[Fsf-friends] [OFFTOPIC] Radio suffers as Colombo bosses call the shots

Frederick Noronha (FN) fred@bytesforall.org
Sun Feb 29 01:43:48 IST 2004

Please excuse the posting of a completely off-topic posting here. This is 
a campaign that is underway since the mid-nineties. FN

---------- Forwarded message ----------

DO YOU believe that radio has a role in enhancing communication among the
common(wo)man in India? Join a network meant to campaign for the opening up
of genuine community radio in India. Click on the link-below to sign-up on
the 'Community Radio-India' mailing list. FN (Frederick Noronha)
cr-india mailing list

PFM2058 |  22/10/2003 | 970 words  
Radio Suffers As Colombo Bosses Call The Shots

By Nalaka Gunawardene                 
COLOMBO (PANOS FEATURES) -- 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
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
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
Nalaka Gunawardene is a media commentator and a director of Panos South
This feature is published by Panos Features and can be reproduced free of
charge. Please credit the author and Panos Features and send a copy to MAC,
Panos Institute, 9 White Lion St, London N1 9PD, UK. Email:
Photos (c) Panos Pictures except where otherwise credited.  Panos London is
a registered charity number 297366 Site development by viplondon. Design by
John F McGill.

    February 2004	| Frederick Noronha, Freelance Journalist
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