By Sonia Randhawa
In 2001, a group of young Malaysians set up a project to help their fellow citizens rediscover the potential of radio. Radiq Radio, started with the assistance of a few jaded journalists, was designed to be something a bit different from the commercialised diet we’re typically fed. Over the years — and through financial crises — Radiq evolved from a purely news-oriented project to a community-based radio station. If you want to make your own radio programme – and air it someplace other than iTunes — Radiq could be the place for you.
It’s through Radiq that I ended up in Amman, early November, for the week-long Ninth General Assembly of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC, from the French: Association Mondiale Des Radiodiffuseurs Communautaires). Over 200 community broadcasters from all over the world were present. AMARC’s board alone has representatives from the US, Mexico, Haiti, Senegal, India, the Philippines, the UK — and other parts of Africa, Latin America and Europe.
And there was I, a representative from the Asia-Pacific region.
Listening to the World
When it comes to radio media, Asia lags behind the rest of the world. Africa has more community radio stations than we do, by a long shot. Never mind Europe or North America — or Latin America, birthplace of the medium.
At the assembly, it was easy to feel like a child, uninitiated into the rituals of community communication. The most humbling moment of my time there was while I shared a panel with Zara Mahamat Yacoub, a pioneer for non-commercial independent radio — and the arts, and other forms of communication — in Chad. She described the violence amidst which she is now working: the fear of genocide seeping across the Sudanese border; the steps the government of Chad is taking to shut down all dissent, including the voices of peace.
Listening to her (and this before I came home to the UMNO General Assembly) I was quietly grateful to be living in Malaysia.
But I also discovered that some of the problems with running community radio were identical, everywhere. Not everywhere in the world are people faced with genocide — but the threat of uniformity and censorship imposed through the commercialisation of the media, and the increasing concentration of ownership that this results, is universal.
The mechanisation of labour promised many things: shorter working weeks, an abundance of goods produced by an underclass of robotic servitors, the freeing of the human mind from the labours of the body. We would, it seemed, be able to do more in less time — the elite of humanity would be free to ponce around, sipping champagne and creating artistic challenges for itself. A science fiction future, much like Michael Moorcock’s lords at the end of time, or anyone from lain M Banks’s Culture.
Statistics have a way of playing havoc with expectations, unfortunately. Globally, less people are involved in the arts as an industry (see Arts Under Pressure by Joost Smiers). Before the easy reproduction of recorded music, it played a less pervasive role in our lives — but more of us were involved in its creation and performance. Now, we passively receive the offerings of MTV, Era or XFresh, available in an earphone near you, 24-7-365.
Digitisation exacerbates this trend. With unlimited choice, we turn to the palates of our somewhat sanitised DJs to find out how to be hip and happening. It doesn’t seem important how good the music is — it is important how new the music is. Siti’s latest offering is given enough airplay in the short span it is ‘new’ to ensure that we are all familiar with the lyrics, but it is quickly turned over for Amy Mastura’s latest. Rapid turnover on the turntables. Don’t let the market be bored, make sure they’re on to the next purchase.
There are lots of reasons to be concerned about this, but one of them is the way it sanitises censorship. Do we have a dearth of political songs on our airwaves because they are not commercially viable, because there is a limited space for local music and it shouldn’t be given over to political lyrics, because foreign political music has no resonance in Malaysia, or because of censorship?
There is a chicken and egg situation here. People don’t buy an album because it isn’t on the radio. Album sales show that the album isn’t popular, so it isn’t going to get airtime.
I’m not only talking about party politics. Anti-war songs, despite our anti-war stance, haven’t much of a presence on Malaysian playlists. Feminist songs are far outnumbered by those commoditising women or sex — or both. We are severely limited in what we listen to. Worse, these trends — of sanitised music and soulless techno-babble, of increasing commercialism and monopolisation — are not limited to the airwaves. Nanyang Siang Pau and China Press, just to cite one example, have now entered the happy world of multinational media conglomerates.
Power to the People
Community radio (CR) is defined by a few simple principles. First: it is non-profit and volunteer-driven. Second: it is owned and managed by the community in which it is rooted. Third: it operates on a principle of open access. You make the programmes, you’re responsible for the content. This has a few implications:
First, it means that if you’re unsatisfied, say, with the sanitised rap content of mass media stations, you can start up your own street rap station, belting out the rap rhymes of your favourite underground rappers.
Second, producers aren’t chasing advertisers. They don’t need to follow consumerist and apolitical commercial priorities, with a high record turnover and the continual pressure to purchase. Good music can be played long past its commercial expiry date — while the latest albums aren’t guaranteed air time on the sole basis of being new.
Because community radio, usually through a low-powered FM station, is cheap to set up and cheaper still to operate, community radio is an increasingly popular form of communication.
Radiq Radio is still waiting for AM transmission to begin — but the station is now working with a wide range of communities: groups in Sarawak and Perak; children from Kampung Medan; women in squatter communities in Kepong; the wives of factory workers in Kajang; Orang Asli women in Pulau Carey; refugees (oh, sorry: Nasty, Illegal Migrant Workers Who Should Be Chucked Into Prison); and others.
Elsewhere, the CR bug has infected communities in the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. It gives communities – including indigenous musicians — the opportunity to hear themselves. A scary thought for governments and corporations across the world.
Sonia Randhawa is also the director of the Centre for Independent Journalism
First Published: 21.12.2006 on Kakiseni