Changing Dynamics of Radio Audience Interactivity in Nepal. ‘Audience Want Change! Radio Needs the Change!’
Access to the radio, and liberty in content production and broadcast increased with the advent of democracy in Nepal. Likewise, rapid digitalization in the last decade, has led to waves of innovation in the field of radio production and broadcast. Even a radio program produced in a local community can now reach a global audience. The ways of engaging with audiences has also changed from the more traditional exchange of postal letters, or face-to-face interactions, to interactivity through social media and mobile-device-enabled ICT tools. While research points to a gradual decline in radio listenership, there is a discernible gap in studies focusing on the changing dynamics of audience interactivity; or the socio-political media discourses emerging from such interactivity. This paper explores the journey of two youth-targeted radio programs in Nepal, and discusses how audience interactivity methods and trends that have evolved with technological development, have influenced citizens’ access and ability to engage with the State. As such, it analyzes audience feedback to the ‘Saathi Sanga Maanka Kura’ (SSMK) and Sajha Boli radio program series broadcast nation-wide via over 40 radio stations, including Radio Nepal. In the days before mobile technology became pervasive, SSMK primarily relied on listeners’ letters and face-to-face interactions for audience feedback and user-generated content. With increased public access and affordability of mobile devices, mobile-enabled feedback systems have assumed prominence. Short Message System (SMS) and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) are two popular mobile-enabled tools used by SSMK since 2010 and Sajha Boli, since it commenced production in 2016.
These radio programs call on youth to engage with their local governments in the oversight and reform of public resource utilization, and the delivery of public services. They promote youth participation in local level planning processes, budget allocation, and in practicing social accountability mechanisms. The mobile-enabled interactive feedback mechanism allows them to share their experiences of engagement with public officials, and their concerns related to establishment of policies and practices that promote good governance at the local level. The real-time data access allows the radio program team to ensure that youth concerns are conveyed to concerned offices and officials through local radio station partners, and locally embedded trained community reporters. For the youth, this interactive loop for relaying concerns, listening to their own voices on the radio, and seeing their concerns being addressed as a result, has been empowering – as evidenced from numerous messages received via SMS and IVR. For the local officials, this mechanism provides a quicker, youth-friendly platform for engagement. Amidst growing concerns about the decline of radio listenership and the lack of youth engagement in governance, this innovative approach of audience interactivity offers a viable option of engendering what is increasingly becoming referred to as ‘digital engagement’, within Nepali youth sub-culture.
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 SSMK is a youth-targeted weekly radio program which started production in early 2000s. Produced by Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access, the radio program covers issues ranging from sexual and reproductive health, relationships, gender based violence, governance and accountability. Since July 2016, one episode of SSMK per month includes discussion on topic related to youth participation in governance and accountability. By December 2019, SSMK has broadcast over 965 episodes which are available here (http://equalaccess.org.np/archives/series/sathi-sanga-manka-kura).
 Sajha Boli is also a youth-targeted fortnightly radio program produced by Equal Access International aimed at encouraging youth engagement in oversight of public resources and service delivery. Started in July 2016 as a media component of Civil Society: Mutual Accountability Project (CS:MAP), this radio program is also produced by 10 local radio partners, and has broadcast over 80 episodes by December 2019 which are available here (http://equalaccess.org.np/archives/series/sajha-boli)