How a rural radio thrived in Nepal lockdown

Sona Khatik in the studio of Kapilvastu Community Radio where she is Station Manager. She broke her leg while riding her bicycle to her studio last week.

Sona Khatik was still studying in Grade 12 when she found her calling in life: to be a radio broadcaster. She ran a Tharu language program that was not just a hobby, she needed the income to support her family.

Soon, Khatik’s mellifluous voice became a familiar sound in many households in this Tarai district. Even as an intern, she read the news, conducting programs on farming and income generation – news people could use.

Since then, she has juggled her passion for radio with college, and got a masters in media and journalism. Khatik then worked her way up the ranks, and is now Station Manager at Kapilvastu Community Radio.  

It has not been easy for Sona Khatik: she is a woman, she is from a Dalit family with few means. But she believes that it was precisely these attributes that made her so determined to succeed.

As the whole country went into an economic standstill with the Covid-19 lockdown six months ago, life became even more difficult. Some radio stations were forced to close, and many journalists are out of a job. But Kapilvastu Community Radio has not just survived, it is now earning even higher revenue than before the lockdown.  

After the nationwide lockdown in March, Kapilvastu became a Covid-19 hotspot because of its proximity to the Indian border. Businesses started to shut, advertising revenue fell, and it was difficult to keep paying out staff salaries.

Read also: Nepal prepares for economic fallout of pandemic, Kaustubh Dhital

As a member of the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters Nepal (ACORAB), Khatik attended many zoom meetings in which other radio station managers talked about being forced to make cost cuts, lay off staff, and reduce air time.

“I was really worried. How was a small station like ours going to survive,” Khatik recalls thinking. “I decided we could not let our community down. Our station has a public service mandate, we needed to give our listeners accurate information on the virus and how to stop its spread.”

As station manager, she was honest with her staff: they would have to work without salaries if the radio commercials stopped coming in. But she assured them that she would try her best to pay them. They were willing to work for up to six months without pay if necessary. “We would rather support the community than just stay at home doing nothing,” they told her.  

Read also: Lockdown puts media in intensive care, Nepali Times

Khatik talked things over with the radio’s board chair Tulsiram Yadav, and strategised about how to turn the crisis into an opportunity. They decided to reach out to the community to create more relevant programming, and to gain more young listeners.

For Community Radio Kapilvastu, the lockdown has been a boon. It has gained new advertisers, created more programs, and expanded to a new audience of young listeners. 

Within the first month of the lockdown, the radio station had produced three dozen jingles in four languages (Nepali, Tharu, Bhojpuri and Awadhi) that spread awareness about the coronavirus. The jingles were so effective, they soon got sponsors from local non-profit groups and even private companies.  

“The support was overwhelming, and quite unexpected,” Khatik says. “When I started to reach out to other sponsors not a single one of them declined.”

With the income, Khatik could regularly pay salary to staff, and also get them to add new segments and radio packages to the daily broadcast. People were all cooped up at home, and they welcomed the new infotainment programs in multiple languages, and listenership grew. This meant that even more advertisers were interested to buy transmission slots.  

Says Khatik: “There is this wrong notion in Nepali society that women cannot and are not capable of taking leadership positions. We have proven them wrong,” says Khatik proudly. “We have shown that we have the entrepreneurial spirit and creative ability to be even more flexible in times of crisis.”

Indeed, many other media companies in Kapilvastu are surprised how this one community radio station has not just managed to survive, but has expanded programming and its listenership.

Read also:

Feminine FM, Emma Stolarski

Women on air, Kong Yen Lin

Kapilvastu Community Radio has also filled the void left by schools being closed for six months. The station mobilised teachers to conduct classes over the radio for free. Soon enough, Khatik was contacted by non-profits, local governments and the district branch of the Nepal Teacher’s Association. Today, Kapilvastu FM is broadcasting classes every day to students in Grades 4-8. 

Sona Khatik’s voice is now so trusted and recognised that when she once voiced an announcement by the local police asking people to obey lockdown rules, they called to ask her to lift the lockdown because it was causing economic hardship.

“They did not realise I was just reading out a public service announcement from the police. I had not declared the lockdown myself,” smiles Khatik.  

The radio team which was willing to forego half a year’s salary was now getting paid in full, so staff decided to contribute to a fund to help free feeding programs for the poorest families in the neighbourhood.   

We ask Khatik why she thinks her station has thrived when other media in Nepal are struggling. She replies: “I think it is because we engage with our community, we go out into the field and record people’s voices and do not bring politicians to the studio. And I think it is also because they know it is a station run by a woman.”

It has been so hectic, that while bicycling back and forth from home to the studio one day last week, Khatik slipped and fractured her leg. There was no way she was going to be home-bound, so she uses crutches to get to the station and back.  

With a chair supporting her plastered leg, Sona Khatik reminisces about the old days: “I cannot believe that it has been 12 years since I started out as an intern. Now here I am. I am reminded of how important it is to listen to your employees, no matter what their position. A good leader values every member, and recognises the importance of team work. It is more than luck that makes a company successful, especially during a crisis.”

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