Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Public radio veterans support Mongolian independent radio

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Layton Croft
Publication Date 4 October 2002
Cite as EurasiaNet, Public radio veterans support Mongolian independent radio, 4 October 2002, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
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Layton Croft: 10/04/02

All things considered, Mongolia has more fresh air than the United States. But it needs help developing independent media. That's where National Public Radio (NPR) chimes in.

NPR founder Bill Siemering and reporter Corey Flintoff have spent months in Mongolia helping local journalists develop an audience for hard news. Siemering, who co-founded NPR in 1970, has spent 17 years supporting independent radio projects in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, the Ukraine and Mongolia. [For more information, see the EurasiaNet Q & A archive]. He believes rural radio can stimulate democracy in countries emerging from totalitarian rule. (In this work, Siemering receives support from the Open Society Institute, which runs EurasiaNet.) Flintoff, best known as an NPR host, won a Knight fellowship that took him and his wife and daughter to Mongolia in June 2001. Flintoff stopped in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, to enjoy the occasional hot shower, stock up on instant coffee, and check email. He spent the rest of his time training reporters, producers and managers of five newly independent radio stations. So what do Siemering and Flintoff think radio can do in a nomadic land where the government has controlled and censored media for seven of the past eight decades? Stay tuned.

When Mongolia's Parliament abruptly ended state control over media in 1998, the press had no idea how to support itself – or what it should air. The two questions intertwine, says Siemering. "The biggest obstacle to improving news quality," Siemering says, "is not having an historical framework for what is good news." Siemering faults inadequate post-socialist reform and Western tendency to oversimplify the business of democracy. "All too often we in the West mistakenly think that if you have free press then you're done," he said. "But an unprofessional press that prints rumors and half-truths and does not serve the interests of a civil society or democracy," he said. To offset these ills, Siemering and others pitched the idea of establishing an independent media association to empower a network of rural radio stations, and women responded. Three of the five station managers in the nascent rural radio association are women.

The five stations received hands-on training from Flintoff, who spent a week leading a workshop in September 2001. He had worked with Dalanzadgad's own Gobi Wave, FM 103.6, whose staff hosted the workshop. Flintoff had been working with Gobi Wave's four paid employees and two high school interns. They developed a 20-minute program previewing the upcoming local sports festival, Naadam. [For background, see the EurasiaNet Culture archives]. Flintoff often used a typical state-run Gobi radio broadcast in which a government official reads statistics in a monotone for ten minutes to get his colleagues to think about new ways of telling a story. "Some people are stuck in old socialist ways of thinking about news as something that comes down from the top, from official sources, and is disseminated to people rather than something that can and should also come from the people," Flintoff said. The Gobi Wave staffers are also trying to make those shows' content smoother and more ambitious.

Flintoff and his colleagues solicited OSI funding for a series of folk tales told by rural herders and other elders. The project aims to strengthen reporting and editing skills while preserving stories that have defined this traditionally nomadic society's oral culture. In the northern town of Darhan, a woman named Ms. Hishigsuren runs a station that broadcasts the names of delinquent renters in spots paid for by the local Homeowners Association. A Doctor Tell Me program discusses health questions from Darhan children, elderly and herder listeners. Fifty miles north, in the town of Selenge, Ms. Bumdari and her community radio colleagues broadcast a Thank You program in which former hospital patients buy short and sweet spots to simply thank their doctors and nurses. A Basketball Trivia program allows teams of Selenge youth connected by phone calls to dribble, pass and score by correctly answering a series of questions. And Gobi Wave airs a daily program run entirely by and for youth. As a testament to the show's popularity, Mongolian schools have banned FM radio headsets from schools. These cheap transistors were allowed before Gobi Wave began – they just didn't come up.

More friction has occurred in the broadcast booth. "I've seen examples of egregious and biased reporting here that surprise me," Flintoff said. "In some ways reporters and editors are still equating the freedom of news media with the ability to say anything you want. The idea of independence and nonpartisanship is just taking hold, and it's going to take a while." According to Flintoff, since people are used to government providing information and funding for media outlets for free, and since radio is patently free, the most important challenge is convincing people that news and information will go away if they don't pitch in. "We face the same challenge today in the United States," he said.

Radio personalities Naranchimeg, Hishigsuren and Bumdari want legal protection and incentives more than money, it seems. "Good strong media laws that are well understood and enforced are really important," Flintoff said. The veteran newsman says Mongolia needs clear statutes that separate state agencies from news services, "protect reporters and their sources, that establish criteria for libel and slander, that enforce copyright protection."

Some broadcasters are organizing codes of conduct on their own. Naranchimeg and her peers formed the Rural Independent Broadcasters Association in 2000. Through this nonpartisan organization, they lobby lawmakers to flesh out the 1998 Media Law. That will require them, note the Americans, to define their role in society. "One of the most interesting things about rural Mongolian radio is that they see themselves as educational outlets for businesses to learn about how they fit into the market economy," Flintoff said.

But like most international aid and development workers, Siemering and Flintoff concede that the hardest work in transforming Mongolia into a vibrant free-market democracy lies ahead. Still, Flintoff returned to the NPR newsroom early this year humbled by his recent experience, admitting that he probably learned more than he could have ever taught. "I would love to bring a lot of people I know to Mongolia to show them how much people can do with so little," he said.

Editor's Note: Layton Croft has lived and worked in Mongolia for six years, most recently for Pact on the Gobi Regional Economic Growth Initiative. Traer Sunley assisted with this article.

Posted October 4, 2002 © Eurasianet

Copyright notice: All EurasiaNet material © Open Society Institute

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