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Striking the Right Note: Radio and Democracy in Nepal

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Maggie Callahan
March 13, 2019

In a country of 123 languages, 125 castes or ethnic groups and 10 religions, with a 65.9 percent literacy rate and 39 percent attainment of primary education, news dissemination in Nepal seems nearly impossible. This is particularly troubling, as news consumption and accurate reporting are precursors to and essential for democratic governance. Radio, more specifically local radio, is an effective method for overcoming the challenges posed by Nepal’s diversity and educational attainment.

Nepalese local radio stations, however, struggle to maintain and promote audience engagement. With declining listenership, local radio stations began shutting down and the radio market began the process of centralization. This centralization poses a peculiar threat to smaller, marginalized groups given the immense audience and language diversity across Nepal.

Sharecase, a not-for-profit distributing company, is dedicated to enhancing content quality and local audience engagement across local radio stations throughout Nepal. To better understand the desires of local audiences and the shortcomings of current local radio station practices, Sharecase began the long process of cultivating audience demographic information and opinions for local radio stations to better understand and cater to local interests.

Through various surveys and analyses performed on carefully but randomly selected local participants, Sharecase was able to pinpoint the shortcomings in the radio stations’ content and management as perceived by their audiences. The audiences noted a lack of community-centered programming and the ability to comment and engage with this local programming. Local audiences were yearning for people-centric stories.

Sharecase then assisted in facilitating program re-design workshops with individual radio stations. In these workshops, radio members, representatives from radio boards of directors and staff gathered to re-think and re-design their programming in accordance with the opinions and desires of their local audiences. Changes were made to radio programs’ timing, format, content and audience engagement through social media in tandem with radio programming.

Sharecase shared these results with the local radio station and held these workshops in 2015 and 2016. By 2017, local radio stations increased their audience size by 20 percent on average. Through this increased listenership, local radio stations became a more sustainable pursuit. Management was able to work with the confidence that the radio station would not soon go under.

The lessons embedded in Nepalese radio stations are threefold:

  1. Centralization of processes and information poses a threat to minority audiences. Centralization posed a significant challenge to ensuring these Nepalese groups remained engaged in news radio and their government more generally.
  2. Identifying an audience’s desires is an imperative first step in increasing their engagement. Without opinion and demographic information, these local radio stations and stories would have easily been overtaken by larger, centralized stations.
  3. Three, local radio stations give an easily overlooked perspective that requires attention. Hearing and including these stories and perspectives into society and government more broadly is indispensable for effective democratic governance.

Nepal’s local radio stations were able to strike the right note by paying attention to their local audiences and amplifying their voices and community stories. This is a model for effective journalism and democratic governance everywhere.

Author: Maggie Callahan is a master’s student of public diplomacy at Syracuse University and a graduate assistant for the Participedia Project at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She holds a bachelor’s in political science and economics from Mercer University and has worked in Georgian and Moroccan nongovernmental organizations and the American government. Follow her on Twitter: @laissezmaggie

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