Rebuilding, with Radio

Sitting on mismatched mattresses inside the tent that houses Radio Sindhu’s transmitter, desktop, mixer, microphone, and telephone hybrid, Station Manager Ratna Prasad Shrestha points down to the three-story building that was once a vibrant radio station.

The station’s antenna, perched precariously atop the building in Chautara, broadcast to Sindhupalchwok and Kavre districts before the series of earthquakes that shook mid-Nepal in April and May. Even now, it towers above all else and is a testimony to media’s reach in the Nepali hinterland.

Information and communication are critical need items and their absence prevents disaster survivors from accessing services and making the best decisions for themselves. Post-earthquake, there is an opportunity to take stock of how well Nepal’s home-grown media has done to serve local communities and how humanitarian organizations working in relief and reconstruction can help strengthen that role.

A journalist interviews a woman at a destroyed building
Reporter Deepak Khatri interviews earthquake survivors in Chautara for his program. Credit: Madhu Acharya

Within hours of the first quake, Radio Sindhu staff had rushed into the station, grabbed a few broadcast essentials from inside the damaged building, and set up camp in a clearing overlooking the open Tundikhel field. A thin bamboo pole now serves as the station’s antenna.

Shrestha wants to go in and retrieve the remaining equipment, a larger 5 kVA backup, field recorders, microphones, some furniture, and other items. But the the Nepalese military personnel engaged in recovery and relief in Sidhupalchowk have declared the building unsafe and advised him not to go back in.

Before the quake, Radio Sindhu had 12 paid staff and six volunteers. Shrestha does not know how long he can ask his staff to continue working without pay, and the volunteers, whose are scrambling to build their houses that have been damaged or destroyed, have stopped coming.

Radio Sindhu uses roughly an hour of content each day from Kathmandu-based production houses. The remaining 17 hours is produced by local reporters. While professionally-produced content from the capital fills a few slots, it is the local reporters and local programs that are the core content of the stations in the earthquake-affected districts.

Accountable and responsible humanitarian aid requires open, two-way communication between government, aid providers and the affected population. Direct support to local radio stations, which have access to and reach in the earthquake affected areas in Nepal, is one of the most effective to support this critical communication. Independent FM stations have many urgent needs: production and broadcast hardware, field recorders, tents, sleeping mattresses, solar chargers, mobile phones, SIM cards and money to pay reporters and keep the stations going.

While the Nepal government can help FM stations in earthquake-affected areas by waiving license renewal fees and not taxing annual income this year, humanitarian organizations can step up to support local radio stations in the earthquake affected districts so they can retain staff and keep providing critical information to the affected communities.

With a majority of young men working in the Gulf, most households in Sindhupalchowk have mobile phones. Cell phones are used not just to communicate with relatives abroad, but also to dial call-in programs which have now become the mainstay of local radio stations.

A national survey carried out in 2014 showed that 86 percent of Nepalis have access to mobile phones and 40 percent listen to radio on their mobile phones.

Radio Sindhu broadcasts in Helmu, Nepali and Tamang languages which before the earthquake focused on information useful for migrant laborers: how to go about looking for overseas work, what legitimate recruiting companies look like, how to guard against exploitation, fraud and corruption, etc.

However, in the weeks following the earthquakes, FM stations have changed their programming. Radio Sindhu, for example, has dedicated morning programs that interview representatives from district’s agriculture, forestry, livestock, water, health or sanitation departments and afternoon call-in programs that allow citizens to pose question to Village Development Committee (VDC) Secretaries or their assistants, political party representatives and civil society organizations.

While radio producers have learned to ask questions of local government, political parties and development workers, they have yet to learn to report on humanitarian aid agency processes.

Following the earthquake, Radio Sindhu wanted to produce a program about relief distribution. It got a list of organizations providing health services in Sindhupalchowk from the UN office, picked random VDCs from the list, and called Secretaries and political party workers to find out what work the organizations in the UN’s list were doing in that VDC. Neither the VDC secretaries, or the political party workers had heard about the organizations that were in the list. The radio station gave up after a few phone calls. The program — and the issues it would have started discussions about — never aired.

Development projects in Nepal have traditionally used radio as an outreach tool for nutritionsafe motherhood, conflict mitigation, transparency and government accountability. Local radio stations have been critical in providing information to Nepalis for the last two decades. They have helped people make sense of politics, and local development and now to know about post-quake issues.

Radios have also helped development projects overcome the challenges of terrain, linguistic and ethnic diversity and low literacy. In the aftermath of the earthquake, radio can play an even more important role in rebuilding in the country. Those working in relief, recovery and reconstruction need to reach out to local radio stations and open themselves up to questions from local reporters.

Like VDC Secretaries, political workers, and local government officials in the districts, relief and recovery agencies need to learn to communicate with local communities. By reaching out to local radio stations, humanitarian organizations will be committing to local accountability and helping make relief distribution, post-earthquake recovery and reconstruction transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of the local communities.

Manisha Aryal started Antenna Foundation Nepal. She worked with media in Pakistan after the Kashmir Earthquake in 2005, and the IDP crises following operation against the Taliban in Pakistan’s northwestern border regions in 2007 and 2008. She was in Nepal recently to assess information needs and design Internews’ work in the country following the April 2015 earthquake.

Photo banner: A man listens to the radio in Bhaktapur, Nepal. Credit: Internews

(This story originally ran in Medium)

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