Ram Bhat, President, AMARC Asia-Pacific, recounts why NBTC Community Radio Conference went beyond talk shop and has lessons for CR in India

On the 15th and 16th of November 2017, the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) of Thailand held a conference on community radio in collaboration with AMARC Asia-Pacific. Broadcasters from Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and Bangladesh participated. The conference which hosted a healthy mix of policy advocates, academics and practitioners, raised interesting insights for community radio across the Asia-Pacific region.

I will focus on three key outcomes that in my view, are of particular relevance to community radio broadcasters in India.

First, Thailand and Indonesia both have a long history of community radio broadcasting that has emerged organically. The practice of broadcasting came first and laws to regulate the sector came later. As a result, there are hundreds of radio stations that are still broadcasting without an official license. The conference saw an astonishing diversity in the kinds of radio stations that came to broadcast. Some of them were focused entirely on environmental struggles – taking on large industrial polluters in their areas or battling to conserve their ecology in creative ways. Other radio stations were focused on ethnic minorities and social justice. Indonesia has radio stations run by farmers groups who have managed to operate their radio stations as volunteers and through community donations. The only thing common to all of them was a visible determination to speak truth to power.

Second, the end of the conference saw the establishment of a Thai national federation for community radio stations. They had decided that the federation would be to represent the voices and struggles of these community radio stations in Thailand. Many of these radio stations were involved in long legal battles with the State. There is an environment of uncertainty with the Thai government looking to digitalise radio broadcasting because of saturation of urban radio markets. Despite  of these challenges, the federation decided to operate entirely based on donations and contributions by community radio stations. There was no question of taking money from the State or any other donors. This ensured that the federation would remain independent, a critical voice and could keep their members interest at the heart of their advocacy.

Third, the conference was a great example of regional collaboration. In one of the sessions about the potential of community radio for disaster preparedness and rehabilitation, we saw a ‘backpack radio’ designed by community radio enthusiasts in Japan (especially spearheaded by AMARC AP board member Junichi Hibino). Hibino has been piloting the backpack radio in Indonesia, especially in the volcano and earthquake prone areas of Indonesia – like West Java. In the conference, Hibino along with practitioners from Indonesia conducted a live demo of how the backpack radio can be set up and operationalised – in less than 10 minutes – operated by batteries, a small antenna and basically controlled by a mobile phone or a tablet. The Thai broadcasters saw first-hand how simple it could be to operate the backpack radio yet so immensely valuable in saving lives during times of crisis. To me, this is the real potential of regional sharing of best practices.

In this age of corporate owned media, fake news and unashamed political bias, community radio done right is a breath of fresh air. A critical and independent forum to represent community media can be very powerful for it organises community radio’s struggles against actors who are powerful – be it the State or industry. Lastly, sharing of knowledge and best practices needs to be encouraged amongst practitioners – not through books or websites. This is when learning is instantaneous and sustainable. AMARC Asia-Pacific will continue to create more such platforms and I sincerely hope that community broadcasters from India will be an integral part of our efforts.

Ram Bhat