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FM Competition, not Monopoly

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Soon there will be more than 136 FM radio stations in Nepal. And there are already concerns about media monopoly. ARJUN BANJADE says competition, not monopoly, is key.



Radio broadcasting in Nepal is one of the major sectors that has experienced enormous democratic upheavals and changes in recent years. Following the Jana Andolan II, Nepali radio stations, which will soon number more than a hundred, are operating in a freer and fairer environment, once again. There are also new entrants in the sector. The contemporary history and mathematics combine to elevate radio broadcasting to a new height.

But not everything is rosy. We can welcome these positive developments. But critics are understandably worried of possible media monopoly.

Radio boom, again
Radio Nepal was the only radio broadcaster before the introduction of Frequency Modulation (FM) radio that began in the private/independent sector in 1997. It is still a state-owned broadcaster reaching the general masses through shortwave and medium wave transmitters from its central station based in Kathmandu Valley, and through medium wave transmissions from its regional broadcasting stations based in Dipayal, Surkhet, Pokhara, Bardibas and Dhankutta. Besides, Radio Nepal has about a dozen FM relay stations in different parts of the country. As the government owned radio station, Radio Nepal received the first license to operate in FM band in Nepal and started broadcasting on November 16, 1995. It was done to help Radio Nepal stay ahead in the competition with future FM radio stations.

However, Radio Nepal’s monopoly over airwaves ended when the government that came to power the following the Jana Andolan I in 1990 adopted liberal media policies and opened broadcasting to non-governmental sectors. Beginning with the licensing for Radio Sagarmatha, the first of its kind in South Asia, government issued licenses to many aspirants for FM broadcasting in Nepal.

A total number of 56 licenses (36 for commercial and 20 for community radio stations) were issued to operate FM radio stations before King Gyanendra took over power. Among them 52 license holders had started operating. However, one (Manakamana FM, Hetauda) closed down due to internal conflict and its license was not renewed. Four other license holders— Kalika FM of Baglung, Media Current of Kathmandu, Media Current of Biratnagar and Radio Bindabasini of Hetauda— could not start their operation at all. Thus, 51 radio stations were operating in Nepal at that time. In total, there were at least one FM radio station in 21 districts out of 75 districts. Nepali FM radio stations experienced suffocations as every other sector during direct royal rule between February 1, 2005 and April 26, 2006.

The public uprising of 2006 (Jana Anadolan II) ended the king’s direct rule and put the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) in power. The SPA government resumed issuing licenses to independent broadcasters and decided to issue license to more than 80 applicants to operate FM radio stations. However, 50 applicants have fulfilled the legal procedure and got license by October 2006. Others will be issued license once they pay the required fees and there will be a total of 136 FM stations throughout Nepal.

With the recent issuing of licenses, all 14 administrative zones have at least three FM radio stations. Bagmati zone has the highest numbers of FM radio stations (25) followed by Lumbini and Narayani with 13 each, Gandaki (8), Koshi and Janakpur 7 each, Rapti and Bheri 6 each, Seti and Makakali 4 each, and Sagarmatha, Karnali and Dhaulagiri with 3 radio stations each.

After the restoration of democracy, media activists, non-governmental organizations and communities and cooperatives entered into radio broadcasting aiming to diversify media outlet and contributing to media pluralism. At the same time, big media houses have entered in radio broadcasting with large investment and aggressive business policies. Besides, the government has granted permission to operate a TV broadcasting to Kantipur Publications Pvt. Ltd. which was already operating Kantipur FM (KFM), Kantipur Daily, the Kathmandu Post and others.
Normally, FM radio station, by its very definition, implies that it is for a limited geographic coverage, catering to a local population. However, Kantipur FM, by means of relay transmission station, covers a very wide area geographically, and its signal even reaches parts of northern India. Critics have argued both in favor and against granting permission of such a wide coverage to a commercial FM station like KFM. Some would see it a clear monopoly while others view it a normal business practice. Civic society members have frequently debated this topic as well as expressed their views on the implications of such a broadcast regulation.

With the arrival of blogs, civic discussion on radio regulations has found a new vigor. On October 29, 2006 Mero Sansar administrator posted a line under “Kahi nava FM Nepal ma.” With reference to Kantipur TV broadcast, the blogger mentioned that the government has granted permission to KFM to operate throughout Nepal using relay transmissions. I saw 22 comments from readers as of January 25, 2007. These, in a way, reflect a microcosm of our views on radio governance in the country.

Monopoly debated
There were several critics and several supporters Here are some of the arguments in favor of and against such development of current media development in Nepal expressed on the blog.

Critics argued that it is not normal for a FM radio station to be covering the whole country; rather, such as station broadcasts for a limited, local geographic area. On single company should not be allowed to operate print, audio and visual media, they said. They also argued that the permission to KFM to broadcast throughout Nepal using relay transmission is creating media monopoly and it should be stopped. Although Kantipur Publications, which includes Kantipur Daily, the Kathmandu Post, Kantipur FM and Kantipur TV and other publications, played an important and very positive role in favor of democracy and human rights during the royal rule, the issue of media monopoly is real.

Kantipur clearly embodies the characteristics of the media monopoly—more citizens rely on its content than any other media, and it controls the media market by means of multiple ownership of all forms of media.

Commenters in Mero Sansar argued that an unconstrained Kantipur will kill small FM radio stations. If KFM wanted to cover all over the country, it should have applied for shortwave or medium wave broadcasting license. FM model should be reserved for local broadcasting.

Furthermore, others argued against the media monopoly because of the effect it will have on public opinion. A media company with various outlets, such as print, radio and television, can easily dominate the information and manipulate what is right and what is wrong. The general public might not distinguish or interpret that the information is coming from a single source. The public may consider the content and news from Kantipur Daily, the Kathmandu Post, Kantipur FM and Kantipur TV as diverse when it may not be so.

Supporters of KFM argued that with a huge investment, the station may dominate small scale FMs but the ultimate beneficiaries will be the public with more choices. They said Nepali media should be given opportunities to expand. KFM is doing a good job in keeping people informed. Others interested could do the same if they wanted to. Stopping further development of Nepali media citing examples from other countries is not good. The government-owned and -run Radio Nepal lacks quality and reliability. People in the remote areas always have to depend upon BBC for reliable information. Expansion of FM radio, indeed, is a good news. It can narrow the gap between information-haves and –have-nots. It will narrow the gap between access to information between people living in the capital city and their counterparts in remote villages. KFM will provide Nepalis an alternative to the state-owned media and the local FM stations. Local stations should not be afraid with a big media like Kantipur FM if they produce programs that benefit the locals.

Several commenters argued that any development of independent or private or commercial media in the national level should be welcome. Furthermore, such national broadcasting will not necessarily hurt local FMs since local issues are well-covered by local FMs. Besides, it’s the public to choose which station they would like to listen to. News and entertainment items are not limited in quantity. There are always ways for local broadcasters to create new programs. FMs provide information quickly and we should not stifle this innovation.

Furthermore, it is unfortunate that we always look for examples in the world as if we are not capable of doing anything new. The king’s government provided an example of India when it banned news in FM stations. We should develop our own definition of FM radio instead of what others are saying or doing. Others can learn from Nepal’s experiences and change the definition. After all, Radio Sagarmatha set an example as the first independent radio station in South Asia. What others are doing is not always important, what we can do is more important.

Similarly, Kantipur FM broadcasting all over Nepal should not be a problem, some argued. A FM radio station broadcasting throughout a country or even across the national borders is not new in the other parts of the world. One such example is FUN Radio that broadcasts nationwide. People all over Europe can listen to Radio Luxemburg. Concert FM of Radio New Zealand is heard all over the country as well as in Australia. Other FMs can be heard all over the world through the Internet and satellite. One can live in Brisbane but still listen to FM of Sydney and/or FM radio from India by digital satellite receiver, not within the same country. What Kantipur is doing is a business. There is nothing unethical or immoral or illegal.

Competition is key
In deed, it is not a good idea to stop media development in Nepal in the name of media monopoly. Those media houses that do good for the society will survive, others will die. Although there have been many radio stations in the rich countries in Europe, Radio Luxemburg is popular among the masses. Likewise, in Nepal most FM radio stations broadcast news and views programs but not all the stations are popular in terms of their news programs. People may find news programs of Radio Sagarmatha better while Hits FM might be popular among the young adults nurtured in the country’s burgeoning English schools. Every FM has its own listeners. Thus, no one should be worried that the local FMs will die. If able programmers produce programs for people, the station will survive.

Kantipur is a commercial media. It has been broadcasting entertainment and information programs. In this age of competition, those who can compete will survive. With their current target audience, Kantipur FM cannot compete with Sagarmatha Radio since both have different models of marketing. Similarly, Sagarmatha Radio would not have to worry much about Hits FM’s popularity among the youth because it is absolutely an entertainment radio.

It is, however, important that the government must formulate a clear tax regulation. Commercial stations must be taxed not only for national revenues but also to provide subsidies to community radio stations.

The bottom-line is that radio stations in peripheries cannot be sustainable if they only copy the Kathmandu-based FM stations. They will survive only if they provide original programs, relevant information with local tone and involve the community members in every aspect of broadcasting. Having private FMs like KFM is good thing. Such commercial radio stations, besides making profit, add to the choices of sources of information.

But this is also important, to re-emphasize: Small scale, especially community radio stations, need protection from the government in terms of fees and/or taxes waiver.


Previous article by the author:
Deactivating Radio Activities, June 9, 2006

Arjun Banjade is a doctoral candidate in mass communication at the School of Telecommunications, Ohio University, USA. He has served as a faculty member at Tribhuvan University and as a consultant with Johns Hopkins University Nepal Office. He has published a number of papers in journals. His current research deals with community media in Nepal. He can be reached at abanjade@yahoo.com or ab322292@ohio.edu.

Comments

This is a good article. I hope you also do survey on the businesses, and other companies or factories. These also should be compared. And there should be equal voice in all sectors.

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Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
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