Short wave, short of listeners

Posted by Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore

I was the only board member at a recent meeting of Radio Veritas Asia (RVA) Urdu language service.

Three others included an RVA staff member, Father Nadeem Shakir, director of Church communication center and Archbishop Emeritus Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore who started the service 25 years ago. The agenda for Friday meeting included preparation for the year-long activities and programs pegged to the silver jubilee of the RVA Urdu service scheduled for Aug 12 this year.

However the enthusiasm seemed little as I watched the empty seats of the other seven board members. Preoccupation with their own works and a hot summer day must have deterred the lay leaders, we thought.

The attitude of clergy and nuns is little different, described Hadayat Nazir, the official reception monitor of the radio service. “They can ride expensive cars but demand a radio whenever I visit the listeners in their parishes.”

Until 2009, the service counted 132 listener clubs, almost all of them owned by Muslims in Pakistan. The regular programs of the Urdu (national language) service cover different topics including literature, health, religion, education, special transmission on national and religious feasts. The theme selected for jubilee year is “Golden memories, bright hopes”.

There is no denying its impact on interfaith scenario in the fundamentalist landscape of the country. I was fascinated after reading the stories of diehard Muslim listeners of the RVA newsletter. We even had a Muslim teacher as board member a few years ago.

However a majority of listeners are villagers or people in small towns. The brand is mostly unknown in the big cities. Unpopularity and dependence on donors may be the reasons behind 10 per cent annual cut backs announced by visiting German donors from the Missio funding agency last year. The national communication center already lost its annual funding of 10,000 rupees from the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Pakistan about six years ago.

“RVA headquarters in Manila used to pay $105 for an hour of recording which was reduced to $73.50 from last Oct,” says Father Shakir. Things will get worse after a few years if this continues, he added. “It will gradually become difficult to keep paying the program producers. The shortage of money has already started affecting maintenance of computer appliances and office stationery”.

Perhaps the solution lies in upgrading the technology and making it compatible with the modern needs.  FM channels are very popular among the young and travelers, easy to access from cell phones. The listeners of short wave may be intelligent in searching its frequency but it’s not the popular medium at least in present century.

Same goes for the content.

RVA needs to be more interactive and less one-sided. Some of the popular radio channels in Pakistan use live transmission which increases intimacy with the live callers. Maybe we need this feature in Church radio too. The newly launched Vatican Radio in Pakistan, is already struggling for its audience. In era of reality shows and discussion programs, traditional broadcasting or translating Pope’s messages on radio might not survive for long.

There is no denying RVA’s considerable contribution in reaching out to people of different faiths in the past. But now it needs an overall change to compete with internet crazies or couch potatoes.

Its only survival lies in becoming self-sufficient and in up-to-date programming in a new style.

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