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DPI, Guyana, Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Radio in Guyana surrounds us, is part of our everyday lives. We hear it in the minibus, our offices and when at home. And with streaming, we can even listen to it on our mobile phones.
The Politics in Radio
And because of its ability to influence many people, radio has also not been immune from political meddling. In Guyana, licenses to operate and the best frequencies were only reserved for those who proved themselves loyal to the government of the day while those interested in radio for its own sake were shut out. For almost two decades applications by new parties to be granted licenses gathered dust while others continued to operate despite being in arrears for fees.
All this changed with the election of the coalition government in 2015 and a broadcast authority that was finally allowed to do its work both in getting errant broadcasters in line and granting radio licenses to some very patient applicants based on their qualifications rather than political affinities.
Chairman of the Guyana National Broadcast Authority, Leslie Sobers, in a revealing interview with the Department of Public Information, detailed how straightforward the process is now to get a license, as well as some information on how many licenses have been granted since 2015.
“We have seen some development in the broadcast sector between 2015 and now. Particularly too since this board is in operation, we’ve been able to do a lot of work in stabilizing and normalizing the industry. Before that period, there were just about 41 or 42 licensed radio operators, If I may be a bit more specific only 42 licenses were granted, after that period between 2017 to present, 101 licenses were issued. What we sought to do in that period was to bring up to date, those persons who were in arrears. They weren’t granted licenses because of their arrears and we’ve had dialogue with operators. We’ve worked out contracts and payment schedules, and so they have started to come in. Of course, we had to remind some of them of the legal consequences of non-compliance, which we are also repeating in this year because there are some broadcasters who still have not fully honoured their obligations to the authority and soon we will be publishing a list of compliant and fully licensed broadcasters.”
The GNBA, however, remains cognizant that some broadcasters may not be able to stand the burden of the arrears for backlogged licenses, and the chairman took the time to address this;
“Some persons would have received a license for 2018 but not 2019, and they are on air, but a person whose license has expired and continues to broadcast is doing so illegally. If therefore a broadcaster’s license is expired and he doesn’t have a new one for 2019, that means he hasn’t paid his licensing fees or he’s still in arrears for many years going back because we will not issue a license for 2019 while there is a backlog existing.”
However, he warned, “We are working out things with our broadcasters because GNBA is more interested in developing the sector, rather than penalizing persons, but there comes a time when you have to draw the line and we will soon be drawing the line.”
“With the issuance of so many licenses, we have already seen quite a few broadcasters who have managed to set up their operation in a short time, and are on air pushing out their content. We took time to catch up with a few of these broadcasters, and get a glimpse of what they would have been through, and what mark they intend to leave, on the broadcasting world.”
“The Lantern Post Station”
One of the most impactful interviews coming out of these meetings was with Chandra Narine Sharma, better known as CN Sharma.
Mr. Sharma is nothing short of a veteran broadcaster, pioneering television in Guyana over 25 years ago. He started with a simple antenna at the end of a lantern post, prompting the people of that time to refer to his station as the “Lantern post station”.
Sharma now 71, has survived three strokes, which has severely inhibited his ability to speak fluently, leaving his wife, Savitree-Singh Sharma, to speak in his stead: “It’s a long dream over the years that has finally come true for CN, because when we first entered broadcasting in TV, we applied for radio, and probably destiny was not there for us. We did not get it until about 25 years after, so it’s been a long road. But then circumstances are now changed, circumstances are different…”
At this point, CN Sharma, overcome with emotion at finally achieving his dreams, was on the verge of tears. Nevertheless, his wife continued: “We kept up the correspondence with the then government, and they, in turn, replied to us, so we have all those letters and you know, writing to and from them, and all we were being told was the time is not ripe yet for it. At one time we were told that when Hoyte and Jagdeo decided on that agreement between them, then they would think about the issuance of a license, and then we heard licenses were being issued to others.”
At this point CN Sharma became vocal about the way he was treated, recalling the many times he was shut down by the then government of the day, recalling when they seized his equipment in an effort to keep him off the air.
When he finished venting his wife presented the letters they would have sent, dating back as far as the year 2000. “Sometimes they never replied, sometimes we would get a reply and it said nothing. We know how the politics work and CN was no friend of the past government, I don’t know for what reason, because he had this way of trying to bring out what was happening in certain areas, and how persons were suffering in certain things. I think that did not sit well with the past government. And so they tried to belittle him, to smear his character; they did many things to him, but we all know at the end of the day he surfaced and he rose.”
By now it had become a bit too much for Sharma, and I thought it best to bring the interview to a close. But a brief perusal of the many letters sent would paint a vivid picture of the royal run around that Sharma would have had to go through before his dream was made a reality thanks to the current administration.
Another station that came to fruition recently after fighting for twenty years to be granted a license, is VOICE FM, broadcasting on the 96.1 FM band. They came out as Guyana’s first talk radio, and have been making gentle strides since their beginning. We managed to get a few words with its manager, Maria Benschop.
“We have an influx of radio stations, a lot of them are in the testing phases and a lot of them are now getting accustomed to being in radio in Guyana. I think we are one of them….The competition right now is mainly not necessarily who has the best music, or who has the best people on the radio, or who has the best personalities, it’s more or less about who knows which station, which station has been more out there, which station is more established.”
She is convinced that with VOICE FM being talk radio, they are different from the competition.
“We are talk radio, and as our logo says, the conversation starts here…We are not afraid to talk about anything, and we have no affiliations, we are affiliated neither with the government nor with the opposition…We are free to comment on any situation that’s going on, we are free to give an opinion on it and we don’t take sides, we pride ourselves on being neutral.”
Freedom of Speech
This in itself is a major achievement for media in Guyana, because this very stance of speaking freely, was what saw CN Sharma being fought down by the previous administration. Those who opted to defy the then government of the day or to vocalize and speak about the ills of the administration were targeted and marked, often times made to be at the receiving end of trumped-up charges and accusations, much like with CN Sharma having his equipment seized just to keep him off the air.
The Local Hitmaker
On the forefront of promoting local artistes and works is Brutal Tracks Recording Studio –a production company that catered to Guyanese musical talent, giving them access to a professional studio and mixing since in the early 2000s. But they too had a dream, to push local content even further, and for this, they created an online radio stream. However, they had ambitions for something greater – to be able to operate their own radio station within Guyana, a dream that they were denied prior to 2015.
“Radio has been an expansion of our original business of Brutal Tracks Recording Studio and is now our distribution arm, the arm where we bring people in contact with the music and celebrities we produce. We come from the background of Guyanese music. We have from 2006 been producing artistes and Guyanese content, so this investment allows us to package and take this content to the masses both at home and in the diaspora.”
These were the sentiments of Christian Duncan, CEO of Brutal Group Inc. He is no stranger to the struggles of attaining a license in prior times, as he made known when questioned as to how long they had been waiting
“We built an internet radio station in 2010, around the CARIFESTA period. We petitioned the government with many letters. Dr Roger Luncheon, The President, Mr. Dharamlall, and so forth. So, we have been waiting from about 2010. Unfortunately, we were overlooked when the then president gave out licenses, and even then, we continued to write and ask to be recognized for our investment and what we were already doing, and that fell on deaf ears.”
The concept of Community Radio
Radio is now a staple in the lives of many Guyanese, especially the working class. And with recent policies and the granting of various licenses, we are beginning to see an expansion into rural and hinterland communities.
According to President David Granger, the establishment of these community radio stations will result in the “removal of inequality, encouraging greater participation and inclusivity in decision making on important national matters and improving village economies by giving residents a conduit through which they can promote their product and services to attract wider markets.”
To this end in the space of two years from May 2016 to April 2018, there was an explosion of hinterland radio stations coming on air. It began in May 2016 with the launch of with Radio Lethem in Region Nine which was followed the next month by Radio Mabaruma in Region One.
Subsequently, in October and November 2017 the country saw the establishment of Radio Mahdia, Region Eight and Radio Bartica, Region Seven respectively. In 2018 Radio Aishalton, Region Nine, and Radio Orealla, Region Six went on air.
The GNBA has even incorporated into their plans, policies to push for community radio, and according to Sobers, it is admirable the efforts made by the National Communications Network in ensuring those outlying rural communities are able to be connected: “We have not yet started to push the idea of community radio, but that is one of the things for 2019, one of the policies we’ll be rolling out, because the concept of community radio is a bit different from what NCN is doing for example. NCN and I must say they have made some really good strides in creating accessibility to radio by persons in the far-flung areas, so Bartica, Mabaruma and those places that now have extensions of NCN, have access to communication and information that they did not have before 2015. A lot of that has been done and that is quite admirable.”
Images: The Department of Public Information
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