Photo collage with logo of Suusamyr FM 103 and a picture of the community radio volunteers by Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2019

Radio Connects a Kyrgyz Community with the World

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SUUSAMYR, Kyrgyzstan (IDN) – Travelling on the new Silk Roads recently upgraded by the Chinese, one drives up through stunning mountains that are still covered by snow even as summer approaches. The road from Kyrgyzstan’s capital Bishkek climbs up to a peak of about 4.000 meters before descending over 1500 meters to a picturesque valley to reach one of the remotest communities in the country, the village of Suusamyr home to about 1,300 traditionally nomadic people.

A community radio project here run by a handful of passionate young volunteers is giving a new meaning to radio in the broadband age, where this traditional media is liberating the community from remoteness by connecting them with the world. “Most of our listeners live in the mountains,” says Aizada Kalkanbekova, Director of Suusamyr FM 103. “They have no electricity, only have this radio. They get our news and they ask for music and want longer transmission.”

When IDN asked a group of local teenage community radio volunteers how they feel living in such a remote community, they were quick to point out that the radio allows them to connect with the world outside.

“People turn on the radio while they are working, even when they go to the field during summer and get entertained and educated. We connect them to the world with news, information and music,” said 16-year old Indusbekova Aitengir, a volunteer broadcaster with the radio. With her experience in radio, she wants to go to university and get educated to become an English interpreter, where she may be able to open up the world further to her people.

Fellow schoolmate Umsunai Achykova, who wants to become a software engineer, says: “People here are mostly relatives and they look after themselves. Not like other places in Kyrgyzstan where people blame government for not helping them. We don’t criticize government.”

It is interesting to note that in many countries in Asia where community radio was established with donor funding and training from Europe using the “voice for the voiceless” principle, the governments have seen community radio as their opposition and have often been hostile or at best uncooperative.

But, Suusamyr FM 103 community radio is taking a different path. It is even about to go into a joint venture with the local government to produce a fortnightly community newsletter that will publish both the municipality news provided by the local government and independent community news produced by the radio station.

Suusamyr is bitterly cold, blanketed by snow, in winter. But come summer and entire valley blossoms with tall, lush grass, making it some of the best pasturelands in the whole country, popular with local nomadic communities. This place is also becoming a tourist attraction for mountain climbers and travelers looking for a peaceful unpolluted spot to enjoy the crisp mountain air. Heavy snow during winter has also attracted a Kyrgyzstani businessman to set up a ski resort on the slopes nearby.

Station director Aizada, a mother of three children and a university graduate, told IDN that it all started in 2011 with virtually no funds. She set up a local NGO called ‘Aijaryk’ with her as its executive director. Internews, with funds from the European Union, gave them training to set up a community radio.

“At that time, I had no idea what community radio was all about,” she says, adding, “it took us two years to get a license”. By that time, funding for her NGO had dried up, so she had to look for funds to set up the station like buying a transmitter and studio equipment that cost about $ 20,000.

“At that time UNDP started a pasture project here and we offered to work with them using radio to promote the project (in the local community),“ she explains. “That got us the equipment and we started the station with 5 trained volunteers in December 2011.”

Credit: Remote LandsSuusamyr valley is the largest pasture area in Kyrgyzstan. During the Soviet days these were widely used, but, after its collapse infrastructure related to pastures has badly deteriorated. Pasture land in the Suusamyr area can accommodate over 28,000 heads of livestock. The project helped to open roads to additional 30,000 hectares of pasture land, with upgrading of 51 kilometers of mountain roads, and restoration of 56 culverts.

“We played a development communication role,” recalls Aizada. “Old men came to the station and explained their traditional role on how to pasture. The pasture committee (set up by UNDP) came in and their members talked about what they were doing.” Initially local pastures were worried about why they had to pay to the committee to use the new services and the radio played a key role in explaining the reasons and discussing the need for it.

Today, Aizada runs the radio station with no funds from anywhere and she survives because of her job at the Association of Community Media in Kyrgyzstan as a trainer for which she was trained by the DW Academy in Germany. For this job she has to travel regularly to the capital Bishkek, which takes at least 4 hours each way. “I don’t get any salary for running the radio station. It’s purely volunteer work,” she points out.

The radio station broadcasts from 3.30 pm to 7.00 pm each day with 11 volunteers, 7 of them school children. They also have a local imam and a doctor from the village hospital broadcasting as well. The doctor appears in a health program done by 15-year old volunteer broadcaster Sarymsakova Gulzar. The imam has his own program of 30 minutes a week talking about Islam, and sometimes he invites a police officer to discuss the problems of extremism. “The government wants him to do that,” says Aizada.

The team of young volunteers produces news programs from the five villages in the vicinity and they have now set up a website to post their news as well. When they go out to gather news, one of them takes pictures to post in the web with the news story. “Whole of Kyrgyzstan (and the world) can now read our news,” says website producer Anarbek Kaldykov. Their Facebook page has 700 followers and Instagram some 670.

A news report they have done recently with pictures that showed flooding at the school, immediately drew the attention of the local council, who came in and solved the problem.

Aizada argues that their tie-up with the local council to produce a newsletter will help the radio station to put itself on a financial footing because the council will pay them for it. The radio has already started recording council sessions and broadcasting it on radio. “Local people now say, we know what you do at meetings (and hence) council members come better prepared to meetings,” she notes. “This has helped to improve governance (at local level).”

“The local government has given us good support. They are very open, always give us interviews, even if local people criticize them on radio,” says Aizada, pointing out that her young volunteer broadcasters often air ‘vox pops’ with the community members that raise community concerns. “When we collect vox pops we come to be the bridge between the people and municipality,” argues Sarymsakova. “Because we are relatives we can’t fight”.

The most popular programs on air are the evening entertainment programs where people in the mountains call or WhatsApp requesting songs, as well as news. When asked why older people are not volunteers at the station, Aizada told IDN: “The culture of Kyrgyzstan is that older people don’t do volunteers work. They can’t understand it. They even ask younger people why they broadcast for no pay.”

The young volunteers who broadcast on radio have high ambitions. One of their original broadcasters has gone to university, graduated and now works as a journalist in Bishkek. “She (Aizada) persuaded me to go into journalism,” says Jayil, who has come over for the weekend to visit his family. “Now I work at the parliament as a press officer,” he says.

“Being a volunteer here gives us confidence,” says Indusbekova. “My speaking ability has improved. I can express my opinions now, earlier I was very shy.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 April 2019]

Photo collage with logo of Suusamyr FM 103 and a picture of the community radio volunteers by Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS

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