The role of Community Radio in Japan

This study explores how community radio plays a role in revitalizing local communities in Japan.

Title of Paper: Community Ties and Revitalization: The role of Community Radio in Japan

Author: Tomoko KANAYAMA
Tomoko KANAYAMA is associate professor at the Institute of Media and Communications Research, Keio University

This study explores how community radio plays a role in revitalizing local communities in Japan. Since the massive Kobe earthquake in 1995, community radio has played a vital role in providing local information needed by victims of natural disasters. Local governments have also realised the importance of this mass communication medium and have supported them financially. Ordinary people have used community radio to revitalise local communities, many of which have gone into steady decline. Some people perceive community radio as a public space in which local people happen to meet each other, exchange opinions and express thoughts. Others see it as a useful tool for promoting local culture as well as business. While most community radio stations have faced difficulties in financial management, expectations regarding community radio have grown in local communities. Thus, the number of community radio stations has been increasing, and reached 200 by the end of 2006.

Short recent history of community radio

In Japan, community radio uses low-power and differs from regular AM and FM radio. Until 1995, a transmission power of only 1 watt was permitted for transmission powere of community FM, so local residents could not fuly enjoy community radio. It was also very expensive to open a community radio that government financing was required. But due to the low transmitting power, local government was not interested in financing them. This changed with the Kobe earthquake in 1995, where several tiny community radio stations in played important roles in relieving the disaster, particularly helping foreigners living in Japan who did not understand Japanese. Right after the earthquake, the government allowed an increase in transmitting power from 1 watt to 10 watts. This resulted in a boom in opening community FM stations in those days. In 1999, transmitting power was increased to 20 watts. Finally in 2004, a large earthquake occurred in Niigata-Chuetsu. This disaster once again became an alarm to local communities and governments to think about the effectiveness of community media, including community FM, CATV and net communities for preventing and responding to disasters.

In addition to responding to disasters, community radio is also expected to help revitalise the community. Recent civic movements that emerged after the Kobe earthquake have encouraged citizens to use community media for constructing better local autonomy. These movements influenced the licensing practise and the first community FM station operated by a non profit organisation was born in Kyoto in 2003. Community radio stations operated by nonprofit organisations are quite notable in terms of operation, public access and programming.

As of December 2006, the number of community FM stations is 200, including 89 stations with local government’s investments, 102 stations without local government’s investments and 9 non profit stations. This increase in numbers of community FM stations does not always suggest ease of operation or business. Rather, most stations have faced difficulties in operation. Even though about a half of community FM stations are financed by local governments, recent budget cuts in local governments directly impact operation of these stations. Therefore, community radio stations have to take various ways to cut expenses and to increase income, such as partnership with community business, expansion of service areas and collaboration with other community FM stations in programming and sponsorship.

This study used in-depth interviews with 40 community FM stations in Japan and 19 local governments that finance some of the radio stations interviewed, all of which are located in various types of communities ranging from a small rural village to a large metropolitan area and from north to south.

The interviewees were selected based on their website content to see how each station provides information about the radio station to audiences. This actually helped to distinguish each station’s management ability, as well as attitude toward audiences and communities. The timetable on the website showed 1) what kinds of programs are provided, 2) who is involved in programs, and 3) what kinds of relationships exist via services.

For balance, this study tried to choose stations from each of all ten regions in Japan because locality influences various aspects. For example, geographical conditions related to radio waves often influence the number of radio stations. Also, interference of radio waves in problematic in a small area like Tokyo, so the number of radio stations in the area is limited. The type of radio station was also taken into consideration 1) local government financed stations, 2) commercial radio stations, and 3) non-profit radio stations.

There is a tendency for different types of radio stations to be based in different regions. For example, most radio stations in Hokkaido are not financed by local governments whereas many radio stations are financially supported by local governments in the Kanto area where Tokyo and other metropolitan cities are located.

This study attempts to understand how community FM plays a role in revitalizing local communities in Japan. This study revealed 4 major aspects of community radio revitalization 1) connecting various people in the community, 2) constructing mutual trust in the community, 3) discovering resources in the community, and 4) affirming relationship to the community.

Connecting various people in the community

Community radio helps create a place where various people in the community meet, including farmers, fishermen, factory workers, housewives, seniors, mothers with small children, students, Buddhist priests, people with disabilities and foreigners living in Japan. These contacts through community radio gives opportunities for under-represented people to have their voices heard. For example, recently a number of foreigners have come to Japan for work, particularly from China, Brazil and Korea. They often settle in a small town or middle city in which many small business face a labor shortage. These foreigners typically live closely with other others from the same country, and do not have much communication with Japanese residents in the community. Japanese residents also realised the existence of these foreigners living in the same community but often see them from a distance. Some community FM stations have a program hosted by a foreigner loving in the community, In such programs, the host introduces friends or acquaintances who came from the same country and live in the community but also enjoy a different culture including languages, music, history and lifestyle.

Some radio stations provide information such as knowledge of disaster prevention and public information from local government programs in multiple languages and encourage members of the community to have cross cultural communication.

People with disabilities have an opportunity to express their thoughts and emotions through community radio. These programs promote understanding of members of the community who often lack such communication in daily life.

One recent serious issue in community reconstruction in interchange between senior residents who have lived in the existing community for a long time and new residents who move from other places and live in new high-rise apartment buildings. There is little communication between these two types of people in the community and this weakens the community.

Constructing Mutual Trust in the Community

Relationships of mutual trust have been constructed not only through radio programs but also by events and activities that make people’s participation visible. In particular, many community FM stations organise various types of civic groups for programs as well as activities. For example, a disaster volunteer group is expected to gather and report information about the damage and situation right after a disaster. These groups usually have a regular meeting for exchanging information, learning new things and/or forming committees. This establishes mutual trust which is important for collaborative relationships.

A number of community FM stations have a studio in places visible to passer-by, some stations call this strategy “see the radio, show the radio”. High visibility attract people in the community.

Discovering Resources in the Community

Community radio helps people discover local resources including people, culture, nature, history, institutions, activities and commodities. Such discovery usually happens through various programs focusing on history, culture and nature in the community, hosted by experts who are members of the community. In some radio stations, community members are able to act as reporters, thus they tend to be more interested in the community including people, events, facilities, building, nature and history. Some programs serve to exchange information about communities and establish connections among or between communities. Local stores and companies are also important resources in the community. For example, some stations issue a member’s card with which a member is given the privilege of discounts in local stores and companies that cooperate with the radio station.

Reaffirming relationship to the community

Participation as a volunteer, reporter, host and staff in and though radio has allowed citizens to realize or reaffirm their relationship to the community, contributing to increased interest toward their community. This happens to administrative officers in the local government as well. Questions and responses from listeners encourage them to communicate with members of the community.

Like other advanced countries, people in Japan use various media including newpapers, commercial radio, over the air television, satellite TV, CATV, the Internet and cellular phones. With Internet growth and media globalization, the concept of community in Japan has shifted from a geographical based on to an interest-based one. However, it is also apparent that people in local communities have returned to geographical communities in which people living in the same place can share the same interests in issues.

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Published: 23 May 2007


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Keio Communication Review