Ask any radio journalist in Indonesia when they first produced their own news and they will all have the same answer: only after the post-1998 opening up of the press.
“Radio journalism was left behind all other kinds of journalism because radio suffered the most from the repression during the New Order era,” says managing director of news agency KBR 68H Santoso, a former print journalist.
“During the New Order era radios were banned from producing their own news and were obliged to relay the government version of news.
As a consequence they leaned toward entertainment only with music as their mainstay. Even after the press had relative freedom, radio stations had the least capability to produce news.”
This is why after the post-1998 opening up of the press, Santoso and his fellow journalists and activists at the Institute for the Studies on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI) decided to created a radio news agency instead of print news agency even though none of them had any experience in radio journalism.
“I myself had never been a broadcaster until then,” he says, laughing.
Founded as a news agency on April 29, 1999, KBR 68H was created to realize radio’s potential as a force of democracy. It was the first agency outside of state radio to produce a news bulletin, and the first to offer an editorial on air.
“As a public medium, radio is the least expensive investment,” says Heru Hendratmoko, the KBR 68H production director. “We just needed to set up the broadcasting tools in the beginning and people just needed to buy a radio.”
From its humble beginnings, the radio news agency has expanded rapidly in the past 10 years, becoming a network that reaches more than 650 radio stations across the country and is available in 10 countries in Asia and Australia.
From a team of just seven reporters, the station now has more than 120 employees, with around 50 journalists based in Jakarta alone. It also has 100 correspondents across the country and 30 contributors in Asia.
The content has grown also. In its early days, the news agency could produce only 15-minute news
programs each day, each of which consisted of seven to 10 audio files sent to seven radio stations across the country.
However, when the agency started to produce a 30-minute news program in August 1999, they struggled to find an effective way to distribute the program. Internet connections were still too slow and some radio partners needed more than six hours to download the evening program. Some could only broadcast the news the next day.
In Jakarta, the news agency even used ojek (motorcycle taxi) drivers as couriers to send the longer program to its radio partners.
“The Internet was slower even than bikes, unless they have an accident,” said Santoso, who became the agency’s director in 2000.
But if the new technologies of the time weren’t helping, they looked elsewhere: KBR 68H found the answer to the problem in what many radio stations had abandoned during the New Order era: Palapa satellite.
For decades the technology, which the government had launched in the 1970s, had been ignored because radio stations were obliged to broadcast only government programs 18 hours a day.
“The satellite technology suited the country’s archipelagic character but radio stations were under pressure and they never even thought about how to reach a larger audience,” says Heru Hendratmoko. “The technology is there but they never see the opportunity.”
It is ironic, he says, because radio stations in the Philippines have been subscribers to the Palapa channels since the 1970s.
In 2000, KBR 68H started to use the service of Palapa C2 Satellite to distribute its radio programs. With just a parabolic antenna and a digital receiver, the radio station partners could relay the agency’s programs.
Today, the agency has developed a range of news and non-news programs with a total of eight hours of programming a day.
Using the Internet and satellite, the radio news agency can gather and disseminate news, information and educational programming across the country, reaching an estimated 18 million listeners.
Empowering locals: Striving to keep local radio on air, 68H and the Netherlands Embassy build a micro hydro power plant for Radio Pikonane in Anyelma village in Yahukimo, Papua, while also supplying electricity to elementary school, church, goverment building and locals. Courtesy of Radio News Agency KBR 68H
Apart from journalism, the agency also helps to find donors and has set up 40 radio stations in the remote areas, such as a micro-hydro radio in Yahukimo in Papua and Radio Gogali in Central Sumba. The agency also produces and translates books on radio journalism and provides training for local journalists.
“We have a relatively independent press now but at the same time we also face huge inequality in terms of knowledge and facilities,” says Santoso, adding that activities outside journalism were included in the agency’s mission to open access to information to the whole country.
The agency’s work was critical in helping with the post-tsunami relief effort, for which it was presented with a Tsunami Award by the Aceh Art Council. It rebuilt radio stations in Banda Aceh, provided updates about relief operations, ran a missing persons bulletin and conducted a fundraising campaign.
The choice of technology has been proven to be a good decision, as the satellite could reach more than 20 Asia-Pacific countries. To expand their network to neighboring countries, KBR 68H on July 13, 2007, launched a new website for its weekly radio program called Asia Calling. The new Website provides the latest news about countries in the region.
Channeling the voice: Local people gather at Anyelma village during the launching of Radio Pikonane in September 2007. Courtesy of Radio News Agency KBR 68H
This weekly radio program is relayed by more than 140 radio stations in Indonesia and 19 foreign radio stations, including those in Cambodia, East Timor, Thailand, Nepal and Australia. In some radio stations, the program is broadcast in two languages, English and the local language. The agency has also helped start similar networks in East Timor and Nepal.
The KBR 68H also invites many foreign journalists to provide employees with journalism skills and also sends its journalists to participate in training abroad, such as to the Radio Nederland’s Training Centre, Fojo Program in Swedia, the BBC Radio Four or the Center for Investigative Journalism in the Philippines.
The agency’s services have been used by some international radio stations such as Radio Nederland, Deutsche Welle, SBS Australia and the Voice of America.
“The international expansion happened not because of the footprint of the satellite but because of the quality of our news met international requirements,” says Heru Hendratmoko.
The decade of hard work has earned the news agency a range of national and international awards and honors. Journalists and non-journalists at the agency alike can now be proud that they have received no fewer than 21 awards and prizes, including the latest King Baudouin International Development Prize.
The radio news agency received the biannual award on May 19 for its contribution to sustainable development based on the strengthening of democracy, tolerance and citizen participation.
“KBR 68H does this by producing and disseminating qualitative information through a network of local radio stations and by promoting professional ethics in the media world,” said the board of governors of Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation in their statement.
The prize has been awarded since 1978 with a diverse list of prize winners including Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire and the Bangladesh Grameen Bank. KBR 68H is the first institution in Southeast Asia and the first media outlet in the world to receive this award, worth 150,000 euro.
“KBR 68H offers radio journalism that turns upside down all the government-owned models of journalism,” says Tasrif Siara, managing director of Palu’s Nebula FM Radio, which has partnered with KBR 68H since the agency was established. “Its reports are very investigative and its features are full of the human touch.”
Within 10 years of its establishment, KBR 68H has changed the character of radio from a very local format to a national and even regional format. It has also systematically introduced a form of radio journalism that was totally banned during the New Order era. Even some local government radios now broadcast its news programs.
“We started from something so simple, so simple that we didn’t even think about the name,” says Santoso. “A journalist later suggested we used the street address of our office and so here we are, using Kantor Berita Radio [radio news agency] 68H because our office is at Jalan Utan Kayu 68H Jakarta.”