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Radio Column: Pacific Radio Today

by David Ricquish

Pacific Radio Today

image of Radio Station WVUV  bumper sticker

Radio Station WVUV 648 AM American Samoa is currently silent.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

I thought we'd take a tour around some of the islands, and look at some of the issues facing local broadcasters as we enter the brave new world of the internet, satellite radio, and converging technologies. We'll also look at The Pacific Plan, and what kind of broadcasting future this has in store for us.

I recently heard from UCB Pacific, they're based in Auckland here in New Zealand, and they operate a number of radio stations around the islands. This is what they said:

Just staying on the air is a constant battle in the islands. What an intense few days it's been. Firstly, the riots in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands. Our Gud Nius Radio is located in Chinatown, where the riots were centered. We lost two mixer panels looted from the station.

Then, in Vava'au, Tonga, the antenna of our 89FM Letio Kalistane [or Christian Radio] was hit by lightning, and at the same time, our 93FM antenna for Tonga'tapu was damaged by high winds. The equipment for this station was all second hand when we installed it 15 years ago.

We got 93FM back on air for two days when a 7.8 earthquake hit Tonga. This knocked the transmitter out of the equipment rack and onto the floor, along with other gear. It's now operating at low power until we can afford to send a technician from New Zealand to fix it.

Our 89FM station needed a new mixer panel as well after the lightning hit, and our technician at 93FM is waiting for a flight to Vava'au so he can take the new mixer there, and install it whilst taking instructions over the phone from a technician in Auckland.

UCB are pretty well organized, they've been broadcasting to Pacific audiences for some 20 years and have stations in Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea as well, and they even have plans for a 24 hour Pacific program via audio streaming so that their local stations can use this to add to their local services.

image of Radio Station SBC Radio 2, Samoa broadcast location

Radio Station SBC Radio 2, Apia, broadcasts from this caravan in the car park.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

But, already, we can see some of the challenges facing island broadcasters. They are at the mercy of the weather in the world's largest oceanic zone, and nearly all located in the cyclone belt. It's just over a year since Sunshine FM on Niue island was forced to stop broadcasting as a cyclone smashed into the island and destroyed most of the infrastructure, including their own antenna system and satellite dish. In Pago Pago, KJAL has been operating at low power since a cyclone struck in 2005.

We heard about the earthquake knocking transmitters to the floor. The Pacific is an active volcano and earthquake region, the famous 'Ring of Fire' and stations all over the region can't provide emergency services when their studios are covered in ash, or a nearby earthquake hits. And, did I mention tsunamis. Imagine the impact of one of those on low lying Funafuti Atoll, where the one local radio station's tower is about the tallest thing above sea level.

OK, we've sort of covered floods, fires, cyclones and other acts of nature. More recently, the Pacific is becoming prone to civil unrest. In Honiara, they were full on riots, and local radio stations tend to get looted, or, their staff held at gunpoint. These have been all too common occurrences in the Solomon Islands in recent years. In Fiji, a series of coups since the mid-1980's has arguably affected the growth of private radio in the country.

Local journalists risk their lives just going about their daily work in places like Noumea in New Caledonia….and far too many stations find that operating funds sent from the central government are, to put it kindly, subject to shrinkage along the way. Across Papua New Guinea, local radio stations have their power and telephone lines cut off because they don't pay their utility bills. They simply fall silent.

image of Radio Station Radio Laufou FM studios and towers, Samoa

Radio Station Radio Laufou FM has studios and towers alongside Apia harbor.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

And, some local people regard radio stations as fair targets when it comes time to collect payback, or compensation for some real or imagined slight. They simply block access to them or occupy them. Sometimes, they even burn the studios down, as was the case years ago with WVUV in American Samoa over a land dispute. Radio station trucks and vehicles are also fair game for angry locals with grudges against the government, or the station.

You've probably noticed the price of oil is getting steep. Imagine you're the local broadcaster on any Pacific island with a diesel or petrol swilling power generator to keep your AM transmitter on the air. Oil is imported. Your budget remains the same. You cut the power of your station, like SBC does in Samoa for 540 AM to keep it going. Or, you reduce hours of service. In Rarotonga, the only local medium wave station operates at low power to keep costs down, and there's no useful service to the outer islands.

Lots of sunshine you say, good for solar powered transmitters. Fine in theory, like the networks installed with Australian Aid funds in places like Vanuatu. Did we mention cyclones earlier? They rip into solar panels and toss them around like pieces of paper and there goes the power supply.

Finding a good radio technician in the islands isn't easy. Solar power cells and panels need maintenance. So do antenna systems after cyclones. So do studios and transmitters after riots and floods and earthquakes. The local power supplies are often erratic. It's not so long ago that Fiji was suffering from a drought, and the hydro power stations were closing down through lack of water. Some local AM stations reduced power, and at least one power hungry AM transmitter has been closed down.

Calling in technicians from Australia and New Zealand or even Hawaii, is time consuming and expensive. Phoning them is also expensive, as local phone companies are often state controlled monopolies, and broadband internet connections are scarce and quality often erratic.

image of Radio Polynesia's Transmitter building and tower

Transmitter building and tower for Radio Polynesia's FM stations.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Frankly, it's a tribute to a small group of passionate people scattered over the Pacific, that radio broadcasting survives at all. It's just plain uneconomic in many places, it's often dangerous, it's under resourced, and too often just hangs in with an aid project here, and a grant there,

No wonder the Pacific Plan says that broadcasting has been a largely neglected area of ICT, or, Information & Communications Technology, in the Pacific.

The Pacific Plan secretariat says, and I quote, "that newer technologies through the internet, audio streaming, community FM broadcasting and satellite radio offer means to better achieve coverage and improve the content in broadcasting, such as high quality education, health and other services, as well as entertainment.'

The convergence technologies are seen as 'cost effective mass ICT' offering 'potential solutions to reach, coverage and diversity issues in the Pacific'. Local broadcasters will be invited to identify opportunities for expanded broadcasting capacity to remote, rural, women's and other, as yet, undefined, groups.

A broadcasting study is planned to review all these issues and come up with all the answers. This will all apparently be undertaken by the Secretariat from behind desks in Suva, advised by a working group made up of unknown people in the ICT field.

They have plans for a new PIIC or Pacific Islands ICT Council, that will drive the direction of broadcasting in the region from 2007. Only one media group seems to be involved, the Pacific Islands News Association, also based in Suva.

Radio broadcasters themselves seem to be in the dark about how these plans for convergence will affect them, or how they get to have a say in their own future. The overall picture is as clear as TV reception in the rain shadow of any hill on any island in the Pacific.

Across the Pacific, broadcasters face fires, floods, earthquakes, riots, tsunamis, escalating costs, shrinking budgets, lack of technical skills and increased competition for audiences, …and yet hour after hour, day after day, they find ways to keep their studios working, their towers up, and their transmitters humming and fill the airwaves with music, news, information and entertainment.

Radio broadcasting has thrived despite all the challenges of the past 80 years since stations first began service in the Pacific, and, perhaps the Pacific Plan will have some use if its bureaucrats consult with the broadcasters themselves and the Pacific people who make up their audiences.

As our friends at UCB said earlier, just staying on the air is a constant battle in the islands.

Based on a radio heritage documentary broadcast over Radio New Zealand International, July 2006.

Researched and presented by David Ricquish for the Radio Heritage Foundation.

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