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.
This was no tropical holiday, however. Tshong was eager to visit Communications Fiji Limited (CFL). In particular, Tshong wanted to learn how CFL used simple, terrestrial relays in its FM transmission network – the sort of network he had in mind for Bhutan.
Creating a national radio service for Bhutan has been, literally, an uphill battle. Located in the Himalayas, between India and China, Bhutan is known for its imposing terrain and its history of isolation.
“Even within the country itself, there is still a long way to go in improving communications,” Tshong noted. “Villages are isolated and literacy is quite low.”
Bhutan began opening slightly to the world in 1968, when students were first sent abroad. Tshong himself, at the age of 7, was dispatched to a boarding school in India.
“When students started coming back, they felt the need for a radio station,” Tshong recalled. “In 1973 they started a weekly show called Radio NYAB, which stood for National Youth Association of Bhutan.”
At that time there were no broadcast transmitters in Bhutan. There was no telephone system either, but there was a network of radio telephone stations which provided basic telecommunications. The students were able to lease time on this ‘civil wireless’ on Sundays, when the system would normally have been off-air.
Despite poor reception, those weekly 30-minute programs, in English, became very popular. Listeners began looking forward to the broadcasts and this, according to Tshong, put a lot of pressure on the students.
“They were all volunteers and nobody was trained in broadcasting. By 1979, the program had become a victim of its own success, and the students asked the government to take over,” he said.
The government responded by appointing full-time staff to run the station. Today, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) is a corporate body, with instructions to begin reducing its reliance on government funding. About sixty people work in the radio division and the station broadcasts from 4pm to 8pm Monday to Friday.
FM transmission project
Radio programs in Bhutan are delivered mainly by short-wave, but are also simulcast via a handful of FM transmitters in the most heavily populated areas.
Having become convinced of the reliability of low power FM transmitters and their low operating costs, Tshong developed a plan to switch the entire country from short-wave to FM. He secured a promise of financial assistance from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) under which he and his staff would be fully involved in designing and implementing a transmission system to meet their circumstances.
“Thimphu [the capital of Bhutan] is at an elevation of 2,400 meters, and the surrounding ridges are all over 3,000 meters,” Tshong explained.
“So the challenge for us is first to get the signal out of the valley onto one of the mountains. From there we will try to send the signal to the western part of the country. If this is successful, we want to then start going toward central Bhutan and eventually to the eastern region.”
Tshong imagined a system in which each FM transmitter would relay the broadcast signal to the next transmitter, but he could find no examples of such technology nearby.
The example Tshong was seeking arrived on his desk in the 18 September 1996 edition of Radio World.
“I read this article on what William Parkinson [managing director of CFL] was doing with FM96 in Fiji and I got very excited about it,” Tshong recalled. “I said: ‘Look, somebody is already doing what we are thinking of.’ I decided that if I got the chance I would visit Fiji.”
A few months later, Tshong was invited to apply for funding under UNESCO’s International Program for Development Communication. He immediately wrote a training proposal and faxed it to the organization’s head office in Paris.
In his proposal, Tshong didn’t specify where he wished to go for training, but he revealed his dream when UNESCO’s regional communication advisor James Bentley visited him a short time later.
“I told him what we were trying to do, and how I had read in Radio World about FM96 and felt it was the place we should visit,” said Tshong. “It turned out that James was from Fiji! He was very positive and got the ball rolling for us.”
Highlights of visit
As it turns out, south Asia and the south Pacific are not so far apart.
As William Parkinson discovered, Bhutan and Fiji have similar populations (Bhutan: 600,000, Fiji 780,000) and both are multiracial. Although Fiji is more developed than Bhutan, both countries have relatively small advertising markets.
For Tshong, it was a thrill to find the transmission system was just as he had envisioned.
The three radio stations operated by CFL use their main transmitters, on a mountain near the capital city Suva, as the first link in a relay system which carries programming to distant transmitters.
“Most settlement in Bhutan is in the valleys,” Tshong explained. “The transmitter sites are mountain peaks which have no road access and are covered in snow and ice for five months each year.”
While radio engineers in Fiji don’t have to worry about ice, they can sympathize with the power supply problems in Bhutan.
“At most transmitter sites, there is no power, and no possibility of solar power due to the severe weather,” Tshong said. “We are thinking of putting up a one-kilowatt transmitter near Thimphu so that means we have to bring an 11KV line to the site.”
In Fiji, CFL installed diesel generators at its main transmitter site rather than bring in an expensive power line which could have proved unreliable.
After almost two weeks in Fiji, Tshong felt he was in a position to give a realistic assessment of a terrestrial FM network to his own staff, the Bhutanese government and donor agencies.
“A lot of the so-called high technology is done on a ‘turn-key basis’ by other people. Somebody comes and puts two things together and goes. Some very well-meaning people have been skeptical of our ability to do it ourselves and said to me ‘Sonam, be careful.’ But after seeing what FM96 has done, I am confident about our project.”
Tshong also found time to examine station management, studio design, and the computer-based audio system at CFL.
“My hope is that this is the start of an ongoing link between ourselves and Fiji. I think FM96 has shown the way to the future, and I find that highly motivating. The staff work very hard; they are driven. I think if you have a vision and you work on it, you can get things done. That’s what I’ve learned from this visit.”
* First published 11 November 1998 in the International Edition of Radio World