Media: Its time to create a Fifth Power

Published in Terra Viva,the independent daily of the World Social Summit III in Porto Alegre, Brazil – 27 January 2003



Development: Giving Villages the Technology They Want

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK, 27 Dec 2013 (IPS) – Mobile broadband services are seen as a key tool of development communication the world over, but people in rural Asia and Africa say telecom companies should cater to their needs and not simply impose technology on them.

Experts say spreading the benefits of the digital revolution to rural areas poses a huge challenge for telecom companies, which have so far focused on urban markets.

“The telecom industry has had an easy ride so far. It hasn’t seen what’s coming to them,” Mark Summers, co-founder of Inveneo, a non-profit company promoting broadband connection in Africa warned at the Telecom World 2013 conference here last month.

“The education they want to bring is education that will draw a wedge between me and my way of life.”
He was immediately challenged by a Zimbabwean in the audience who said he lived in a rural area and didn’t need the technology they had all been talking about. He wondered if telecom companies ever asked people like him what they wanted before trying to connect them to the technology.

Similar debates had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s when radio was promoted as a development communication tool, mainly by western consultants.

“They talk of us as if we are uneducated,” Reuben Gwatidzo of the Information Society Initiative Trust of Zimbabwe told IPS.

Gwatidzo said it wasn’t necessary to learn someone else’s language or to have high literacy to be a good carpenter, farmer or build one’s own house.

“The education they want to bring is education that will draw a wedge between me and my way of life,” he said. He said he was not against new technology but rural people must be allowed to choose what they want, and not have some “international strategy” imposed on them.

The telecom meet was organised by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the Thai capital. The meet picked up on longstanding issues.

ITU estimates there will be over 6.8 billion mobile phone subscribers around the world by the end of 2013, but points out that there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to the Internet, with 90 percent of them in the developing world.

Telecom companies – which target urban markets – have increased their revenue by 12 percent between 2007 and 2011. The industry is largely driven by private operators.

Many argue that private companies are not interested in rural markets because of low purchasing power and high cost of connectivity and that is why governments should step in to provide connections.

“The real challenge is how to structure spectrum allocation to attract carriers to both urban and rural sectors,” said Safroadu Yeboah-Amankwah, a Ghanaian telecom sector analyst.

“The truth is rural markets are not attractive, but there are mechanisms to address them, including government intervention through which you can tax the urban markets to subsidise the rural markets,” he told IPS.

But not everyone is convinced about the role of the government.

Dhaka-based Abu Saeed Khan, senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think tank, argues that governments can create problems too.

“In Bangladesh, the government has auctioned this bandwidth. It is not cheap, so private operators load the price on the package,” he told IPS.

“When it comes to Internet bandwidth, operators don’t have direct access because the government has erected a barrier – a middleman – so the cost of Internet bandwidth is too high for consumers,” he said.

ITU’s report, ‘Measuring Information Society 2013’, argues that people living outside major cities in developing countries are the ones for whom information and communication technology (ICT) can have the greatest development impact.

In many countries across Asia and Africa, schools and health centres are connected to mobile and broadband technology and farmers are provided information on crop protection and marketing.

For instance, the International Fertiliser Development Centre provides information via mobile phones to farmers in five African countries to protect them from counterfeit fertilisers.

In Malaysia, seaweed farmer Kabila Hassan has set up a SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS – also providing employment to half her village – by using the Internet to market products in China, Japan and the U.S. She received the ITU’s Transformational Power of Broadband Digital Icon Award 2013 here in Bangkok for it.

Brahima Sanou, who is from Burkina Faso and is director of the Telecom Development Bureau at ITU, believes mobile phones can be the new development anchor.

He pointed out several examples of this – such as Senegal where fishermen use mobile phones to find out the price of fish before they come ashore; Rwanda where it is used to follow government services in rural areas; and Costa Rica where it is used to combat non-communicable diseases.

“People who never had access to any technology are now using mobile phones. We have to develop (services) for people (through) what they own already, not bring new tools,” he said.

Dr Rohan Samarajiva, a Sri Lankan telecom expert who is the founding chair of LIRNEasia, told IPS that the findings of a six-country sample survey on how poor people were revealing.

“It is very clear that they are accessing more than voice services through wireless platforms,” he said.

“We were surprised when, while doing research with poor people in Java (Indonesia), they clearly stated they were not using the Internet, but later they started talking about FACEBOOK and various other activities.”

“This shows that they are using mobile phones without necessarily going through the steps they think are necessary to use the Internet,” Dr Samarajiva noted.

He said their sister organisation in Africa had the same findings.

“So it’s a different conception of the Internet,” he said. “The whole world is moving towards mobile devices. We will see an explosion of its use.”

As phones are transforming from merely voice communicators to what is called 3G or 4G, which transmits voice, visuals and data, a large chunk of humanity in rural Asia and Africa is waiting for a transformation in their lives but with technology that is relevant to their needs.

Philippines: Community Radio – Balm in Troubled Areas

By Kalinga Seneviratne

DXUP Child Broadcaster at DXUP

UPI, Mindanao, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) – Amidst the raging conflict between government forces and Muslim rebels on the island of Mindanao, the religiously mixed population in the North Cotabato region looks to a community radio station as a beacon of peace.

Set up four years ago under the ‘GenPeace’ (gender and peace) project, ‘DXUP-FM’ serves over 42,000 people in the mountainous Shariff Kabunsuan province of southwestern ARMM (Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao).

A multicultural community, Upi comprises some 17 ethnic groups. Of these the indigenous Tedurays are the most prominent, making up 44 percent of the people. The Muslims, known as Bangsa Moros make up 23 percent. Christians, mainly settlers from Luzon brought to the area during the United States’ occupation, form another 33 percent.

The ethnic composition of the community has created the term ‘Tri-People Community’ and it is this concept that drives DXUP’s programming philosophy and helps it to promote harmony among the people.

“Everyone here works towards appreciating the goodness of life,” says station manager Mario Debolgado, a local businessman and an Anglican Christian.

“We have programmes for Muslims focusing on their culture and tradition. So people understand how Moro people live. Programmes on indigenous people focus on their traditions so that others understand their way of life. Our main objective is to build peace… development will come later,” he added.

Interestingly, Upi was subjected, in 1970, to an attack led by the notorious cult leader ‘Commander Toothpick’ that left six people dead. Armed conflict then spread right across the region leading to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1972 and the launch of a secessionist war for a Bangsa Moro state which dragged on for well over two decades.

While conflict between Muslims – led by a breakaway rebel group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) – and the government has resurfaced in recent months, in Upi, people of the three communities live together peacefully.

“Almost 50 percent of our programmes are on religion and culture. If you understand each other it is very easy to communicate. That’s how we promote peace here,” noted Alih Anso, the station’s programme director.

“Peace is about absence of violence and we discuss the culture of every group so that other people will understand them,” Mayor Ramon Piang, a Teduray, told IPS. He is one of the strongest backers of the radio station.

Tedurays, once the most marginalised community here, have now transformed into a confident group and DXUP is credited with playing a major role in this. “Tedurays are traditionally a very shy tribe but now it has changed a lot because they come and participate in the radio programmes,” explained community elder Dominador Mandi in an interview with IPS. “By doing so DXUP has empowered the community. Our people do not believe any more that we cannot do anything good.’’

“Because of the radio station people now know what is their religion,” one of the Imams of a mosque in Upi told IPS. “We hear programmes about Islam and Christianity done by our own people. So we learn about each other’s way of life and we learn to live in peace.”

The imam argued that those who do not go to mosque or church get wrong ideas about their religion as well as that of others. But when they listen to the radio stations they get the right perspectives. “They hear discussions on religious ideas and the way you live and they begin to respect the other,” he added.

“Sometimes people ask me, in your Koran, I heard in the radio that this is like this, very similar to our Bible,” explained Abdullah Rashid Pulido Salik, the vice-mayor of Upi and chairman of the Community Media Education Council (CMEC).

“That shows how community radio creates peace. We do not discriminate on grounds of race or ethnicity, as long as you come and broadcast for the people’s good,” said the local politician who is also a Moro Muslim.

The CMEC, which is a multi-sectoral governing and policy-making body, is the lynchpin of the GenPeace community radio model. It embodies the essence of the community-run concept and includes a cross-section of the community.

The station was established by the local government unit (LGU) of Upi with the assistance of the Norte Dame Foundation for Charitable Activities (NDFCA) and financial support from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) multi-donor scheme.

Today the station is dependent for almost 90 percent of its funding on the Upi LGU and is driven by volunteer support. Training for the volunteer broadcasters is given by the Philippines national radio network under a MOU signed to support the GenPeace stations.

Most of the cultural programmes and the news are broadcast in the Tagalog language, which is the national language of the Philippines, so that all communities can listen to and understand the programmes.

“The most important aspect of this radio station is that listeners are tuning in to each other’s cultural programmes,” observes Mayet Rivera, a mass communication lecturer from Mindanao who is doing doctorate-level research on the DXUP model.

“It is very exciting and kind of enlightening that people are now able to listen to things that matter, understanding each other’s culture and pave the way for respect and trust,” she added.

Radio DXUP video clip

Sri Lanka: Building Ethnic Harmony With Community Radio

By Kalinga Seneviratne

KOTHMALE, Jun 4, 2007 (IPS) – In this tea-growing hill country, about 150 km from Colombo, a state-run community radio station is creating harmony among the country’s Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ethnic groups by broadcasting from the villages and opening up the airwaves to people’s participation.

”People all over Sri Lanka are talking about peace, but this community radio has been doing it from the beginning,” P. Pavitheran, an announcer at the Kothmale Community Radio (KCR) told IPS.

“We don’t have any community divisions here,” added the Tamil broadcaster who also speaks fluent Sinhalese and switches smoothly between the two languages on air. “All my (assisting) staff are Sinhalese, but we’re all working together as a team.”

KCR on FM band was set up by the government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) in 1989 with 3 hours of transmission three days a week. Today, it broadcasts 12.5 hours a day on weekdays and 8 hours on weekends in both Sinhalese and Tamil. It covers a modest 20-km radius that includes 60 villages and 3 rural towns and reaches a population of 200,000.

In a country torn by a bitter civil war for the past 25 years between the Tamil separatists led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the mainly Sinhalese government in Colombo, KCR is a beacon of hope for all those who would like to see peace return to this once serene island.

The Sinhalese form the largest ethnic group in the nation, composing approximately 81.9 percent of the total population of 20.7 million people. Tamils, brought in by British colonists to work on estate plantations, are officially called ‘Indian Origin’ Tamils and are distinct from the native Tamil population that is concentrated in the north and east of the island.

From KCR’s studios, situated on a hilltop overlooking scenic tea estates, the ethnic conflict seems distant. The station currently employs 8 permanent staff, 4 of whom are from the villages, as well as some 15 volunteers from the local community. The Sinhalese and the Tamil staff communicate with each other in Sinhalese and address each other as brother or sister.

“We have not restricted this station to one segment of the community only. We have included all the ethnic communities — Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim — in our programming,” noted Sunil Wijesinghe, the controller of KCR.

“We encourage the community to come to the station and suggest programme ideas to us. We listen to them and even ask them to come in and do programmes for us, as long as it does not harm any other people,” he said explaining the broadcasting strategy.

Speaking with IPS, he disputed the fact that a government-owned radio station is incapable of doing community broadcasting. “Yes, it is true I receive a monthly salary from the government, but I’m also a person from the village,” he said. “I know the aspirations of the villagers, I know their needs and I have won their trust as someone who recognises these.”

“This radio is very useful for the community. Lot of people, especially youth, listen to this radio because they like the local cultural content,” says Sandanam Sathiyanathan, field coordinator of a local non-governmental development organisation.

“The commercial channels don’t broadcast these songs and cultural contents from the local community” he added. “They broadcast Indian film songs and dramas, but Kothmale community radio gives an opportunity for the (Tamil) plantation areas to voice their opinions and culture.”

“I have been a fan of this radio, so I have joined as a volunteer” said Taj Mohamad Kamil, a Muslim girl from the local community, who has just qualified to enter a university in the nearby city of Kandy. “Kothmale FM service identifies the needs of the community and satisfies it. All the people working here behave like brothers and sisters. They are very close to each other.”

Dilshika Heshani Silva, a 20-year-old undergraduate student in mass communications at Kelaniya University in Colombo, says that while she studies the external degree, KCR has been most helpful in giving her the opportunity to gain experience as a volunteer producer and announcer.

“Because the radio (station) goes from village to village and gives information about the community, listeners here learn a lot about their own neighbourhood,” she told IPS. “Working in this radio is an educational experience, whereas on commercial radio they always broadcast songs.”

The outdoor station is mounted on a diesel-driven trishaw — commonly used across South Asia as cheap taxis — and is equipped with loudspeakers, mixers, digital sound recording system, a laptop computer, a printer and a small generator. A mobile phone is used to link up with the studio to broadcast live programmes from the villages.

When the mobile “broadcast studio” — funded by a Sri Lankan charity foundation called MDF– arrives in the tea estates there is much excitement. People gather around it and oblige with songs sung live on air. Switching between Tamil and Sinhalese the programmers skillfully weave live inputs into the broadcast.

“We enjoy our work here because we are always with the community,” said Pavitheran, who often joins in with the singing and dancing. “People enjoy it and we enjoy it. This is the most important thing.”

Tamil tea estate workers are among the most marginalised people in the country. But, in the past three decades, expansion of the free state education system to the estate communities has raised educational standards and almost all young boys and girls are literate and speak both Tamil and Sinhalese.

“Kothmale FM attracts the hearts of the plantation workers,” said K. Arumugam, a trade union representative. “People are very close (to KCR) and this radio service should expand to all tea plantation communities in the hill country,” he added.

Kothmale Radio Video Clip

Sri Lanka: Rural Folks Log-On Via Community Radio

By Kalinga Seneviratne


KOTMALE, Sri Lanka, Feb 15, 2000 (IPS) – Villagers in this picturesque mountain region of Sri Lanka, 150 kms from Colombo, are logging on to the Internet via their local community radio station.

The Kotmale Community Radio (KCR) project may well revolutionise rural communications in South Asia, by showing just how information technology can become accessible to rural folks.

”We have opened the doors to knowledge, understanding and entertainment through radio,” says Sunil Wijesinghe, controller of KCR. ”This has motivated the community to participate and express themselves freely and receive information without censorship.”

KCR, established in 1989 by the government-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) as a low-powered community based radio service carrying development messages to the rural people, is now run by the community.

The staff and volunteers are the well-educated sons and daughters of plantation workers and farmers from the surrounding areas, where literacy rates are over 90 percent. They take information off the Internet to produce programmes for broadcast.

Madhushini Nilmabandara does a weekly programme on human rights using the Internet. Her programme is funded by the University of Colombo’s Human Rights Centre.

”People were not aware of their human rights. So we give them information … how to take action to protect it. Now we have set up human rights clubs in schools and do programmes with them (on radio),” she said.

Kotmale has become part of the global World Wide Web under a pilot project funded by UNESCO, which ended last October. A 50,000 dollar grant in 1998 helped establish an Internet hub here, which includes a local server and five computer terminals.

Local volunteers have been trained to log on and some have even learnt to put up websites. They have also recently started a webpage on the community using information provided by listeners.

Since April last year, KCR has been broadcasting a one hour programme at night, five days a week, to introduce the Internet and the information therein to listeners.

”We wanted to be the first to open a gateway for rural Sri Lanka to the emerging information society. I’m glad to say this is happening,” observes mass communication expert Michael David of the University of Colombo who is the KCR project coordinator.

Both he and Wijesinghe admit that the domination of the World Wide Web by the English-language is a barrier to access, but at KRC they have enlisted the help of bilingual speakers from the community to help programme producers.

”We have in this area well educated people like doctors, lawyers, teachers. We get them involved in the programme. They extract information from the Internet and interpret it for our listeners,” Wijesinghe said.

During the programme itself, listeners are encouraged to contact the station if they need more information on the subject.

For instance, ”school children ring us up or send letters asking for specific information. We go to the Internet, find the information and tell it on air in summary form. We send them a print out of the information as well,” he explained.

Listeners are also encouraged to drop in at the radio station to explore the Web. This has proved so popular that KCR now regulates the use of computers, and Wijesinghe said they may soon have to take older volunteers off to make way for new people.

KCR is also setting up computer terminals in three public libraries, including in Gampola, to widen community interaction with the Internet. At Gampola, 20 kms from the station, the librarian has been trained to teach people how to surf the net.

”The Internet is a very useful tool for my education,” says Nayanasiri Dissanayake, a Grade 11 student, who was trained at KCR. ”I have been able to get a lot of information from the Internet, especially for science projects.”

With UNESCO-funding stopping last October, KRC has had to find alternative sources of money. Coordinator David says they are working closely with hotels in the nearby hill town of Nuwaraeliya to attract foreign tourists to the region.

In addition the telecommunication authorities are waiving their telephone bills and the Kotmale webserver could become the Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the region.

Confident project officials are also considering other ideas like setting up a computer training centre for rural people and a webdesign centre for rural businesses which could use the Internet to promote their products within and outside Sri Lanka.

During a recent meeting with staff and volunteers here, UNESCO consultant Wijayananda Jayaweera, a former SLBC broadcaster, advised them to turn KRC into ”an advertising agency to create income for the project and yourself.” Kotmale resident Mahendra Wegodapola has done just that. He used the Internet to start an NGO, the Green Lanka Nature Conservancy Association, and ”now we use the Internet to communicate with donors and international NGO forums.”

Mahaveli Community Radio video clip


Philippines: Community Radio Makes Its Voice Heard

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGA, Philippines, Jul 10, 2001 (IPS) – Robert Rala sells pork at the market early in the morning in this town in the Philippine central province of Aklan, then proceeds to his other job — as business correspondent for a radio station.

”When I come in to the market at six, I go around talking to the vendors to find out the prices of their products. I note them down and then go over to the radio station and give out these prices on air,” says Rala, who is president of the market vendors’ association and broadcasts a 15-minute programme at 7:15 a.m. daily


Robert Rala, the Business Reporter

”Sometimes I get their (vendors’) comments on the fluctuating prices, especially for vegetables and fruits which change by the day,” he explains.

For his part, senior police officer Crispin Requiola is the station’s crime reporter. Requiola, who has a daily, 15-minute slot on the radio station DYAT-FM, says: ”I always report about the daily activities of the police, based on our 24-hour activity reports.”


Policemen and Crime Reporter Crispin Requiola

He says he reports crimes committed in the neighbourhood and what the police have done about them.

Rala and Requiola are two volunteers for Radio DYMT-FM, which broadcasts from the premises of the Aklan State College of Agriculture (ASCA) and whose existence shows how the Philippines has been an exception to the slow take-off of community radio in Asia.

In this quiet little provincial town surrounded by rice-growing communities, the local university is providing a community-based radio model that is combining community participation with agricultural extension work.

DYMT-FM is part of a network of 25 community-based radio stations set up previously under a project called ‘Tambuli’ (horn). The project’s proponent Louie Tabing, a former programme executive of the Catholic Church-run Radio Veritas, had designed it to promote community radio in a country where majority of 80 million people have access to the medium.

Tabing says DYMT-FM is a model of a community-based radio station that would help sustain the impact of the ‘Tambuli’ revolution for years to come, now that the initial funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Danish government has ended.

The station was set up in 1993 as part of the Aklan college’s agricultural extension work. But to become a part of the ‘Tambuli’ network, it had to include a community participatory model of operations.

While the university put up the administration costs of the station, as a ‘Tambuli’ station it had to be managed by a Community Media Council (CMC) that ensures local participation through representation from a variety of sectors of the local community to which it is broadcasting.

Thus, the media council of DYMT-FM includes, in addition to the university’s nominees, representatives from the local church, local government, market vendors, police, health authorities, taxi drivers, farmers, senior citizens, rural women, youth and the business community.

”In 1992 we drew up a plan so that we can disseminate the information we generate from agricultural research here,” explains Professor Ping Bullo, station manager of DYMT-FM.

”But this agriculture technology cannot be disseminated to all the Aklan (island) people because it is impossible to go there one by one. Every family in the Philippines has a radio, so we wanted the radio station to do it,” says Bullo.

Bullo admits that the university-radio proponents originally did not have community participation on their mind, but they did not see a conflict between the broadcasting philosophy of ‘Tambuli’ and the needs of his university.

”Tambuli’s concept is that the community should participate in the ownership and management of the radio station,” he says. ” There’s nothing wrong with that.”

”One of the functions of the college is rural development and we believe that for rural development to be effective, we have to solicit the participation of the people in the realisation of these extension programmes. So it matched with our thrust,” he adds.

The marriage of the university’s need to use radio for educational extension work and the importance of getting the community to participate holds great scope for future expansion of community radio in the Philippines and in Asia in general.

How these two needs co-exist here is interesting. The university funds the radio station by the fact that they have two staff members who double up as broadcasting executives and academics. Only one, the technical officer, is assigned full-time to the radio station. A number of students are also volunteer broadcasters, filling up airtime on the station.

Bullo teaches rural development in addition to his duties as station manager. Salvacion Villasis is an agricultural extension trainer with the university and programming coordinator at the radio station.

”I have to go to the barangay (villages) to train the farmers, as well as talk to students here to encourage them to become volunteers. When they are interested, three of us train them,” explains Villasis. ”This station is basically run without a budget,” she adds.

When volunteers come forward, the station offers them free air time to do whatever programme interests them. They are given three weeks training in basic radio production by the DYAT-FM staff before they go on air.

The local Catholic church also gets air time on the station. Apart from the night-time slots, mass is broadcast live on Sunday mornings via a landline between the church and the radio studio.

”The church use the radio facility to proclaim the good news of God,” says the local parish priest, Monsignor Raul Gonzales. ”The radio helps to give spiritual enrichment, especially to people in the barangay (villages) who cannot make it to church.”

Bullo adds that there is much more the station can do for the community here. They are about to upgrade the power of the transmitter from 20 to 300 watts. But the lack of funds is a handicap when it comes to gathering news, as there is no budget to pay any expense money or allowances to the volunteers.

To overcome this, the station has launched a campaign to raise 1 million pesos (20,000 U.S. dollars) in the next two years. These funds are to be deposited in a bank and interest earned from them to fund the volunteer programme.

Tabing calls the DYAT-FM station a success story because it is trying to make an initiative under the ‘Tambuli’ project sustainable. He muses: ”Looking back, I think we have proven to the Filipino nation that there is something else, another type of media system that can be put up, where programming is done with substance of pluralism than elitism.”

Community Radio: Aboriginal Radio holds on its own

By Kalinga Seneviratne


BRISBANE, Apr 5 2008 (IPS) – When the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association (BIMA) applied for a community radio license 15 years ago they had to compete with a Christian group which argued that there were more Christians than aborigines in Brisbane and thus merited a license first.

But BIMA was able to convince Australian broadcasting authorities that though there were more Christians than aborigines here, the latter had a greater right to get their voice heard because the Christians were well represented in the rest of the media. BIMA was thus given the license and started broadcast on Apr. 5, 1993.

Started as Radio 4AAA-FM, but popularly known as 98.9 FM, it is the first Australian aboriginal-run community radio station in a major city. Today, as it celebrates its 15th anniversary, 98.9 FM is more a mainstream radio here rather than a fringe community station.

“We happen to be black and we happen to be community radio, but we see ourselves as stakeholders in the mainstream radio industry in Brisbane. We have some 120,000 mainstream ‘white fellow’ listeners a week,” Tiga Bayles, general manager and founder of the aboriginal radio station, said in an interview with IPS.

Bayles argues that an attraction is country music, a genre of local Australian music that is popular both among white and aboriginal Australians. For many of Australia’s indigenous people who grew up in the outback (countryside) or in desert reserves, this music is popular entertainment. Over the past 50 years famous country music stars have included legendary aboriginal names like Jimmy Little and Roger Knox.

At 98.9 FM they make sure that at least two songs from aboriginal musicians are played each hour. The station broadcasts 24 hours a day. “We don’t have any competition here, there is no other country music format broadcast on radio in Brisbane,” noted Bayles.

“Country music is a bridge that brings together the two communities – indigenous and non-indigenous,” argues Prof Michael Meadows of Brisbane’s Griffiths University. “The reason it works for 98.9 FM is because of indigenous people’s close affinity with country music,” he added.

Pradip Thomas, an Indian-born Christian, who lectures in mass communication at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, is a regular listener of 98.9 FM. “Country music is a clever strategy they have used to reach out to a wider community,” he observed. “I think they have succeeded in this. There is a large crowd of white folks who listen to them when they drive to and from work in the morning and in the evening.”

In addition to day long country music, 98.9 FM broadcasts a five-minute news bulletins each hour from 6.00 am to 8.00 pm Monday to Friday. This is produced by the Brisbane-based National Indigenous News Service (NINS) of which Bayles is the chairman. “We have a particular policy that stories need to be about or related to indigenous communities, but also (appeals to the) majority communities,” he explained.

Thus, NINS, which provides an indigenous perspective on news, is distributed to some 150 community radio stations across Australia by satellite. They also invite other aboriginal radio stations to provide news to the newsroom in Brisbane where 3 full time journalists are employed.

Bayles also broadcasts a live talk programme from 9.00 to 10.00 am daily 5 days a week, which is also distributed nationally by NINS. “I bring in a guest to talk live in the studio or talk live on the telephone on air. In this way we’re giving a white audience a black experience,” he argues.

Meadows told IPS that the audience research he has conducted in Brisbane indicated that this programme has a good listenership among white professionals in the city, especially those who work in the health and government services sector. “They said that Tiger’s programme gives a much needed indigenous perspective on various issues.”

Over the past 18 months Meadows has done an audience survey of aboriginal media, especially radio, in Queensland, whose state capital is Brisbane. “Radio plays a very important role in providing the link for remote indigenous communities with the outside community,” he argues. “People everywhere we went said indigenous radio was the voice of the people. It’s their’s and they have control over it and they can say what they want.”

Australia’s indigenous people have been locked out of the mainstream media for a long time. Worse, especially on commercial media, they have been stereotyped as drunkards, uneducated ‘no-hope’ people living on government welfare handouts.

In the past 20 years, a new breed of indigenous people, well-educated and articulate, like Bayles, have led a counter-attack against this negative portrayal of Australia’s original people. As a result there are now 105 unique small community radio and television broadcasting facilities known as Remote Indigenous Broadcasting Services in far-flung communities. In addition, there are 25 licensed aboriginal community radio stations across the continent.

While Bayles is happy with this rapid growth of aboriginal media in Australia, he is concerned that most of it is not professional enough. He says a lot of them turn up at the station, play whatever music they like, talk a bit on air and go away. To make aboriginal radio more professional, 98.9 FM has set up a training arm offering three certificate courses along with e-learning facilities.

They bring in six to eight station managers from across Queensland to Brisbane for training three or four times a year. “We introduce them to our style, the standards and the philosophy behind this station. The philosophy is that everybody that has ears is a potential listener to your radio station,” explained Bayles.

Unlike most other aboriginal radio stations, 98.9 FM is not purely dependant on government funding. Only a third of its income comes from government grants to indigenous media, the other two-thirds comes from sale of airtime to advertisers and income generated from projects such as training radio broadcasters.

“There has been no increase in funding for indigenous radio for probably 15 years. It is not good,” complains Bayles. “We should be able to get funds directly from the treasury and be that independent voice of the people.”