Khayae FM, the first community radio in Myanmar, has been on air since 2018. With its local focus, the station gives people a chance to participate more actively in their communities.
A new kind of media is getting a foothold in Myanmar: community radio. Khayae FM, the first station of this kind in the country, has been on air since 2018. With its local focus, the station gives people a chance to participate more actively in their communities. Building on this experience, a whole network of community media in different regions of Myanmar is preparing to broadcast.
Every day at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m., residents in Htan Tabin township, about 22 km northwest of central Yangon, can turn on their radios and hear the voices of their friends and neighbors bringing them stories and interviews on subjects like vaccination programs, fertilizers, cooking, or village histories. In between the useful information, they can enjoy popular Myanmar music.
With a cheerful "Mingalabar," Khayae FM announcer Thu Thu Hlaing welcomes listeners to the station’s daily afternoon live show. The station broadcasts live every afternoon for two hours—plus a repeat the next morning. Seated behind the main microphone in the radio’s one-room studio, the 28-year-old Thu Thu exudes confidence as she handles the faders on the mixing board and clicks on the first story—an interview with a local monk. She and several volunteers have been at the station, for several hours already. They’ve been choosing the music and lining up the stories planned for that day.
For the next two hours residents in this mostly rural township, crisscrossed by waterways and dotted with villages bordering pale green rice fields, will hear stories that are directly relevant to them and their families. These are stories not often heard on national or regional broadcasters, such as information about new rice seed varieties on the market, how to cook Biryani rice for a big group, an updated curriculum for area schools, and an in-depth profile of a local village. "I like that what is on the station is produced by and for the local community, so people can hear things that can improve their daily lives," says Thu Thu, who besides a regular host of the live shows is also one of the two Khayae FM station managers.
Under the military dictatorship, which ended only in 2011, this form of free media was unthinkable. But even with the recent developments toward democracy, the establishment of Myanmar’s first community radio station didn’t come easy. It was a process that stretched over several years and included many discussions with parliamentarians, government officials, the local administration, development experts and, last but certainly not least, the community itself. The long, winding road was understandable since this type of media was entirely new to Myanmar.
Community radio stations are non-profit, non-partisan broadcasters, managed by the community where they are located. They rely on volunteers to produce programs that speak to local needs and interests. The goal is to share information that can help people in their daily lives and discuss concerns in a language that residents understand—especially important in a country, which is home to 135 ethnic groups, most of which have their own language.
Community radio in Myanmar fill a role that national or regional media often do not—covering hyper-local issues and allowing the voices and perspectives of people from rural areas and with different educational and socio-economic backgrounds a place on the media landscape that they didn’t have before.
In addition, receiving news and information on the radio does not require the ability to read. While the literacy rate for young people in Myanmar is high, around 85 percent according to a study by UNESCO, for those over 65 years of age the number drops to under 60 percent. Newspapers are not effective information sources for them, not to mention the fact that radio waves have an easier time than printed material does reaching remote villages whose roads might wash out in the monsoon season.
Khayae FM station manager Thu Thu has to leave home early, just after seven o’clock, to get to the station during the two weeks per month when she’s in charge. She lives with her parents in a thatch house just beside the river in Kyein Pite, a low-lying village that becomes inaccessible by road during Myanmar’s rainy season. So during about half of the year she travels to the station by boat, an hour-and-fifteen-minute commute. Thu Thu was introduced to Khayae FM while volunteering for Su Paung Arr Mann, the village development NGO which is DW Akademie’s partner for the Khayae FM project. She began attending training workshops in the run-up to the station’s launch and taking on a bigger volunteer role. Her flair for both organizing and speaking on air soon became apparent, and it wasn’t long before she stepped into the station manager shoes. Either she or co-station manager Mee Mee, are at Khayae FM every day.
The radio station is located in Su Paung Arr Mann’s two-story headquarters, a concrete building on thick metal stilts. Among the palms that dot the sleepy village, an antenna mast on the building’s roof reaches 20 meters into the sky. The studio features a mixing board, an equipment rack, three microphone stands, and three desktop computers. It’s all surrounded by black foam panels on the walls that keep out most of the sound of the tractors that occasionally rumble past. It’s here where the station managers assign stories, listen to interviews, and check daily rundowns, and where at 2 p.m. the mic faders are pushed up and the radio show goes live on air. The radio staff consists of three people who receive monthly compensation: two co-station managers and an assistant. The rest of the people who work with the station are volunteers. The numbers vary a lot, depending on the time of year or farming season. Sometimes 12 volunteers are working, sometimes only three and sometimes in between--always fewer than the numbers needed. So they are all usually very busy.
Community radio Khayae FM is playing a pioneering role in Myanmar’s evolving media environment and is something of a starting point. Other communities have taken inspiration for what Khayae FM has achieved, and a number of community initiatives in other regions are now off the ground. It’s a promising start to the development of a vibrant community media scene, which gives a voice to rural people across Myanmar’s diverse patchwork of ethnicities and cultures.
As the country began its transition to democracy in 2011 and media restrictions began to ease, space opened up for new media outlets. In 2015, parliament adopted a broadcasting law that made community radio possible for the first time. However, the by-laws regulating licensing hadn’t been written, and are still under review.
DW Akademie scouted a possible place for a community radio station. In Atwin They Phyu village, which lies in Htan Tabin township, it found a solid partner in the local VDCF and invaluable help from the German development aid organization Welthungerhilfe (WHH).
DW Akademie, based on an intense discussion process with the community, presented the government the idea of establishing a community radio pilot project in the interim by getting special permission from the authorities to broadcast on an FM frequency administered by the state broadcaster MRTV. The project would provide a real-world example to government officials as they develop regulations for the new sector. It was a complicated process. It involved discussions with the country’s information minister, the Press Council, MRTV, and other actors on the media landscape. But all the effort paid off, and the government signed on to the idea, planting the seeds that grew into Khayae FM, or "Starflower" in Burmese.
Media history was made on February 18, 2018, when Khayae FM went on air. The normally quiet village of Atwin They Phyu was thrust into the spotlight as both national and international guests came to the new station to celebrate the event. State broadcaster MRTV was on hand to film speeches by the country’s information minister and Germany’s ambassador to Myanmar. The ground floor of the VDCF headquarters was decorated with colorful balloons and glittering streamers. Station´s staff and volunteers at Khayae FM were thrilled that the radio was really getting off the ground after the many months preparation. More than a few wondered if the "On Air" light would every really turn on.
"When we first started planning, people said it wouldn’t be possible to run a radio station in Htan Tabin," says station manager Mee Mee. "They thought it would be too difficult."
But on that day, they saw that all the planning and hard work had paid off as Khayae FM’s signal went out to some 15,000 households in the area. Upstairs in the studio, volunteers conducted their first studio interviews with the VIPs, their nervousness showing. The community radio launch was on the national news that evening, a remarkable turnaround from an era not so long ago.
Connecting with the community
Community radio stations are only successful if they have the full support of the community they serve. A station needs a healthy number of local volunteers to staff it and create the programming. Local business interest is crucial since business owners can buy advertising or sponsor programs to help keep a station financially afloat.
Cooking recipes, education policy, news from agriculture: Khayae FM reports about what interests the surrounding communities
To strengthen this community connection, Khayae FM decided to go to the people where they live. It started holding production weekends in villages where volunteer reporters could talk to a wide variety of residents—from village elders to young children—and put their stories and concerns on the airwaves. Topics included the dangers of rainy season landslides for people living close to rivers or the best ways to eliminate golden apple snails, which can devastate local rice crops.
"Going to the villages allows us to take a more in-depth look at their lives," says Htet Mon Thaw, the radio mentor who works closely with Khayae FM. "People really get involved with our programs and they learn how a radio station works. Now, villages around the township are even inviting us to come."
One of those is Kyaut Pone Lay, whose residents had heard other villages being profiled on the station.
"I want Khayae FM to come to my village and tell our stories," says U Jaw Ni, a village elder and chairman of the local rice farmers group. "Others can hear stories about our lives and we’ll even hear our own voices on the radio. It also lets us play a part in helping the station."
Bumps on the new road
None of the staff and volunteers at community radio stations had previous media experience. No one in the community had ever heard of a radio station run by locals. That means individuals and officials can be wary about talking to reporters since they might not fully understand what the station is or what its goals are. Others are reluctant to volunteer, thinking they don’t have the needed skills and knowledge to contribute to a radio station, even though Khayae FM offers training in radio production, journalism and announcing to anyone who wants to get involved. No previous experience required.
In a nation like Myanmar, which is no stranger to ethnic conflict, there were worries about putting voices on the air that might end up increasing tensions instead of mutual understanding, even inadvertently. That is why journalism ethics and the importance of neutrality are key ideas treated in volunteer training workshops. Stories are carefully checked by the station managers and the radio mentor. The content on the station these days steers clear of hot-button topics.
That is because tackling highly controversial issues could put the young project at risk as well as the overall development of the community media sector, especially if a broadcast led to violence or some other negative outcome. Other difficulties involve personnel. Htan Tabin is a rural, largely agricultural community where most people work long hours to support and care for their families. Time can be scarce. Khayae FM still struggles to recruit and keep enough volunteers to produce enough stories to fill its airtime. Right now there are enough motivated people helping out to keep the lights on, but not enough to expand the length of the broadcasting day. But for those residents who do get involved, the benefits can be significant.
Before coming to Khayae FM, twenty-one-year-old Nan Yu Hlaing was a recent high-school graduate who wasn’t sure about her next step in life. She spent her days helping her mother around the house and her father in his rice fields. She came to her first volunteer meeting at Khayae FM because she thought the idea of a local radio station was interesting. But she wasn’t sure if it would be a good fit and mostly stayed in the background, speaking only rarely. "At the time, I mostly was just staying at home and wasn’t really confident enough to talk to people I didn’t know," she said.
But that began to change once she was trained and had a chance to observe how the experienced ones conducted interviews, put programs together, and hosted live shows. She started taking on a bigger role. Once she found the confidence to get behind the microphone, she discovered she had a gift for announcing. Equipped with a digital audio recorder, she was soon heading out to the offices of local officials for interviews. Later, she stepped forward when the station needed someone to take on a part-time position to assist the station managers. "Now I can talk at meetings or even at conferences," she said. "My involvement here gave me the ability to do that." More recently, she was part of a group of people involved in the Myanmar community media scene who went on a ten-day tour of Indonesia to see and learn from community radio stations there.
Other volunteers have also seen their life trajectories change significantly since volunteering at Khayae FM. Twenty-six-year-old Thin Thin Po saw volunteering at the station as a potentially fun activity, but not much beyond that. It soon became apparent she had a knack for doing interviews and putting together feature stories. "The training that we’ve gotten has really widened my knowledge and put me in contact with people I would have never met," she said. In fact, she took to her volunteer work with such enthusiasm that now she’s decided to pursue a career in journalism. She was recently accepted a candidate for the degree program at the Myanmar Institute of Journalism (MJI) and her goal is to become a full-time radio reporter.
The community radio landscape in Myanmar is proving a fertile one, and interest in communities around the country is high. DW Akademie has started to explore a second initiative, this time in Mon State in southern Myanmar. It is an ethnic region where both the Mon language and Burmese are spoken. This new community radio station in the planning will broadcast in both languages, and can serve as a model for future stations in more ethnically diverse areas of the country.
The Scandinavian media development organization IMS-Fojo is supporting four other community radio initiatives, three of them in Chin State in the remote northwest part of the country. None of them have received permission to broadcast yet as they are still waiting for the completion of by-laws which will put an FM licensing procedure in place. Right now, their audio content goes out on social media.
The hope is that soon a community radio network can be formed which will enable these new stations and other actors to share their knowledge with each other while helping new initiatives get off the ground. "Khayae FM has been a kind of prototype for Myanmar’s community radio sector," said Letyar Tun, an IMS-Fojo project manager who oversees that organization’s community radio projects. "Now is the time to form a network that brings community radio projects together with international and local NGOs, civil society groups, community organizations, and even academia to share our experience, hold workshops, and make connections with community media networks beyond our borders."
DW Akademie is working with UNESCO and IMS-Fojo on moving forward on the establishment of just such a network. DW Akademie and IMS-Fojo have also teamed up with a local tech company to develop a new community radio app. The app will allow people to easily listen to the country’s growing number of community radio stations on their smartphones. In addition, it will allow people in those communities to contribute content to their local station by recording interviews and stories on their phones and uploading the audio to editors at the station. That way, more people can become active members of their community radio family.
By working together with other stations and bringing in more voices and viewpoints of local residents, Myanmar’s community radio stations will make this new sector stronger, contributing to the country’s media diversity while making a concrete impact on the daily lives of citizens.
The Author: Kyle James is a project manager and trainer at DW Akademie where he works for the Asia team and oversees the organization’s community radio projects in Myanmar. Before working in media development, Kyle was a reporter and editor working in radio, print, and online media. He has filed for outlets in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
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