After the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001, the international aid community identified a need for new media outlets to help Afghans access information and reunite their country. The funders, led by institutions including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its NGO clients, sought to advance media that could inform Afghans on the pace of their country’s reconstruction and the new political process, as well as issues of urgent development needs, such as health, literacy and poverty reduction.
Until then, Afghan media consumers were receiving news via the BBC Pashto and Persian services, as well as the Voice of America on medium- and short-wave broadcasts from neighboring countries. The Taliban had its own medium-wave religious broadcasts out of Kabul and major cities, on antiquated Soviet-era transmitters.
In 2002, the new government set up Radio Afghanistan, on those same medium-wave transmitters in about five cities around Afghanistan. Their signal reached most Afghans, but did not provide a plurality of viewpoints. The media was strictly state-controlled.
Over 2002 and 2003, USAID began funding massive media development projects through a group of foreign NGOs.
The sound of Afghan radio: Follow this link to listen to Ahmad Zahir, Afghanistan's most popular folk musician:
The Internews Project
In 2003, Internews Network, an American NGO based in northern California, designed (with input from USAID) a US$4 million project to build a network of 32 independent radio stations throughout Afghanistan. The project also aimed to train journalists at the stations and to build a Kabul-based bundle of programs to aid development and reconciliation throughout the country.
Internews worked with local partners at each of the 32 stations, thus drawing expertise on regional affairs from local communities.
The project brought the production of media to the local level, outside major cities, for the first time in Afghanistan’s history. It gave rural Afghans a voice in a country with severe power shortages and illiteracy. Studies at the time noted that radio was the medium with the most potential to reach Afghan women.
USAID has continued to fund the project. The EU and DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development) have complemented USAID financial allocations with money for various training projects for Afghan journalists.
From early 2005, Internews began broadcasting a national radio program, Salaam Watandar (“Hello Homeland”) via satellite to the network of 32 radio stations. Most of the programming is produced in Kabul, although some parts of the programs are produced outside of the capital, brought to the city on either CDs or satellite, and redistributed via the network nationally.
Thus the project brings various communities around the country together. Programming averages four hours per day. The satellite uplink, funded by USAID, now costs $60,000 per annum, according to Internews. Internews has spent the past two or three years working to make sure stations will be able to pay this fixed cost through advertising revenues, as international aid financing in Afghanistan winds down.
The Salaam Watandar schedule is designed in blocks to ensure that local stations have airtime to play their own programs throughout the day at peak hours. The program airs up to fourteen hours per day, with diverse programming on issues such as maternal health, agricultural education, national and international news, and radio soap operas which use entertaining formats to educate families on subjects such as health and rule of law.
One such program is Sharak Atfal, meaning “Children’s City.” Designed to present the history and culture and politics of Afghanistan to children, the program is set in an imagined city with an invisible parrot, an interactive radio and a talking carpet. It is recorded and produced by a team including three boys and three girls and uses their adventures to address issues relevant to children and adults alike. The program switches between Dari and Pashto, the two major languages of Afghanistan, to promote bilingualism.
To read the script for a program from 2004, click here.
Outside those four daily hours, local stations air their own content and additional content produced by NGOs to raise public awareness about development issues. The stations are paid to play those identified paid programs, thus raising income to support staff salaries and other operating costs.
This combination of programming is important in that it allows local stations to develop their own local content, while national content comes from Kabul.
(The author was a part of this project, as an Internews Network employee, from the end of 2003 to the end of 2005.)
In 2005 Internews opened a business development project staffed by one expatriate and several Afghan employees. The goal was to design business models for the stations and to set up rate cards for advertisers to begin purchasing advertising spots. In smaller towns, where local businesses would have difficulty buying enough advertising to cover station costs (fuel for generators, station staff salaries), the stations charged a small sum to read death and wedding announcements, and sometimes sold coupons which local listeners could purchase and use to make song requests or have poems read.
The following link leads to a Watandar FM clip from April 2006. It asks listeners, "Parliament is about to confirm or not confirm the new cabinet. But it is your country. Do you confirm the cabinet? [Call] 075 20 222 40." Radio Watandar, 87.5 [FM]."
Mirwais Social, the director of the station, explains that the clip "was about the new cabinet President [Hamid] Karzai had introduced to the Afghan Parliament. MPs were voting on the cabinet. We put this question on air for a few days and people called and gave their opinion about the ministers." Watandar's format allowed a public, open forum of debate on current politics, something that had never existed before in Afghanistan.
An Asia Foundation survey published in October 2007 describes how radio is a key component of Afghan life, noting that the radio is available in most Afghan households. Eighty-eight percent of Afghan people mentioned that they own a functioning radio. A bicycle is the second most commonly-owned item (58%) followed by mobile phones (42%). Very few households (3%) in Afghanistan have a fixed phone line.
Surveyors asked another follow-up question: “Which radio station do you listen to most often?” to those respondents who were radio-listeners (i.e., 86% of the total respondents). They found the BBC to be the most popular radio service in Afghanistan, named by 24% percent of the respondents, followed by Radio Azadi (23%) and Arman FM (15%).
Radio Azadi (“Freedom”) is, according to its website, “the Afghan service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, broadcasting 12 hours a day in the Pashto and Dari languages. Our mission is to promote and sustain democratic values and institutions in Afghanistan by disseminating news, factual information and ideas. We are joined by the Voice of America in providing an around-the-clock programming stream to the people of Afghanistan.” The U.S. Congress funds the station.
One example of a radio station reaching sustainability in Afghanistan is Arman FM, a private Kabul-based radio station launched in 2003 as Afghanistan’s first commercial media outlet. Arman, which means “hope,” in Dari, survives thanks to advertising revenues and it is changing the way Afghans think about media through entertainment and music. It is also challenging social norms by regularly featuring talk shows with female and male presenters mixing on air.
Initially, two Afghan-Australian brothers, Saad and Jahid Mohseni, founded the stations with a grant from USAID and private Australian investments. But Arman has continued to operate on private funds from Moby Capital Investments, run by the Mohseni brothers.
Says Saad Mohseni, “Arman is self-funding, and has been since day one. We received some assistance from [US]AID, but that was less than 20 percent of capital expenditures early on." It appears that local advertising now covers all of the stations’ operating costs.
The years 2005-2007 have been a transitional period for both Afghan media development and Afghan community radio stations. International funders have reduced grants to international and local NGOs, while Afghan businesses do not yet have the resources to fund local media outlets. The network of community radio stations is still very much dependent on international aid, often in the form of paid-to-air public service announcements, despite the fact that foreign aid is slowly drying up. Internews predicts increasing advertising revenues over the next 5-10 years to make up for dwindling donor resources.
Still, the question of sustainability is an immediate and ongoing concern for the Internews-founded community radio stations. They must raise several hundred dollars a month to break even, even with Internews subsidies towards the cost of the satellite uplink and equipment replacement.
Internews helps stations support themselves by selling advertising and public service announcement spots on the satellite program, Salaam Watandar. The organization describes its business development plans in its 2006-2007 proposal for funding to USAID: “Internews distributes income generated through this business development activity to its 32 partner stations, to enable stations to cover their broadcast cost and thus also the cost of broadcasting Salaam Watandar. The costs of broadcasting for stations are quite high. Few stations have access to city electricity and must run from generators with associated costs for fuel and maintenance. In addition stations require security guards, and production, and engineering staff. Broadcast of the daily news program is one of the conditions of on-going support for the radio stations from Internews.”
Some of these funds come from advocacy campaigns. According to the proposal, “Salaam Watandar will play and distribute clearly identified, sponsored programming and public service announcements to support advocacy. Internews does outreach for Salaam Watandar to numerous international organizations involved in many aspects of reform in Afghanistan.” Unfortunately, those organizations are also suffering decreasing budgets and sources of funding. The radio stations risk growing dependent on these various UN agencies and other NGOs looking to promote educational and goodwill messages, but who themselves will soon have no funds to pay for radio spots or PSAs. All around, international funding is decreasing.
But according to Jan McArthur, Internews Country Director in Afghanistan from mid-2005 until late 2007, Internews encourages stations to solicit and negotiate advertising on their own and to develop their own pricing schedule. Included in the Salaam Watandar package are advertising revenues for each station from large accounts such as UNICEF or local telecoms providers.
McArthur says that the stations' additional revenues are hard to assess. Though the stations are “reticent to share the facts about their income [with Internews] as they fear they will not get donor support if their income is public...we believe through anecdotal information that at least 70% of stations are generating enough income to cover their costs including staff, maintenance and modest improvements. About 10 stations we set up are doing very well – with expansion options. Smaller stations in poorer provinces do OK as generally they are the only effective media outlet” in their region. For example, “the station in Faizabad [Badakhshan Province] has 80% listenership – so any local advertising goes their way.”
“Our best guess is that stations earn between $1000 and $4000 per month from a range of income sources – including both local and
national advertising deals,” adds McArthur.
Much of this revenue is likely to continue despite the decrease in international donor funds, as the Afghan economy continues to grow. But it is still an uphill battle for stations in small towns with smaller economies.
In addition to business development, Internews continues to conduct programs in journalist training and media law advocacy for journalists threatened by unclear and conservative libel laws. It also helps stations maintain their equipment.
Listener Responses (From Altai Consulting survey, “Afghan Media – Three Years After,” for USAID, 2005):
“Before I started listening to the radio, I used to be a very conservative person. For example, I forced my sister to marry a man she did not know. Since then, I have changed and I will let my daughter marry the person of her choice."
Saidullah, 38, shopkeeper, Parwan
“The communists had tried to impose education of girls and their schooling through use of force: as we know, this was a failure. Radio has adopted the opposite route, gaining acceptance gently so that from here on, most people in the region will send their daughters to school.”
Abduallah, 50, Gardez
While community radio can offer exciting educational programming, it is not as sustainable as commercial radio. In a developing economy such as Afghanistan's, the market can support commercial radio, where the station serves a primarily entertainment role. But the market is challenged to support both. In a market where both exist (Arman is spreading quickly all over Afghanistan), the commercial form is more likely to survive in the long run unless the community radio is heavily subsidized.
Yet Internews has come a long way in helping the independent stations become entities that can survive on their own, after donor funding disappears. The stations all earn much of their own income, and Internews has successfully helped to develop an independent radio organization to negotiate national advertising and infomercial campaigns. This brings much-needed revenue to remote stations. The ongoing challenge will be to help stations develop begin surviving off local economies.