Community radio stations were destroyed by the earthquake, but many are still on air
The studio clock at the fifth-floor studio of Chautara's Radio Sindhu was coming up to 11:56AM on 25 April. Announcer Ashma Syangtan of the popular Ramailo Selo program was introducing the last folk song before the noon news bulletin. Technician Guras Gurung was adjusting the sound levels on her console.
Suddenly, everything started shaking violently. Syangtan stopped mid-sentence. Computer monitors fell, the walls started cracking and there was dust everywhere.
“I immediately knew it was an earthquake," Syangtan recalled, "we rushed out of the studio but the shaking was so strong that we had difficulty descending the five stories."
Syangtan and Gurung saw debris and dust everywhere, frightened people and lots of wounded. People were wailing, and trying to dig into the ruins of their houses with their bare hands. Bodies lined the streets, the wounded were being carried off to the hospital.
"Almost every building on our street collapsed," Gurung said, "it was a miracle ours was standing and we survived."
Hover the dots to learn the status of each radio station. 5- Station off air, 4- Heavy building damage, 3- Studio damaged, 2- On air after repairs, 1- Minor damage. Interactive map by Ayesha Shakya
Radio Sindhu was among the 61 community radio stations in the 14 districts that were damaged in the earthquake, 30 of which had their buildings collapsed. Most lost their equipment, their studios were destroyed, radio staff lost family members and home, and yet some were on air later on Saturday broadcasting from the open air with salvaged equipment.
STUDIO DISCUSSION: Ashma Syangtan (right) was presenting her Ramailo Selo program on Radio Sindhu at 11:56 on 25 April when the earthquake struck. Tika Dahal (left) was getting ready to present the noon news bulletin. Both are now in a tent studio.
“The radio stations showed great courage and commitment to their profession by not letting the disaster stop them from their job of informing the public," said Min Shahi, former president of Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB) Nepal and now with World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC). “Even during normal times, community radio stations play an important role in development, but in times of crisis like this they become a vital communication tool."
Organisations like ACORAB and Antenna Foundation Nepal have rushed to help replace damaged transmitters, studio equipment, computers and battery banks. Sindhu went back on air from a tent in a field after it got a replacement transmitter from Antenna, but that was knocked out by lightning during a storm last weekend. Radio Rasuwa has also resumed broadcasting from Dhunche after getting a generator from Antenna.
“We have requests from many stations for mobile transmitters, telephone hybrids and we are trying to loan this to them, and in other places we are sending out technicians to repair equipment," Antenna's Satish Jung Shahi told us. "This is an opportunity to rebuild."
Antenna, ACORAB and AMARC are doing an assessment of the damage to community stations so that the most-needy stations get the equipment they need most urgently. Radio Sindhu and Radio Melamchi of Sindhuplachok, Radio Gorkha, Radio Rasuwa and Radio Langtang have been shortlisted for immediate help also because the districts they broadcast in have been badly affected.
The aftershocks have prevented the radio stations from making more permanent plans to relocate their transmitters. Many have switched their content to phone-in queries, studio discussions with survivors, expert advice on health, sanitation and relief needs of the people. Journalists, who are themselves traumatised, have also had a difficult time continuing with their regular work.
“When we went to visit the communities few days after the quake, they told us that if it weren’t for radio they wouldn’t even have anyone to share their grief with,” Kishor Jung Thapa of Radio Gorkha told us in a phone interview. After the initial jolt, Radio Gorkha set up its station out in the open and started broadcasting as much information as it could gather immediately.
Community radio in Nepal started with Radio Sagarmatha in 1996 and since then has been playing a vital role strengthening grassroots democracy and development. Today, there are nearly 300 stations across Nepal and their independent content and focus on health, education and accountability have filled the vacuum left by the absence of elected VDCs and DDCs.
In the longterm, Min Shahi of AMARC says Nepal's community stations need help to address existing management issues, and also training in being prepared for future disasters so they can respond to the emergency needs of their districts.
Kathmandu's radio stations were on air when the shaking started at 11:56AM on 25 April. Some staff ran for their lives, and transmission was halted. Others came back to their still-shaking studios and kept transmitting live feeds. Others regrouped, salvaged their emergency transmitters and resumed broadcasting from tents.
LIVE: Ramesh Lekhak of the NC (left) and Maoist leader Barsha Man Pun being interviewed by the BBC Nepali Service's Rama Parajuli at the temporary studio in the premises of NSET in Bhaisepati. Photo: Rabindra Mishra
The BBC Nepali Service was instructed by London to vacate its studio in Naxal, but the local staff defied the order and aired the regular 8:45-9:15PM program that evening. However, as the aftershocks continued everyone was too traumatised to continue working from the studio.
Rabindra Mishra of BBC Nepali Service then spoke to Surya Narayan Shrestha of the National Society for Earthquake Technology (NSET) at Bhaisepati which has rooms set aside for radio precisely for situations like these. The BBC brought in its Portable Production Unit and started broadcasting from NSET its evening and morning programs which are syndicated live through 280 FM stations and has 5 million listeners across Nepal.
Since the earthquake, BBC Nepali has added additional airtime to disseminate essential information on health, sanitation, shelter and survival tips. It has also temporarily started broadcasts on short and medium wave for areas where the FM signal is weak.
NSET's Bhaisepati Centre is designed to withstand a M8.5 quake and is intended to be an emergency communication nerve centre. It has a contingency plan to serve as an information lifeline to the outside world, as well as reaching the public within Nepal through radio. Even before the quake NSET had prepositioned the Radio Sagarmatha transmitter, but the station could function from its own building this time. Radio Nepal was on air uninterrupted because its Japanese-built studio was earthquake resistant.
"It has been an ideal partnership for us," said NSET's Surya Narayan Shrestha, "the BBC Nepali service has a wide reach within Nepal, and it was a fast and efficient way to get correct information out to the public about the emergency. Radio is the ideal medium during disasters."
Indeed, BBC Nepali Service reporters have been supplementing round-the-clock programs on Radio Nepal, Radio Sagarmatha and commercial FM stations in Kathmandu. Reporters have fanned out across the 15 districts, highlighting the priority needs of survivors and putting them directly to government officials in Kathmandu.
Mishra was doing a live phone-in interview one evening from the temporary studio last week when an aftershock hit. "I calmly told listeners it was an aftershock, requested them not to panic," he said. "We try to give correct information and try to have a positive message of hope."
One BBC story that was widely popular was of a soldier who was digging for survivors in the rubble in Kathmandu even though he had lost his own baby son in his home in Dhading. When asked why he was helping others at a time of personal tragedy, his answer to the reporter was: "Because I am the Nepal Army."
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