Private radio turns up heat in PNG

Papua New Guinea, largest of the Pacific island countries, is a land that demands potent adjectives. It is vast, complex, chaotic, and violent. Definitely not dull or predictable. The four million people of PNG live in remote highlands, in cities, and on far-flung islands, covering almost half a million square kilometers. They speak an astonishing 867 languages. 

Malaria, cyclones and volcanoes torment the country. For nine years, the island of Bougainville has been engulfed in a civil war that has killed hundreds.

Radio in PNG isn’t dull, either. In fact, it’s getting more interesting every day, as the newcomer, PNG FM Ltd, challenges the state-owned National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). PNG FM Ltd is majority-owned by local investors, but 25 per cent of the shares are held by Communications Fiji Ltd (CFL) which owns three radio stations in Fiji and manages the PNG stations.

In February (1997), the private broadcaster launched its newest station, Yumi (“You and me”) FM. Yumi is aimed at middle-aged listeners, and is the first station in the country to broadcast exclusively in the lingua franca, Tok Pisin (pidgin English). 

The private company enticed Justin Kili, a twenty-year radio veteran, to leave his program director post at the NBC’s Kalang FM. Kili, known as “the voice of PNG,” became program director and on-air host at Yumi FM. 

Yumi’s older sibling in the PNG FM family is Nau (“Now”) FM, a pop music station which signed on in 1994 and broadcasts mostly in English to an under-30 audience. 

Nau FM has a dozen transmitters around the country. Yumi went on the air with six transmitters but is expected to expand rapidly. 

From studios in the capital, Port Moresby, Yumi and Nau distribute their signals to FM transmitters via satellite. The managing director of CFL, William Parkinson, said the system works well “apart from the usual problems, like villagers deciding to tip up their local receiving dish – to collect rain water.” 

An Australian, Mark Rogers, is general manager of PNG FM Ltd, and has overseen the growth of the two stations since the opening of Nau FM. Parkinson describes him as “a master at getting things done on time in the most extraordinary circumstances.” 

“Nau FM has rapidly become the dominant radio station in the country,” said Parkinson, “and we felt the time was right to launch Yumi, aimed at a whole new market (older, non-English speaking listeners) which has been largely ignored.” 

NBC has problems

While PNG FM Ltd exudes strength and optimism, the much larger state-owned National Broadcasting Corporation is obviously struggling. The general manager of the NBC, Renagi Lohia, said his organization has “very serious” financial problems. Five years ago, the government gave NBC an annual budget of more than US $11 million. Last year it gave just half that amount. 

The loss of funding led to massive staff reductions, unpaid bills and wages, disruptions in transmission, and an over-expenditure of almost US $2 million. With the same budget this year, Lohia predicts a similar over-expenditure.

The government has been sharply criticized for under-funding the NBC, particularly after the prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, offered to forego almost US $1 million in Australian aid to help save Radio Australia. Critics of Sir Julius said his generosity ought to have been directed toward the NBC. 

Until gaining independence in 1975, PNG was administered by Australia. Radio service began in 1946 under the Australian Broadcasting Commission and, in 1962, the ABC opened Broadcasting House, one of Port Moresby’s landmarks. The locally controlled NBC was created as a commission in 1973.

In a recent editorial, The National newspaper recalled that “by the 1970s, the NBC was a model for developing nations.” The newspaper went on to describe the national broadcaster of today as “a pitiful shell of that splendid organization,” destroyed by “arrogance, neglect and ignorance,” on the part of government and management.

Three NBC services

The NBC employs 500 people and operates three services. Karai is a non-commercial talk-oriented station, distributed throughout the country using several medium wave and short wave AM transmitters. 

Kundu is a network comprising a local medium-wave station in each of the nineteen provinces. These stations have been particularly hard hit by spending cuts. Three are off the air entirely, and most of the others are unable to provide their usual quota of programming. 

Kalang FM is the nationwide music station. It is supposed to be a commercial subsidiary of the NBC, earning revenue to sustain the other two services. Instead, Kalang has gone into debt, due in part to its obligation to carry government statements, speeches, and announcements at no charge. 

Last year, the state-owned telephone company attempted, unsuccessfully, to take control of Kalang FM in hopes of recovering unpaid line charges of more than US $1 million. 

In truth, the NBC has never had a chance to succeed commercially. Although it was converted from a government commission to a state-owned corporation in April of last year, it has had no choice but to rely on government funding.

Last November, however, the communications minister announced that Kalang FM would become fully commercial and begin charging for the broadcast of government programs. Radio Karai, which had been completely non-commercial, would also charge for its services, including school broadcasts, extension programs and educational features for government departments. 

NBC management drafted a rate card, and the new era was officially inaugurated on Karai and Kalang FM on January 31 of this year. Three days later, the prime minister ordered a halt to the commercialization project. 

The prime minister intervened, according to Lohia, because the NBC had not followed the normal procedure of submitting a business plan to cabinet for approval. That has now been done, he said, and approval is expected soon. 

“We decided to launch our commercialization project before getting approval in order to reorient our staff,” Lohia explained. “Commercialization is proceeding. Legislation is in place, so it is legal for us to move into commercial activities.” 

The NBC is seeking sponsors for programs on Karai and Kalang FM with some success, according to Lohia. 

It is also introducing commercial practices to prepare for the future. “For example, we have an understanding with the Education Department that we have to train our staff,” said Lohia, “so we produce invoices for schools broadcasts, even though we don’t expect the department to pay because they don’t have the funds in their current budget.”

The exercise is intended to help the NBC determine the costs of its services and develop administrative procedures. 

The NBC general manager is also concerned with the state of the corporation’s broadcasting equipment. “All the equipment at our Kundu stations is obsolete. Most of it dates to the time the NBC took over from the ABC. The problem is compounded by the technology changes in radio broadcasting since the mid 1970s.” Lohia has requested assistance from Australia to update the equipment, and is waiting for a response. 

Lohia insists he is not discouraged by recent publicity, most of it negative, relating to the NBC’s financial problems. “My duty is to turn these negatives into positives,” he said. “The media attention is an opportunity to educate the public and the government about the role of the NBC.” 

The NBC manager is not sure how well his new competitor, Yumi FM, will fare. “They sound sharp,” he commented, “but being on FM limits them to urban areas.” 

From the PNG FM Ltd point of view, William Parkinson observes the NBC’s “huge technical problems.” He wonders why the state-owned broadcaster doesn’t follow his company’s lead and use satellite distribution rather than incurring “massive telecommunication costs.” 

Hesitancy over greater commercialization at the NBC can only be good news for PNG FM Ltd, although Parkinson hopes to be prepared no matter what happens. “Kalang FM remains our only commercial competition but there is always the possibility of it becoming more competitive under better management.” 

Which way will the battle of the broadcasters go? It all depends on how well the government and the NBC manage through the coming months. 

When Yumi FM took to the air in February, the Post-Courier newspaper summed up the situation by noting the “financial and technical problems” of the NBC and predicting that “Yumi FM, if it can be picked up in the rural areas of PNG, could soon earn itself the title of national broadcaster.”

* First published 28 May 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World