Pacific Islands media talk about the web

Thanks to John Utanga and the Pacific Islands Media Association for inviting me to participate in a panel discussion at their conference in Auckland today. It’s always great to see journalists looking to spread their work and interact with their readers online.

Here are key points from the panel members in the order in which they spoke:

Neil Sanderson (editor, nzherald.co.nz)

  • There are about 50 staff working in the New Zealand Herald’s online operation, but a small (and more narrowly focused) news website could be run with a single part-timer. At many of our company’s smaller newspapers a newspaper sub-editor also updates the website.
  • It isn’t necessary to spend huge amounts of money to get online. A very simple site could be built on free blogging software (such as WordPress) for example.
  • Content can be supplemented with free news headline services such as nzherald’s RSS feeds.
  • If you already have a traditional media channel (e.g. newspaper, magazine or radio station) try to find ways for it and your website to complement and promote each other.
  • Engage with “the people formerly known as the audience” any way you can [and read Jay Rosen for more on this subject].
  • Once you become a real-time online publisher, your customers will start to expect you to continuously update your site around the clock (with a vast army of online journalists to rival the BBC). Get used to the criticism and look for ways to get maximum benefit from the resources you have at your disposal. What valuable services can you provide that are available nowhere else?

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The King’s treasures

The announcement that Tonga’s new king plans to sell his many business interests in the country raises a number of questions, including:

  1. How did the former Crown Prince acquire so many assets in a country that is reported to be close to bankruptcy?
  2. What are the chances of finding Tongan investors to buy his business interests? Will the ownership of infrastructure such as electricity, telecommunications and broadcasting simply transfer to other privileged members of the Tongan nobility or end up in foreign hands and further impoverish the country?
  3. What does the king plan to do with the proceeds of sale? And why not turn over his wealth to the nation?

Champagne lifestyle in Vanuatu

It was just after 7am and raining as Pacific Princess slipped almost silently into the little bay on the east coast of Espiritu Santo island. For a few moments it was possible to imagine we had taken Vanuatu’s largest island by surprise. There were no tugboats to escort us or dancers in traditional costume waiting to perform for the cameras.

Out of the thick bush, smoke from a dozen small fires rose to mingle with the grey cloud that clung to a long forested ridge. In the misty distance, a half dozen people fished from a trio of canoes.

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Solomons radio restricted

Despite a peace agreement between the government and militants, Solomon Islands broadcasters continue to work under state-of-emergency laws.

The media are prohibited from reporting freely on ethnic violence that has resulted in at least eight deaths and caused as many as 15,000 people to flee their homes.

Ironically, the news story that cannot be fully told has taken place in villages just a few kilometers from the headquarters of state-owned Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) on the island of Guadalcanal.

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Solomons radio stations launched

Despite civil unrest and government restrictions on the media, two new radio stations have recently taken to the air in Honiara, capital of Solomon Islands.

The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) has launched Wantok FM. Wantok (literally “one talk” in the Pidgin language, meaning “people who speak our language” or “our kin”) covers mainly the capital city but also reaches portions of nearby islands.

SIBC general manager Johnson Honimae said the station is designed to appeal to youth, and was built with support from the government of Taiwan.

The other newcomer is Paoa-FM (“Power FM” in Pidgin). The station is a joint venture between a local newspaper and Communications Fiji Ltd (CFL), which runs three radio stations in Fiji and two in Papua New Guinea.

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New Zealand radio’s big myth

For years, the New Zealand radio industry has trumpeted that this country has “more radio stations per capita than anywhere else”.

This “fact” has been repeated by countless journalists who apparently can’t be bothered working out the numbers for themselves.

In 1999 I sent the following letter to the editor of Unlimited magazine, and an abridged version subsequently appeared in the magazine.

Dear editor:

On what basis did Mark Story and Russell Brown decide that “New Zealand has more radio stations per capita than anywhere else in the world” (Stayin’ Alive, Unlimited, June 1999)?

A quick glance around our own backyard, the Pacific, turns up at least ten countries or territories with higher ratios than New Zealand.

The Cook Islands, for example, have twice as many stations per capita as New Zealand. Niue has eleven times as many. And Norfolk Island, with 3 radio stations for a population of 2200, has roughly 25 times as many stations per capita as New Zealand.

Isn’t it about time journalists stopped recycling this myth about New Zealand radio and moved on to investigate the real issues: whether deregulation has truly increased competition in the radio industry and whether having more radio stations has given us better radio service?

Neil Sanderson


Background Note:

Population figures are estimates as at July 1998 from CIA World Fact Book:

NZ
Population 3,625,388. 200 radio stations (your figure).

Cook Islands
Population 19,989. 2 radio stations: CIBS and KC FM.

Niue
Population 1,647. 1 radio station: Radio Sunshine.

Norfolk Island
Population 2197. 3 radio stations: VL2NI-AM, ABC Regional and ABC Fine Music.
Not counted: VL2NI-FM which is mostly simulcast of VL2NI-AM.

Other countries/territories in the Pacific with higher ratios than NZ: French Polynesia, Guam, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Northern Marianas Islands, Palau, Tuvalu. (Several other places have ratios similar to NZ and the ratios are increasing as new stations are built.)

Distant broadcasters find common ground

At first, Sonam Tshong had a tough time convincing people he was serious. 

Few people believed Tshong would travel more than 10,000 kilometers from the Himalayan mountains to study broadcasting in a country that is barely visible on many world maps. 

His friends and colleagues wouldn’t have thought it unusual if, on the other hand, Tshong had wanted to visit London to observe the BBC, or Melbourne for a look at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

But Tshong, managing director of the state-owned broadcasting system in the Kingdom of Bhutan, knew what he wanted. 

In April 1998, he and station engineer Dorji Wangchuk left the landlocked mountains of Bhutan to spend two weeks nearer sea level in the Fiji Islands of the south Pacific. 

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Tricky paths to signal distribution

Getting a signal from the studio to the transmitter is a growing challenge for radio engineers in the Pacific islands.

Until a few years ago, most stations used landlines to feed programming to their medium-wave or short-wave AM transmitters. In an attempt to cut operating costs while improving audio quality, many stations now broadcast on networks of low power FM transmitters.  These transmitters may be on remote mountains or islands, hundreds of kilometers from the studio.

Telephone company landlines often do not extend to remote transmitters. Even if they do, the cost may be more than a broadcaster can afford.

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Respect Pacific cultures, broadcasters urged

There is a story told frequently throughout the Pacific islands. When Christian missionaries arrived from Europe in the last century, they found local inhabitants wearing little clothing. Shocked by what they saw, the Europeans set about teaching modesty.

So successful were the missionaries that, even today, it is not uncommon to see island men garbed in woolen jackets and neckties despite the tropical heat, or families swimming in the sea while fully clothed. Nowadays, it is devout locals who are scandalized when their beautiful beaches are filled with bikini-clad tourists from overseas.

Cultural sensitivity and recognition of local conditions may not have been big issues for the first missionaries, but they are central themes as today’s evangelists begin to use radio broadcasting to further their reach into remote areas.

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Equipment failure paralyzes Tuvalu radio

In the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), Pusinelli Laafai is unhappy. Although he is the manager of Radio Tuvalu, Laafai is powerless to restore his country’s one-year-old FM network, which went off the air due to equipment failure at eight remote transmitter sites. 

“When we first switched from AM to satellite FM everyone was very happy with the quality,” said Laafai. “Then it all fell apart.”

At each transmitter site, the story is the same. A power supply module in the broadcast downlink receiver overheated in the tropical conditions. Even though the fault was identified before the project was completed in September last year, it still has not been fixed. 

The problem is not entirely technical, however. Geographic isolation, poor communication, and a lack of accountability have also played a part.

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