by James Careless
KATHMANDU, Nepal — The horrendous earthquakes that ripped through Nepal in April and May 2015 killed thousands of people, seriously injured many more, and flattened much of this mountainous country’s infrastructure, including its government, commercial and community radio stations. In the wake of these disasters, Nepal’s broadcasters have stood up for their people by doing whatever it takes to get their life-saving transmissions back on air.
Given the extent of the damage, the level of human tragedy that has affected all Nepalese and the country’s limited communications, electrical and emergency response capabilities, these efforts are nothing short of heroic. But Nepal’s broadcasters understand that their broadcasts are lifelines for listeners seeking life-saving assistance, information, and a sense of connection with the rest of their fellow citizens.
“After the jolt of 7.8 magnitude, during the initial and largest earthquake on April 25, most of the radio stations were damaged and some were collapsed in quake-hit districts,” said Gopal Guragain, senior journalist and CEO of Nepal’s Ujyaalo Radio Network and Ujyaalo Online. “It was important to resume their broadcasts because true information and life-saving education was the only remedy to reduce rumors and panic among the people.”
LIVING THROUGH CHAOS
“I thought I understood what fear was. Until this moment, I hadn’t even come close to comprehending true fear.” These words come from Santosh Devkota, chairman and managing director at Cool Tool Digital Media Pvt. Ltd./AKA DigiMed (http://digimednepal.info/), remembering his feelings when the first quake hit on April 25. Based in Kathmandu, DigiMed specializes in broadcast/Web transmission equipment sales, radio coverage mapping and website solutions/networking. He was in Pokhara in western Nepal at the time, setting up “Samriddha Nepal,” a community radio station.
“I was walking down the crowded streets with my team when the earthquake initially hit,” said Devkota. “All of a sudden it seemed as if the ground had dropped away from where it had been a second ago, and then everything around us started shaking. It was impossible to try to stand still because one second you would be standing there and then the next, the solid pavement was no longer beneath your feet and you were left falling down onto uneven ground below where you were just standing.”
Devkota’s experience was shared by people throughout Nepal that day, and during the major aftershock that rocked the country on May 12. But as soon as the shaking stopped, the fear that gripped Nepal’s broadcasters was quickly replaced by a burning question: Are we still on the air?
This question raced through the mind of Raghu Mainali, director of Nepal`s Community Radio Support Centre. (The majority of broadcasters in Nepal are publicly-run community radio stations.) After surviving the earthquake of April 25 while at home, Mainali got on the phone to check on Radio Sindhu, a community station in Sindhupalchok District. “I got the news that it was fully destroyed,” he said. “I could rarely contact other radio stations and people that day. The network was fully down.”
Despite the devastation and their personal losses, Radio Sindhu’s staff managed to get the station back on air by retrieving their equipment from the wrecked studio building and setting it up in a tent. “It took more than two days to arrange and assemble the equipment to restart broadcasting,” said Mainali. But giving up was not an option: “We knew the importance of news and information to ease the fears of the public,” he said.
According to Nepal’s Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB), 58 of its member stations suffered varying levels of damage from the earthquakes. Details can be found at www.acorab.org.np/earthquake/static-page/earthquake-affected-radio.
BACK ON AIR
After the quakes, Nepalese broadcasters banded together to get radio back on air, one way or another. Production resources and staff were shared; makeshift studios and antennas were erected and transmitters powered up. As well, aid groups like First Response Radio — a network of radio broadcasters, NGOs and government partners — took to Nepal’s battered roadways to seek out and help stations in trouble.
“First Response Radio was informed that there was a great need to get stations back on the air in Rasuwa District, but for the first 10 days the road was still blocked into Dhunche,” said FRR’s Mike Adams. “When we drove up on May 6, there were still bulldozers clearing the road as we passed.”
Once the FRR team got into town, they found that Radio Rasuwa’s studio facility had been devastated. Meanwhile, “Radio Rasuwa was only barely just still on the air,” said Adams. “Their antenna was damaged and the transmitter was only putting out about 10 percent of normal power. FRR assisted Station Manager Deepak Lama to completely replace all the damaged equipment and 60 minutes later our ‘Radio in a Suitcase’ kit was broadcasting Radio Rasuwa back at full power.” The ad hoc studio was originally set up in the street, and then moved into the still-standing hotel next door a day later.
The Ujyaalo Radio Network took a big-picture view of the disaster, first by contacting its 175-plus radio station members for damage assessments, and then soliciting equipment and aid from various sources and funding agencies to help get them back on air. “We received a grant within a week,” said Gopal Guragain, senior journalist and CEO of Nepal’s Ujyaalo Radio Network/Ujyaalo Online. “Though it was not enough to bring back the broadcast of all radio stations, it was enough to bring back many radio stations on air in these quake-hit districts.”
Using this funding, Ujyaalo 90 Network has supplied transmitters to community stations such as Radio Kalinchok 106.4 MHz (Dolakha) and Radio Sindhu. Power backup (batteries and online UPS) were provided to Radio Dhading 106.0 MHz (Dhading), Radio Tinlal (Ramechhap) and Radio Chautari (Lamjung). Studio mixers were supplied to Radio Krishi (Dhading) and Radio Melamchi (Sindhupalchok); among others.
“Beside this, we sent a technical team of three experts to fix transmitting towers, antennas, transmitters and damaged studio equipment of Radio Bandipur (Tanahun), Radio Taranga (Pokhara), Radio Marshyangdi and Radio Chautari, both in Lamjung,” Guragain said. “The team was working in other districts too.”
In the wake of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes, the recovery process is slow and difficult. Months after these events, radio remains the country’s most reliable source of information, due to the damage suffered by and comparatively scarce coverage of the country’s newspapers, TV stations and Internet services.
“People are asking, ‘Where can I get food, water and a tent for my family?’” said FRR’s Adams. “After sleeping outside for many days many people have become sick, which is why information about how to stay healthy is being shared. Children are more vulnerable in times of disaster, so district government officials are sharing guidelines on how to keep children safe from exploitation. The right information at the right time can literally save lives!” To help get this information distributed as widely as possible, aid agencies have been distributing radios to people in quake-affected areas.
“We have to keep in mind that most of the producers, technicians and reporters of the quake-hit districts have lost homes, family members and relatives and they also are the victims of the quakes,” said Guragain. “Despite this tough reality and other difficulties, they are doing their best to deliver the content.”
James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.