Kathmandu, April 26, 2016:Â If you were to ask anyone what has changed in Nepal over the last 15 years, the list would be long and dramaticâ€”the end of a civil war, the end of a monarchy, the rise in digital technology and social media, an explosion of FM and community radio stationsâ€”it seems that nothing has stayed constant. Nothing, that is, except the lively tune and welcoming voices of four friends chatting on a Saturday afternoon. Whether you find them by tuning a radio set, listening through a mobile phone or stream on the internet, the voices of the Saathi Sanga Manka Kura (SSMK) hosts have been there, without fail, every weekend since the program first went on air in April 2001.
Binita Shrestha, one of the early hosts, remembers the feeling that everyone in the production team had after airing that first episode: â€œEveryone had been planning and training and preparing for that moment for so long and suddenly it was here, SSMK was on air. None of us knew if anyone would listen. We knew there was nothing else on the radio produced by youth for youthâ€”but we had no idea if young people would actually want to tune inâ€. But tune in they did, first in the hundreds and then thousands and then millions.
But young people didnâ€™t just want to listen, they wanted to share their stories and within a few weeks of going on air the letters began to arrive. â€œI remember one of the letters that came inâ€ said Kaustuv Pokharel, another former host, â€œit was from a young girl from Rukum and she wrote to tell us how she had been sexually abused by her own relative and there was no one she could talk to about it. At first we werenâ€™t sure how to respond, it seemed such a big responsibility, but we decided that while we couldnâ€™t tell our listeners what to do, we could help them think through their problems and give them skills to help them deal with issues they faced in life. We also knew that just by listening and sharing our own experiences, we could let listeners know they are not aloneâ€.
The idea of a radio program that not only spoke, but also listened, was very new in Nepal.Â SSMK had tapped into something that was desperately needed by the young people who heard the show and soon the team was receiving hundreds of letters a week from people across the country.Â While each letter was unique, they all shared one thingâ€”a deep sense of trust and affection for their four â€˜best friendsâ€™ with whom they could chat, joke, laugh, share and open upto without judgement.
Over the last 15 years, almost 800 episodes of SSMK have been aired and while the original team graduated, new friends have joined and the lively format has stayed largely unchanged. Even the theme music is still the same score that was originally composed for that very first episode.Â Â Although young people donâ€™t tend to write letters anymore, the program hosts still receive thousands of SMS, emails and Facebook messages every month and the â€˜letter sectionâ€™, where the hosts talk about the different issues raised by listeners, is still a very popular part of the show.
But with the arrival of distractions like Facebook and an explosion in the number of radio stations across Nepal (not to mention the music and videos available over the internet) what makes a radio program like SSMK stay relevant to young people for so long?
One reason for the success of the program is the teamâ€™s determination not to shy away from difficult topics. As one listener wrote to the show, â€œIn Nepal it is hard to talk openly about sex and love. But in Saathi Sanga Manka Kura there are no taboos. Here young Nepalis learn how to take care of themselves and each otherâ€. Over the years, the showâ€™s hosts have dealt sensitively with issues including HIV, abuse, sexuality, drugs, masturbation, puberty and menstruation. â€œBefore SSMK started, there was no tradition of talking about such issues in Nepal,â€ says Sabin Singh, the production team leader of SSMK, â€œThe hosts talk about anything and everythingâ€”sexual and reproductive health, career or study concerns, family problems, whatever matters to our listeners.â€
This direct approach to issues has certainly won the show a place in the heart of Nepalâ€™s youth, but it also brought criticism and on more than one occasion the threat to remove it from the airwaves. Binayak Aryal, one of the original team members, shares his memories of what happened after a show on condom use: â€œI remember being questioned and interrogated because we spelt out the word â€˜condomâ€™ during an episode on sexual and reproductive health which was a big sensation thenâ€.
Despite the concerns, the hosts never shied away from the critics, but instead welcomed them in:Â â€˜â€™We were constantly accused of putting out vulgar content on the radio, so we invited the station managers in to see the letters we received to show that we were not making it upâ€”this really was an issue that concerned young peopleâ€.
Thinking back over the last 15 years of Nepalâ€™s history, through the civil war, the peopleâ€™s revolution, the birth of New Nepal, the struggles over the constitution and most recently the earthquake and reconstruction efforts, SSMK has seen the country go through a lot and the program has worked hard to ensure they have never gone off air or even missed a week. â€œIt is important to us that, whatever else is going on in the lives of our listeners, they can at least depend on the program being there for them every week at the same time and same place, a solid friend they can rely onâ€ says Meera, one of the newest hosts of the program.
So whatâ€™s next for the show? Will they be around for the next 15 years? The new team hope so. â€œItâ€™s a lot of pressure taking on something like SSMK that has such a long legacy, but we take that responsibility seriously and we want to make sure the program keeps going from strength to strength and stays relevant to our listenersâ€.
One way the show is doing that already is by producing and airing the show in four indigenous languages, â€œWe know that for many young people, there is a lack of information available for them in a language they feel most comfortable withâ€ says Sabin â€œso we wanted to address that by making SSMK in other languagesâ€. With well-guarded plans afoot for the 15th anniversary celebrations, the team are excited for what lies ahead, â€œit is an honour to have been broadcasting to Nepalâ€™s young people for the last 15 years, but why stop at 15? We hope to stay on air as long as our listeners want us toâ€.
And with well-wishers such as Kunjana Ghimire (Suntali), Rupa Joshi (Communication Manager, UNICEF Nepal), Prabin Khatiwoda (theatre and movie artist), Madhav Raj Tiwari (assistant chief of news, Mountain TV), Manju Shrestha (famous TV artist) coming out to wish SSMK a happy 15th birthday, we can only hope that it stays in the heart of Nepalâ€™s youth for many generations to come.
Saathi Sanga Manka Kura is funded by UNICEF and is produced by Equal Access in Nepal. The program airs every Saturday on Radio Nepal and over 50 radio stations in Nepal.
The author is Technical Advisor for Equal Access, based in the UK