The lifeline radio programme is broadcast from the BBC office in Kathmandu (Photo Credit BBC News)

The lifeline radio programme is broadcast from the BBC office in Kathmandu (Photo Credit BBC News)

Underlying the magnitude of destruction and tragedy wrought by the earthquake in Nepal are significant implications for media – especially community media.  Often the solitary media lifeline that survives the savage onslaught of earthquakes and natural disasters, as these columns of CR News have previously asserted, is the humble radio. This Nepal tragedy has amplified a similar message. Radio played a role which overshadowed TV and other media as several reports in mainstream media have pointed out. Nepal Radio’s proactive response enabled it to tie up with nearly 500 local FM channels to share resources. The impact was palpable and addressed a range of issues – from scotching rumors to persuading the government  and officials to go on air and provide timely information and assuring the people of relief operations.

However, if Nepal’s experience with disaster and the immediate aftermath of the earthquake has emphasized the potential of radio during times of disaster, it also highlighted its vulnerability. This is underscored by some of the first-hand accounts that highlight the impact of the earthquake on community radio stations in the country. According to AMARC’s initial assessment, “around 108 community radio stations in approximately 30 districts have been affected. Most of them went off-air primarily because of equipment damage. The report also warned that the damage to “physical structures were quite huge.” However, many stations had also pointed out that “they could restart broadcasting if minor spare parts or replacement for simple devices such as mixers, cables, etc. were made available.” This, at best, provides small cheer, given the larger issues that the vulnerabilities have thrown up.

The issue of infrastructure is not new for community radio both within and outside Nepal. As early as 2012, UNDP’S comprehensive disaster risk management team had emphasized that several radio broadcasters in Nepal were vulnerable “given that they are stationed in earthquake-vulnerable buildings.” Nepal’s Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB) had then echoed the warning by affirming that majority of the 350 radio stations in Nepal were housed in buildings that were not earthquake-resistant. However, the moral of the story points to a larger question which confronts the sector as a whole: How prepared are community radio stations to withstand disasters leave alone reckon with them effectively? While community radio stations may be potential lifelines, what good are lifelines, when the lines on which they are built are faulty?

The analogy of lifeline would appear to have double edged implications for community radio in other contexts as well. The first four months of 2015 have been fairly packed with consultations, workshops, and meetings across South Asia. While many of them are useful awareness-building and tracking initiatives in so far as they underline the increasing recognition and relevance of community radio in the region, they also raise fundamental questions pertinent to its essence. Are we witnessing the emergence and growth of a sector in South Asia that genuinely enables and embodies the spirit and practice of communities driving media? Or are we, dogged by exigencies of growth and consolidation, losing the wood for the trees?

As always, we welcome your feedback.

Ashish Sen