Early this year, Fiji’s privately owned radio stations, FM96 and Navtarang, said good-bye to their turn-of-the-century home overlooking the tropical port of Suva.
The white colonial bungalow, a one-time “house of ill repute”, had repeatedly expanded to accommodate the growing radio enterprise – until it could expand no more.
The building was obviously in poor repair. It lacked features like air conditioning to make life more tolerable during humid cyclone seasons.
Nevertheless, managing director William Parkinson found several of his employees were reluctant to abandon the old place.
“They said they would miss the friendly ghost, a woman who regularly appeared during over-night shifts to keep them company.”
FM96 and Navtarang now broadcast from a very different world: spacious digital studios in a brand new building that, so far at least, doesn’t appear to be haunted.
With an investment of US $2 million in the new facilities, Parkinson described the relocation as “the end of a journey, but more importantly the beginning of a new one.”
And to be honest,” he added, “I am not too sure where this new one is heading!”
Physically, the stations have moved just a few hundred metres within Fiji’s capital city, but they have truly journeyed a long way. FM96 and Navtarang have become cornerstones in what is perhaps the South Pacific’s fastest-growing media empire: Communications Fiji Limited (CFL).
Two more stations
CFL successfully operates two radio stations in Fiji and one in Papua New Guinea, with two more stations scheduled to sign on in the next few months. Parkinson cheerfully admitted that his company’s motto should be “bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell!”
The CFL story began in 1984 when the 22-year-old Parkinson had just returned home to Suva after attending university in Australia. He probably could have gone back to work for the Fiji Broadcasting Commission, where he had spent two years as an announcer, but he had other plans.
With the guidance and financial support of some of Fiji’s most successful entrepreneurs, the young broadcaster set up Communications Fiji Limited. The company’s goal was to end decades of monopoly by the FBC which operated three national radio services: Fijian, Hindi and English.
The plan was revolutionary. Unlike the staid FBC, FM96 would appeal to young adults with pop music, it would transmit 24 hours a day, and it would survive on advertising revenue.
From its 1985 debut in Suva, FM96 was a breath of fresh air. Broadcasting in English, with youthful and enthusiastic announcers, the station attracted listeners from both indigenous Fijian society and the equally large Indian community.
The station introduced innovative promotional schemes like the “bed races.” This annual event drew thousands of spectators to main streets around Fiji as corporate-sponsored teams pushed customised “beds,” raising money for the Red Cross. FM96 broadcast the bed races live, underscoring its commitment to community service.
In 1987, Fiji was skaken by two military coups. Despite the upheaval, FM96 prospered. Listeners switched to the station they referred to simply as “FM,” knowing that news on Radio Fiji was censored. Soldiers surrounded FM96 and ordered the station off the air for several days. When it returned, FM96 had a proud new name for its hourly news bulletins: Independent Radio News.
Although “interim” military-backed governments ruled Fiji for five years, the directors of CFL remained confident of the country’s economic future. In 1989, the company went after the middle-age Indian market, introducing Radio Navtarang (“New Sound”).
This 24-hour Hindi station quickly earned a loyal following through careful formatting, high quality news, continuous promotion, and the warmth of its on-air personalities. After only a few months, advertising revenues for Navtarang were matching those of the 4-year-old FM96.
Parkinson said his rapidly growing organisation had to watch expenditure levels closely -something it still does. He believes the continuing success of FM96 and Navtarang is also due to “an insistence on international standards of programming and marketing.”
The news magazine Islands Business Pacific applauded the success of CFL, with editor Peter Lomas observing: “The boss knows broadcasting, the market, what he is trying to achieve — and has fellow directors who let him do it his way. Parkinson’s way includes getting out of his office and leading by example, looking after talented people, and a belief in training and development.”
According to “the boss,” staff development is one of CFL’s greatest priorities and achievements. Most of the 45 full-time and 20 part-time employees in Fiji had no previous radio experience.
“In our markets, we have to develop and train staff from the ground up,” he said. “Over the years we have developed a solid core of local staff. In our operations in Fiji we currently don’t have any expatriates, though we do use part-time trainers from other markets.”
The company maintains two branch offices staffed by sales representatives and news reporters, and has also created a network of freelance sports journalists around the country.
In 1994, CFL seized an opportunity 3,000 kilometres away. Working with local investors, it set up the first privately owned radio station in Papua New Guinea. Nau-FM (“Now” FM) is growing fast, with a potential audience of three million.
No sooner had CFL switched on the PNG station, than it began joint venture construction of new headquarters in Fiji. The company now occupies one floor, or about 600 square metres, in the 3-storey structure.
Parkinson is delighted with the results: “Not only do we now have room to move, but the new studios were designed and built by one of Australia’s top acoustic engineers, International Technology and Communication Limited.”
Digital audio storage
For digital audio storage, CFL chose Prophet Systems’ Audio Wizard, represented by Broadcast Solutions Limited of Sydney, Australia. “We worked with Wizard in Papua New Guinea and were very impressed with its performance, so when it came to decision time in Suva there was no question,” said Parkinson. “We’ve found the system not only improves quality but also overall efficiency.”
Philip Crowe, International Sales Manager of Broadcast Solutions, handled what he called “a straightforward installation” in Fiji: “Wizard runs on ordinary personal computers, which we supplied, using Windows 3.1. The stations share two 90-hour hard drives for music storage; other audio is on a 45-hour drive.”
Crowe set up eight PC workstations, serving the two on-air studios, the two production studios, the programme directors’ office, and the newsroom.
FM96 and Navtarang are not automated, but the managing director believes digital technology has improved the on-air product considerably. “We use Airwaves traffic system, and it has worked well with Wizard,” Parkinson commented. “We also use the Wizard music scheduling system, which we have found simple and easy to use. It is more than capable of handling our needs.”
The new on-air studios are equipped with Auditronics consoles and Studer-Revox CD players. Analog equipment has been retained in CFL’s 24-track production studio.
The obvious success of Fiji’s privately owned radio stations has inspired others. A few years ago, the FBC attempted to establish FM stations with formats similar to FM96 and Navtarang, but they were not financially successful.
The Fiji government has also authorised several would-be broadcasters to set up stations but, so far, none have made it to air. Meanwhile, William Parkinson and his team at CFL appear to have a patent on success. The company has expanded into event marketing and now produces everything from trade shows to huge concerts with international music stars.
Parkinson plans to launch a national Fijian-language radio station in November (1996). He has plans for another station in Papua New Guinea sometime next year (1997). (Update! Both are now on the air.)
Then there’s the possibility of distributing Pacific-wide programmes via satellite, and establishing an international news network.
It looks as if this “new journey” for CFL is going to be a long and prosperous one.
Transmission tricky in Fiji
One of CFL’s biggest challenges was the need to extend coverage beyond Suva on the southeast coast of the island of Viti Levu.
Fiji is not a large country – with a land area of 18,000 square kilometres, it’s about half the size of Switzerland – but it comprises some 300 islands. While the FBC covered the more than 100 inhabited islands using AM transmitters, CFL had to establish relay sites for its FM signals, one by one.
The company chose to concentrate on areas with the largest population. That still meant getting signals across the rugged terrain of Viti Levu, not to mention leaping a 64 kilometre wide stretch of ocean to reach the second largest island, Vanua Levu.
To overcome the natural barriers, CFL designed a transmission system that was successfully completed in 1991.
In Suva, the radio stations use 1 KW Eddystone transmitters at Nakobalevu, an isolated site requiring its own diesel generating plant. Over on the western side of Viti Levu, similar transmitters cover the sugar cane city of Lautoka and the nearby tourist hub of Nadi.
Smaller transmitters fill in the gaps on Viti Levu as well as covering parts of Vanua Levu and smaller islands.
The transmitters outside Suva operate on different frequencies to avoid interference, and get their input from a variety of on-air signals and Marti links.
FM96 and Navtarang signals now reach about 80% of Fiji’s 770,000 people.
* First published 18 September 1996 in the International Edition of Radio World