Sep 19, 2018 Last Updated 3:08 AM, Sep 19, 2018

Exchanging News, Bridging Isolation


Santoso

It's evening in Jayapura. We have just finished installing a parabolic antenna and digital receiver, and have connected them to studio Radio Suara Kasih Agung. We hurried out into the front yard of the radio station with a small radio. Together with eight radio workers from the city, we gathered together, hearts pounding waiting for a signal. Suddenly the broadcasters voice sprung forth from the small radio. 'This is the latest news from Radio 68H News Office.' We were all surprised, but also relieved. There was good reception for radio broadcasts from Jakarta, which can be re-broadcast by local radio.

Our Papuan friends were even happier that one of the news sources in the broadcast was Tom Beanal, the Vice President of the Papua Council Presidium. This Papuan identity explained the situation, and the Papuan people's desire for independence. Our friends who were huddled around had certainly rarely or never before heard their idol speak on the radio. And on that day, Tom Beanal's voice was not only heard in Jayapura, but throughout Indonesia. Through Radio 68H, the voice of a person in Jayapura is heard in Banda Aceh, Manado, Kupang and other cities.

The exchange of information between regions is one of the strong points of Radio 68 News Office. In previous times, radio was very local, but broadcasts now reach a national, even international audience. This news radio office has bridged the isolation between regions in Indonesia.

A friend who recently visited North Maluku spoke of the importance of this news office. In this new province, there are two radio stations that are members of the 68H network, namely Gema Hikmah in Ternate and Gema Pertiwi on Bacan Island. Of course, the signal from these stations doesn't reach all of North Maluku. However, because people who live a fair way away also want to hear 68H news broadcasts, a number of police rebroadcast the signal over their shortwave radios.

A survey of radio listener behaviour in East Java found that when listeners wanted news, they would first tune in to Buletin. This is a 30 minute Radio 68H program broadcast twice daily in the morning and evening. This is the most popular of Radio 68H's programs, not just in East Java, but also throughout Indonesia. With 230 member stations broadcasting it, it is estimated to reach an audience of 20 million people.

Radio 68H started operations in April 1999. Initially, it was a program of the Institute for the Study for the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), an NGO struggling for the free flow of information. This program aimed to provide independent news for radio. A limited number of news items were produced, digitised (MP3 files) and sent to member stations over the internet. At the outset only 14 stations, mainly in large cities, used the news items.

ISAI itself was founded in 1995, shortly after the Detik tabloid, Editor and Tempo magazines were banned. ISAI initially focussed on print media, as many of its activists were from the print media. However, when the Suharto regime toppled, its activists felt they needed to contribute something to radio journalism, because during the New Order, radio was subject to the tightest repression.

Aiming to facilitate information exchange between the regions and improve the quality of radio journalism, Radio 68H was always intended to incorporate two-way communication. Although the idea was conceived and its studio was established in Jakarta, the contribution of the regions has been very important to the advancement of the organisation. The network members are not just radio stations to relay 68H programs, but are also a source of information ad important contributors that sustain the programs. We encourage every network member to become a correspondent, and routinely report interesting news from their region.

As its regional correspondents are so important, 68H has actively organised radio journalism training in various regions. Usually, a local network member hosts the session. About 12 participants are invited to each five-day training session. The training material is elementary; namely the basics of radio journalism and necessary technical skills, such as using the Cool Edit Pro software to process voices. Training participants become potential 68H correspondents. In three years, we have organised around 25 training sessions with over 300 participants. Fifty of these participants have become routine contributors to 68H.

Over time, the 68H network has continually expanded. At the end of 1999, there were around 60 stations broadcasting 68H programs. Word of mouth recommendations from our network members assist the expansion of the network. Because 68H news is perceived to be independent, easy to understand and reliable, many radio stations want to join the network.

As its network has expanded, the 68H crew has learnt to produce more varied programs. In the beginning, we only produced one-minute dispatches; in August 1999, we plucked up the courage to produce a 24 minute Buletin Sore (Afternoon Bulletin). This program was split into four files, and sent by email to the network affiliates. It was hoped they would download the program before 4pm, and broadcast it simultaneously.

However, by the end of 1999 it was clear that it took too long to download broadcasts off the internet. Our friends at Radio Suara Padang in Padang, West Sumatra, explained that they needed 8 hours to download a 24 minute broadcast. Radio Nebula in Palu, Central Sulawesi needed 6 hours, as did Radio DMWS in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. As a result, the programs were not broadcast simultaneously, and the telephone bills of member stations blew out. The slow speed of internet access, particularly outside Java, forced us to find an alternative technology to distribute the program.

In 2000, Radio 68H News Agency started to use a satellite to distribute its programs. This is far more effective, easy and cheap for our network members. They just need a parabolic antenna and a digital receiver to access all 68H programs, then broadcast those that they are interested in.

Our target is for the 68H network to reach all regencies in Indonesia before the 2004 general election. Through this network, we plan to publicise and monitor the implementation of the forthcoming election. This is very important, as the next election will have different features. For the first time in Indonesia, the president will be directly elected.

Another advantage of the satellite is the opportunity for listener interaction. We have subsequently set up an Indonesia-wide toll-free number. The talkshow that we broadcast each day from 09.00-09.30 has become a favourite with listeners. The listeners always run out of time to participate in the daily thematic discussion. We choose topics like law reform, human rights, regional autonomy, the environment and the economy. Most recently, we have added a talkshow about religion and tolerance, as a cooperative program between 68H and the Liberal Islam Network. This has attracted attention from society in general, and the transcripts of the discussions are published in dozens of Indonesian newspapers.

The biggest problem for the network is now self-sustainability. We have been lucky enough to receive strong support for the initial stages of the program from institutions such as the Asia Foundation, Media Development Loan Fund, the Dutch Embassy and CAF. However, from the outset we have also realised that this assistance cannot continue indefinitely. We are determined to enter the market, and seek funding through the market. For that reason, 68H programs are designed with part of their duration allocated for advertisements. This news agency also accommodates the needs of various institutions that want to arrange sponsored programs.

This extensive network is of course a strong drawcard to attract sponsors. Apart from social institutions, such as the UNHCR, UNDP, Health Department and NGOs, the network has also attracted commercial sponsors, such as the food supplement industry, insurance companies, Pertamina and other mass products. We stipulate that the maximum time that can be allocated to advertisements is fifteen per cent of broadcasts. At present there are eighteen hours of broadcasts daily. As such, 68H still prioritises its listeners' interests over other interests. We believe that 68H News Agency is first and foremost a public service. So it has been from the outset, and so it will continue to be, even when it is market funded.

Foreign broadcast institutions are another source of funding. At present, 68H provides news for Radio SBS in Australia, and Radio Hilversum in the Netherlands. In the near future, Deutche Welle in Germany and the Voice of America will use news produced by 68H. Apart from generating income, cooperation with foreign radio is a new phenomenon. Usually, Indonesian radio just relays foreign radio; now we can provide news for them too.

Radio 68H News Agency also cooperates with Radiq.com in Malaysia to produce the Nada Nasional (National Tone) program. This program is produced in Kuala Lumpur, and broadcast by 68H in several areas that border on Malaysia. This program helps to foster mutual understanding between inhabitants along the Indonesia-Malaysia border. And listeners in Malaysia receive an alternative to official government news broadcasts.

This is one of the results of reformasi in 1998: the freedom the media now enjoys has opened up many possibilities that could not even be imagined previously.

Santoso (tosca@isai.or.id) is the director of radio 68H News Agency.

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002

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