Published in Nov-Dec 2014
Why would people be interested in only listening when they can listen and see on TV, and listen, see and speak on social media?
The story of FM radio in Pakistan is an interesting case in point. The 1990s saw a rise in radio audiences when private sector FM stations took to the airwaves. Theirs was an exciting journey as they rode on the vibrancy of young and well-educated radio jockeys (RJs). The fervour for FM was further fuelled by live callers during programmes, interactive discussions, on-demand playlists and even a lifestyle magazine by FM 100 – the frontrunner channel at that time. Drive-time programmes in the morning and evening rush hours continue to have their share of popularity with different RJs having their own fan following. As a result, radio has crept back to a respectable position in the media mix and the fact that most advertisers deem it essential to have a radio version of their TVC speaks for the sustained importance of the medium.
In spite of its limited range, FM radio is a powerful medium as it is relatively low-cost to set up and easy to operate. However, to establish coverage across different cities in Pakistan, a FM radio network has to operate as many stations; as a result, stations can broadcast localised content from each centre. The business proposition of placing localised advertisements in localised stations is attractive to advertisers as it gives them communication efficiency. The concept of localised FM networks has been partly leveraged and needs to be stimulated in the more exciting direction of community radio.
Pakistan has a large rural population blighted by a paucity of education. The social and economic troubles of Pakistan’s rural dwellers have a lot to do with their having little or no awareness of their social, economic and political rights. It should not, therefore, come as a surprise, that making people understand the importance of polio eradication has proved to be an uphill task. In addition to its potential for education among the rural population, FM-based community radio has many other applications. Here are some stories that are shining examples of the potential radio holds. One of these examples is also a testament of its power if it goes in the wrong hands.
1 Campus radio
The mass communication and journalism departments in various universities in Pakistan have taken the initiative of setting up campus radio stations. The service, while having the benefit of connecting all the students on campus, is also useful in providing those studying journalism and mass communication with practical on-ground training. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has issued licenses and frequencies for setting up campus stations in almost all major universities across Pakistan. Some have already set up stations and promote them keenly within as well as outside their campus. The power of a university’s campus station is in its ability to leverage a sense of belonging among students for their alma mater. For example, Punjab University’s FM 104.6 airs entertainment and news programmes in Urdu, Punjabi and English from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., positioning itself as the ‘voice of the campus’.
2 Traffic radio
In Lahore, a FM radio station dedicated to traffic news and updates is working under the aegis of the City Traffic Police. Aptly branded as Rasta (88.6 FM), the station continuously broadcasts traffic updates within Lahore. The channel runs completely commercial-free and is predominantly information-focused with some music and entertainment programmes.
3 Business radio
The Lahore Chamber of Commerce & Industry (LCCI) has started its own radio station called LCCI Radio or FM 98.6. The station targets Lahore’s business community and audiences interested in business-related content. The station is funded by the LCCI and is successfully operating without much advertising revenue. The nature of programmes is informative; for example the programmes about exporting to other countries provide useful statistics and facts.
4 Radio in earthquake rehabilitation
Another success story comes from the 2005 earthquake which devastated Pakistan’s northern areas and Azad Kashmir. In a relatively small initiative, the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) in collaboration with several organisations, including a university, established community radio stations in order to broadcast information related to rescue, rehabilitation and relief distribution. The PPF was of the view that the information provided by the national broadcaster (Radio Pakistan) mostly extolled the government’s relief efforts and was of not much use to the affected population. Later on, these regions have seen an influx of formal licensed FM radio stations (large countrywide networks such as Power FM, as well as standalone FM stations).
5 Mullah radio
Although this cannot be cited as a success story, it does exemplify the disastrous power of radio if it falls into the wrong hands. During the operation in the Swat Valley in 2004 and later, the FM radio station operated by Mullah Fazlullah became a propaganda weapon in the hands of the Taliban. They continuously broadcast their messages to the local population, including warnings against supporting the armed forces and polio vaccination campaigns. These broadcasts earned the station the name of ‘Mullah Radio’. This story also underscores how easy it is to set up and operate a FM radio station.
Channels for rural community – the road ahead
The cited examples include elements of best practices which need to be put into place in order to establish community radio. UNESCO has published a useful handbook (bit.ly/unesco-radio) providing detailed information about how to set up and operate a community radio station. The handbook includes success stories, particularly in Africa and Asia. The guidelines can be used to set up community radios in Pakistan particularly in the rural areas. Here are a few recommendations that can be useful:
There is immense potential to develop programming content in local dialects and languages on issues that are relevant to a particular rural community.
Using local talent in local events, such as melas, can be more effective than using national celebrities. People in rural communities have a connection with artistes from their area as they can connect with them in their language and dialect. Such artistes can develop relevant entertainment programmes as well as spread awareness on important social issues.
The success of FM radio stations in engaging audiences via call-ins during live shows can be replicated in a community radio context. Mobile phones are ubiquitously available in villages and listeners can be actively engaged to share their thoughts on specific social issues.
There is huge potential for micro-entrepreneurship in setting up rural community-based radio.
In conclusion, it is imperative that community radios make use of other media in their propagation. In urban centres, the internet is a powerful tool to enable radio stations to broadcast their programming to a wider audience without further investment in transmission equipment. In the rural areas, participation in local events and activities and word of mouth communication can be very effective. Similarly, campus-based radio stations can undertake integrated promotional activities which are broadcast as well as promoted on campus. This will lead to quality engagement with audiences and improve the marketability of these stations, leading to higher advertising revenue and sponsorships.
In the early 2000s, it was the Taliban who used community radio to spread misperceptions about polio vaccination programmes. Today, the polio menace has become a daunting precipice for the entire country. Community radio can be a powerful solution in spreading the right message.
Muhammad Talha Salam is a faculty member at FAST School of Management,