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Radio suffers as Colombo bosses call the shots

The smokescreen of 'community radio' has been used by bureaucrats hand-in-glove with commercial interests to block the evolution of broadcasting in Sri Lanka to the next stage.

Soon after conquering Mount Everest half a century ago, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay turned on their transistor radio – and the first thing they heard was an overseas broadcast of Radio Ceylon, from more than 3,000 kilometres away. They joined millions of people across the Indian subcontinent who regularly tuned in to these broadcasts. A pioneer in broadcasting in Asia, Radio Ceylon for decades informed and entertained an overseas audience many times the population of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

How times have changed. The once influential, popular and monopolistic state-owned radio in Sri Lanka has been completely sidelined in the past decade. A cacophony of privately-owned channels now crowd the airwaves – albeit only in the FM band – competing with each other to inform, entertain and sell consumer goods to the island nation's 19 million people. The product of media and economic liberalisation, these channels are operated by half a dozen companies, each struggling to make money in a market that until recently was depressed by a protracted civil war.

Loss of listenership and advertising revenue are not the only problems that plague Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), successor to Radio Ceylon. Over the years, successive governments have misused the station for political and state propaganda. Inconsequential and boring speeches of politicians were broadcast in full.

Not that the private commercial channels have completely fulfilled their expectations: after the initial novelty had worn off, discerning listeners found that they could take only so much of the popular culture dished out by young announcers endlessly chattering in a mix of Sinhala or Tamil with English. Yet, on balance, many have come to the conclusion that even bad FM radio is better than SLBC.

Private channels moved closer to their audiences by presenting news in colloquial and friendly Sinhala. Not so SLBC, which insists on using an imperious and archaic version of the language.

"Our listeners immediately welcomed news in spoken Sinhala, and only a few pundits raised objections," recalls Asoka Dias, news director at Sirasa FM which pioneered this innovation. "Now everybody does it – at least in selected news formats."

It was Sirasa FM – the first private channel started in 1992 – that turned broadcasting in Sri Lanka upside down. Nimal Lakshapathiarachchi, its founder director, recognised the critical need for new formats to make radio more engaging and relevant in the multimedia age. Arguably some of these were in the 'tabloid' mould, but Sirasa – and other FM channels – have lured back a whole new generation of listeners.

Major gaps remain. Most FM signals can only be picked up in urban areas, and their profit-oriented owners are unlikely to invest further to achieve rural coverage. SLBC is the only station broadcasting on medium wave, short wave and FM bands – and, in spite of considerable media freedom granted by the current government, it remains 'His Master's Voice' on all key political, social and economic matters.

And in spite of having more choice than ever before, many Sri Lankans regularly listen to foreign broadcasts.

By far the biggest gap concerns community radio.

SLBC broadcasts from all corners of the country, including stations located in remote areas. The channel involves local people in programme production, and it maintains a strongly agrarian audience. But listeners have no say in running the stations – these are managed by a tight bureaucracy in the capital Colombo, whose rigid guidelines control content: strictly no politics, and nothing remotely against the government in office.

But, although touted as such, SLBC is not community radio, which is supposed to promote access, public participation in production and decision-making and listener-financing – where each listener contributes a small amount towards the running of the radio station.

In Sri Lanka, ironically, only armed rebels have challenged this state dominance by running clandestine channels. The Marxist People's Liberation Front ran Rana Handa (Sound of Victory) in the 1980s when it spearheaded a youth insurgency. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – the guerrilla group now talking peace with the government after two decades of war – ran Voice of Tigers which made a mockery of Colombo's broadcast regulations.

In November 2002, the government granted a license for LTTE to continue its broadcasts legally, a move that has since been contested in courts by other citizen groups.

But that's the first – and so far only – time the state has accommodated such a request. Four successive governments since 1992 have refused to grant broadcast license to non-profit, non-governmental or cooperative groups. Organisations such as Sarvodaya – the country's largest development NGO – are keen to use the airwaves for public benefit, but their requests have been ignored.

A major bottleneck is the discretionary broadcast licensing system that lacks transparency, accountability and consistency. As a result, the electro magnetic spectrum – a public property – has been plundered by officials and politicians who have granted licenses to relatives and business cronies. Some licenses have been traded for huge sums of money. The FM band is now saturated.

Governments have never explained why community groups are not given broadcast licenses. Senior officials have sometimes cited fears of media misuse for 'anti-social' or political purposes. Strangely, such concerns don't seem to extend to profit-making companies, some of whose channels are openly aligned with political parties.

Meanwhile, the smokescreen of so-called 'community radio' has been used by bureaucrats hand-in-glove with commercial interests to block the evolution of broadcasting to the next stage – where community media are owned, managed and sustained by the people.

'Colombo Calling' was the station call in the early days of radio broadcasting in colonial Ceylon. Eight decades on, Colombo is still calling the shots. A few token rural transmissions of the state cannot redress this huge imbalance, no matter how they are dressed up. The first step towards truly community media is to demand the real liberation of the airwaves.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a media commentator and a director of Panos South Asia.

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