when I was young, but I started to understand and really listen to the radio after I graduated from high school. The 7 o’clock news was the one people used to listen to, to hear what the government voice is about.
We listened to radio during the 1990 movement [a multiparty People’s Movement that brought an end to the monarchy and was the beginning of constitutional democracy]. Radio was against the movement, and we listened to what was being said, but before 1990 there were no independent radio stations, only Radio Nepal, and it was very government-centric: it was run by the government, it was purely supporting the government.
It took five years for the People’s Movement to get an independent radio license. In 1996, they called out for people to come for training. I had just finished my graduation, so I applied. The training was organized by Radio Sagarmatha, they were opening the first independent radio station. They had to fight hard to get an independent license, and while they were waiting for it, they invited people to train; from there they would choose a few to work at the station. I was one of those chosen. I worked there for five years. This was the first independent radio station in South Asia; we were the first independent producers in the country working at Radio Sagarmatha.
During the training we were microphone-holding for the first time. We were so excited! We were in a group interviewing people. There was a musical television entertainment show called Mero Geet Mero Sandesh (My song, My Message), and the lady that hosted the program used to go into the streets and interview people, and they used to run away [Laughs]. Because it was the first time someone was holding a microphone and coming out in the streets to interview people. Some people were running because they thought that we were from television, and some said, “Why? I don’t have anything to say, I don’t have any opinion.” They were not really afraid, but you know, it’s not me you want to interview, it’s the politicians, go interview them. That was surprising to me because we were taught that community radio is for the people and voice of the community. But on the other hand, the general public was not aware of the concept; only a few people understood what it really meant to have community radio.
When the first radio station came on air in May 1997, we used to do two hours of broadcasting daily. One program was called Our Valley. Every week I used to produce at least two profiles of people from Kathmandu Valley. We started digging into people’s stories in the profiles, started digging into the issues of people in the feature, and people loved that magazine. We did 555 episodes.
It was the first time peoples’ stories from outside the city were heard. Because other reporters’, they were lazy, they just did stories in Kathmandu. Easy access –– go and talk and come back and package. But I went to Bhaktapur, which was 20 kilometers away, and reporters in Kathmandu didn’t go there. I went because it was easy to find new stories. It was 14 years ago and people still remember me in Bhaktapur. One story I remember: We did a live broadcast of a religious festival from inside the temple. Seven hours live! That was amazing. It was the first time they were letting me go inside the temple.
Founding Antenna Foundation Nepal
After working at Radio Sagarmatha for five years, I wanted new challenges. My creativity was limited and I was looking for a wider space where I could implement my own programming ideas. Broadcast of Radio Sagarmatha was limited to just inside Kathmandu Valley, and the kind of programs I was producing had potential for a nationwide audience. Me, Manisha Aryal, and two other journalist friends, founded a private company in 2001 called Antenna Audio Solution. We wanted to do production and training but it was difficult to get funding for a private company. We just got two jobs in a whole year. [Laughs]
In 2001, I was in the Netherlands for a training of journalists, and traveled to Brussels to the European Commission Headquarters and made contact in the Conflict Mitigation Department. They were interested in using radio as a peace-building tool to address the violent Maoist conflict ongoing at that moment. We founded Antenna Foundation Nepal as a non-profit organization in 2002.
The Role of Radio in Nepal
Transom: Give us a sense of what it means to the people of Nepal to have independent radio stations.
Madhu: I went to a boarding school in Kathmandu and used to go back home twice a year, in summer vacation and winter vacation. I used to carry 6-month, 9-month old magazines, or weeks-old newspapers, and everyone would read them because they would rarely see newspapers in the villages. In 1996, when I went to Humla, the people were reading 1-month old newspapers; that was their main source of news. The news about activities of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister that came from Radio Nepal did not give information that was relevant to these people. The people of Humla were concerned about food scarcity; the lack of roads, finding ways to market herbal plants.
Now the situation is somewhat different. But still, very few people have access to print because only 40% are literate, not many people can afford to buy newspapers, and because of the geography not many of these newspapers are accessible to the people. As for television, now only 40% of the population has access to electricity, OK? And how many people can afford to buy television sets? Radio is still the most effective medium for Nepal, perhaps for the next five, ten, twenty years.
Nepal is divided into three geographical regions: the mountains, the hilly region, and the plains area. Humla is in the mountainous region, at the top eastern corner of Nepal’s map. The one way you can reach there is by flying. First, you fly to Nepalguni, a regional city in the mid-western region, and then you fly for about an hour in a little plane to get to Humla. It was so difficult to get a ticket; people had to stay awake all night to queue up for a ticket to Humla. It’s a small town, with a district headquarters, and the population is very low, around 40,000 in 2001. The terrain is not suitable for growing food and vegetables; rice has to be transported by small airplanes and choppers and costs more. There are around 500 households in the district headquarters, Simikot, and then outside of headquarters it’s very sparse. They had solar electricity. They used to have electricity one hour in the evening but it was so dim, too dim, it was like lighting a candle.
The Trip to Humla
In 1996, when I went there for the first time, I’d had the training, but had no practical experience producing radio. We were anxiously waiting for the radio station to be given a license to go on the air. In the meantime, five of us were awarded fellowships. We were to work for six months and produce ten 5- to 10-minute stories from different parts of the country.
I wanted to go to Humla because it was one of the remotest parts of Nepal, and no one had reported stories from there. I had this idea: if you go to Humla it will be easy to find stories, everything is a story. It was my first time going outside of Kathmandu; it was my first field trip radio assignment. I spent 30 days in Humla.
The reception in the daytime was very bad, they couldn’t listen to the radio in the afternoon and morning; they used to listen to Radio Nepal in the evenings only. I did stories on social impacts and changes. Sherpa communities in Humla have a different culture. In some of the communities near Tibet, the people still practice Polyandry culture where all of the brothers in a family have the same wife, so I wanted to do that story. I wanted to do a story on health issues of women there.
Transom: Tell us what it was like to record in Humla. Was it difficult to get people to talk?
Madhu: When I was recording in Humla everyone gathered around to see what I was doing. As they had never seen a microphone, they were not afraid of it. Everyone wanted to listen to their own voice. [Chuckles] I had to play it back to them. They wouldn’t believe that it was their voice!
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It was an experience; it opened my eyes. I had been given a scholarship to study in a very good British-run school in Kathmandu; I come from a remote village and had some idea of the difficulties that prevailed in Humla, but comparing Humla and my own village I realized I was more privileged than the people from Humla. We had access to education; there were lots of schools in my village. The health service was unavailable, but if I walked two days, 70, 80 kilometers, I would reach a health person, a bus center, or I’d reach a hospital. But to reach the nearest road, people in Humla had to spend half a month. There was no hospital. Access to transportation was near to impossible; only those people who had money and power were the ones to get airplane tickets. Those who could not afford airplane simply died without treatment.
It was in Humla that I realized how powerful the medium was. That I can carry these voices from Humla; take them to Kathmandu, and make them public, make people listen to these voices. They had no idea what I was going to do with their voices; they just knew it was out of their mouth they were speaking their mind. They didn’t expect anything. Maybe they thought, he’s coming here to record the voices and he will just disappear. Some of those stories were later broadcast via Radio Nepal, and they did hear their stories. I wasn’t there, but when I went back to Humla after 11 years, with Doko Radio, and they were listening to their voice through Doko, it was the same kind of experience: hundreds of people flocking, walking from long distance to hear, their faces brightening after they heard their own voices.
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Transom: How did Doko Radio come about and why is it called Doko?
Madhu: I had this idea: how would it be to travel and broadcast radio on location, live? I shared this idea with a few people and no one believed we could do it. We did not know if the government would give us a license to operate a mobile radio station. We had to fight hard because it was different from what other radio stations were doing. The government was saying they would not be able to monitor the broadcasts. What if we do anti-government stuff? The Maoists during the conflict, they had five mobile radio stations in the north, and they used to communicate to the Maoists through these radio stations. So they had this crazy idea that we were going to do the same thing. It took us 4 or 5 months to get a license. The first five locations we traveled to had no access to local FM radio stations; the people were completely dependent on national AM radio for information. We distributed around 300 radio sets in each location.
A Doko Radio kit is a small 30-watt transmitter and a few laptops, and microphones, and we have a small kerosene generator to power it up.
Doko is a common basket all men and women carry every day for fodder, firewood and carrying other things. Everybody knows what it is. So Doko Radio is a kind of mobile radio station carried in a backpack.
When we first went there, we said, “This is a Doko Radio station and we would like to broadcast here with your own voices.” Many women in the first Doko location said, “Doko is a symbol of pain for us. Why did you put the name of Doko for your radio station? We have been carrying Doko all our life. And here is another Doko and it does not sound very good to us.” We were very surprised. But after five days, they said, “Ah, this is a Doko that carries our pain, not one that adds more burden to us. We can share all our pain through this Doko.”
The first time we did Doko Radio we wanted a place that was confined –– small, but crowded. We went to Barkpak, a very compact village in the Gorkha District, where there were 1200 households. When we reached there we found the whole village waiting to welcome us with musical instruments, songs, garlands, everything! We were shocked. [He laughs with delight at the memory] And everyone cried when we left. It was an amazing experience.
Everybody used to flock together and sit around the discussions. The best part of this was the cultural program. We had three hours of broadcasting in the morning. In the afternoon we recorded the cultural music and everyone wanted to sing and present their culture to be recorded. The music that we broadcast through Doko Radio was field recordings.
We walked two days to reach there; it was a path used for constant trekking, local trekking, not for tourists. We had porters carrying our equipment, and we were hiking. On the way back everybody had listened to the radio station, and everybody had these songs by heart, you know, they were singing the songs that we broadcast in those five days. [Laughs]
The Woman Who Walked
What we used to do was invite people to sing and share through any format: singing, poems, and stories. In the evenings we’d broadcast them. When we were in Humla, every day around 300, 400 women came to share their songs and sing. It was in the afternoon and I was recording the songs to be broadcast in the evening. A young woman named Sita Shahi was waiting for her turn, and said, “I want to write my song, can I borrow your pen?” She sat in front of me and scribbled the words and she was ready to sing. The song that she sang was so deep in meaning. The gender advocate who had 40 years of experience didn’t have those right words to express why women were backward in Nepal. Sita Shahi had the right words, and the right story, and the right reason why women are backward.
I was so touched at that time. I asked her why she walked one whole day to come to the radio station. She said, “This is my story.”
Actually, she was from another district. To go to her maternal home she had to hike six days. All the women have the same story. Some women wrote romantic love stories, but most of the stories were how difficult their life is, what kind of hardships they have to face in their daily life. The melody that you hear in that song, it’s the same kind of melody everyone sings in that region.
Translation of Sita Shahi’s song
We are illiterate that’s why we are dominated, we are illiterate.
We are limited to kitchen, and cannot take part in development.
We cannot figure out why we are dominated
We cannot accept a situation without our rights.
Let’s all stand up, and move ahead of time, let’s stand up.
This I Believe Nepal
Transom: Antenna has quite a range of programs: from youth-oriented soap opera to This I Believe. Tell us about This I Believe Nepal.
Madhu: I didn’t have any idea about the This I Believe, program before 2007, August. I was waiting in hospital while my wife was delivering our son, Aayam, and one of our friends forwarded an essay by his sister, Laura Shipler Chico, to me. The essay was regarding pregnancy; it was about what she wanted from the child. I went to the This I Believe website and read more essays about personal beliefs of people from all walks of life. I began to imagine how wonderful it would be to start a similar initiative in Nepal, to create a platform where people could share their confidence and belief in an environment that is usually characterized by frustration and negativity. Coincidence created such opportunity. Former US Ambassador to Nepal, Nancy J. Powell’s interest and USAID’s support enabled Antenna Foundation Nepal to create the Nepali version of This I Believe in print, radio and TV as a way to generate hope in the midst of despair. We agreed to communicate with Jay Allison and the people doing This I Believe at Atlantic Public Media. We started going back and listening to the program, and eventually we came to Woods Hole.
It took us a lot of time to understand the making of This I Believe, and it took us a lot of time to adapt it to the Nepali understanding, the Nepali way. In the United States you have 100% literacy, it’s easy for people to understand. But in Nepal, belief… “You have beliefs?!” Everybody questioned us. I was talking to my father, “Don’t you understand?” What does it mean to him? Giving him all the stories he tells about me or about himself, how does it relate to his own belief, and how did those events affect his life. So I was trying to understand through my father.
Read Nepalese Chameli Waiba’s essay for This I Believe.
Radio In Nepal Today
Now the scenario has changed. We have a total of 300 radio stations on air in Nepal now. There are too many radio stations. [Laughs] Even a small town now has three or four stations. But in terms of programming, there is still a need.
All the programs, whether musical, or information-based, packaged programs, they sound the same. People lack programming ideas. Antenna Foundation Nepal tries to show examples to radio stations, to lead. We did this national live talk show for the first time in the country. Now you know what? Radio stations broadcast five hours of talk show every day. It’s too much! [Laughs] We did Doko Radio, and we handed over the concept of Doko Radio to the radio stations. Now 25 radio stations are doing similar kinds of things.
We provide training, but training is not enough. So we are working towards contributing to these radio stations, giving programming ideas, programming formats. Yesterday was so funny; two women came to see us. They founded a radio station; it’s by women, for women, broadcasting in two places. They said they’d been on air for the last two months and they broadcast 18 hours a day. [Amazed laughter] They’re literally paying that money from their own pocket, OK. For whom? Why? I said to them, “Next year, please, don’t let me know that the two radio stations that you’re running are closed down. Because how can you afford to pay for the 18 hours of broadcast?”
For many it’s a prestige issue. Directly, indirectly, all the people who open these radio stations have some kind of ego. But that ego alone won’t sustain the radio stations. My idea is to focus on how we can support the radio stations through content, how we can bring them together and help them make creative programs so that they can address their own communities. That’s the most challenging part for Nepali broadcast.
At Antenna we have invested so much. We want everybody to be very serious in what they do. It pays; the programs that we do have impact. Now we have this weekly one-hour show where we have 50 reporters reporting from different parts of the country. We’re providing them hands-on training so that at the end, these are the leaders of production at the local level. We are generating this serious breed of journalist.
There are so many players like Antenna, Equal Access, BBC, World Service Trust, United Nations Development Programme, producing content for radio stations. We are making the stations dependent on Kathmandu and we have to change this. Otherwise we’re doing the same thing that was done before by Radio Nepal: content always flowing from the center to the periphery. The content must flow from everywhere.
The Future of Radio in Nepal
When I started in radio in 1996, we learned by doing. We could experiment, and still that opportunity is there at the local levels, at the national levels. There are no rules; you can do anything in radio. And there are so many programs that can be adapted in Nepal. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Many stations are copying what Radio Sagarmatha is doing, what other radio stations are doing, and not creating their own identity. So there is an identity crisis for many radio stations in Kathmandu.
As a content creator, content producer, there is a challenge for organizations like Antenna to constantly come up with great ideas, great approaches, so that other people radio stations can learn. The idea is to enable these radio stations to produce content that is delivered nationally so that radio stations have five hours of content from all over the country.
Why not bring everybody to one table and start brainstorming about how we can expand on the content part of the radio stations, and how we can expand on the networking part of the radio stations, help distribute these programs nationally, a kind of public radio model. That’s an area that is of interest to me.
I always tell my father, “Don’t sell your property in the village.” At the end, I want to go back with my family to our village and stay there. In Kathmandu we have blackouts for 12 hours a day. In my village we have 24 hours of electricity generated through a small micro hydro project. We have telephone and road access, which was not there a decade ago. Twenty years ago, I used to trek two days to reach my home from Kathmandu. Now I can reach home in eight, ten hours of bus ride. I can do everything from my village I now do from Kathmandu. Going back and staying there and doing radio, being a part of that network that I envision now, is my dream.