Construction and Reconstruction of Independent Radio in Afghanistan
Radio Yawali Ghag is an independent FM station serving Sayed Abad district in Wardak province in Afghanistan. Yawali Ghag seems to be the phoenix of radio stations. This July it completed its second rebuilding after destruction by insurgent forces. That it has become a popular target for these attacks says a lot about the impact it is making on the community.
Internews, an NGO whose media infrastructure work in Afghanistan is largely funded by USAID, did the original construction for the station in 2004. The studios and transmitter were located at a hillside location that gave them easy line of sight to their audience in the valley. Unhappily, the security situation deteriorated after that time and the hillside location made Radio Yawali Ghag an easy target for anti-government insurgents. The last attack on the station in this location saw the station burned and forced the station’s move to a location in town.
The next site was at a location alongside one of the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) bases in the city. The full time presence of military personnel on the site made them less vulnerable to the type of attack that had destroyed their station on the hill side. They reduced their coverage with their antenna height limited to their thirty meter tower but still provided independent coverage of events in the district and created an on-air forum for discussion of topics important to the community. They became a partner of the Internews’ founded Salam Watandar, a satellite radio network providing news and information across the nation with feeds in both Dari and Pashto. Radio Yawali Ghag provided a unique service, an independent radio voice in Maidan Wardak province.
That voice was silenced again on 10 September of last year (2011) when a large vehicle borne bomb was used in the attack on the PRT base. I had been working at Internews for several months when this attack happened and can testify that feelings ran high over the loss of this particular station in Sayed Abad.
This rebuilding process was a long one with gaps each step of the way. There was little equipment that survived the blast. Fortunately the tower and antenna made it through intact. The station had a older transmitter that had been stored off site. Some of the studio equipment could be repaired but was not working after the blast. The Salam Watandar satellite antenna was been pressure formed into a new shape. There were no longer any doors or windows in the studio but the shell of the building remained.
The Internews tech team arrived with a car full of equipment to get the station on the air as soon as possible. Satellite receive gear was installed so that the station could broadcast the Pashto program of Salam Watandar. There was now only limited access to the site so live talk programming was no longer possible from this location. Enough equipment was scraped together so the station could air material either off satellite or from programming recorded on CD. The technical part of getting a signal back on air from Radio Yawali Ghag went quickly.
A new facility for the station was something that Internews could do well but funding turned into a lengthy process despite ready recognition of the value of the station to the community. While funds for rebuilding were being arranged, it was necessary to clear the rubble from the bomb site. The station was provided the loan of a conex to house the studios but the satellite antenna got shifted during the bulldozing operation and local staff could not re-aim it for Salam Watandar. Selection of a new site went through several iterations with one site ready to be granted then withdrawn for political considerations. A document was eventually prepared to grant the station land near the town’s bazaar section until such time that security conditions allowed the station to return to its original hillside site. During the time the site and funding were being pursued, the station came under increasing pressure to move from their PRT location. They were forced to leave the old site after they had arranged a new location but before rebuilding funds were sorted. They were again completely off the air owing to lengthy administrative procedures.
Signatures were affixed to a contract 15 March 2012 that would fund the reconstruction of the station. The studios were going to be done using conexes for the construction to speed the process and to simplify compliance with international building codes. IBC compliance was mandatory because funding was derived from USAID grants. The studio gear was some of the nicest that had been seen in the history of the station. An Audioarts Air 3 console was used in the air studio. Along with excellent performance, the console lent itself to the use of StudioHub cabling which would greatly speed the installation. The Internews tech team has refined their skills over ten years of constructing and maintaining broadcast facilities in Afghanistan. Radio Yawali Ghag would benefit from that experience. This site was the first time for Internews to make use of a Nautel VS300 transmitter with on-board Orban audio processing. Most of the stations here have yet to learn the usefulness of audio processing. This would provide the extra edge needed to serve the community from a location within town. Ron Hunter, a Professional Engineer who had worked with Internews on several other tower and studio projects, provided his own design for a 20 meter self supporting tower that could be erected in the limited space available. An RFP was issued about a week after the funding was assured. The responses were evaluated about two weeks after that and the work was ready to proceed.
The next stalling of the work was again from the administrative side. As with any USAID funded construction, there are a number of requirements mandated by federal codes. Ron Hunter was our savior here because of his familiarity with these codes and regulations. He had mentored people in the USAID OIEE section now responsible for reviewing his submissions. Unhappily, it is also possible for USAID to impose additional requirements outside the federal code. That was the case with their requirement that the engineering documents be stamped and signed by a US PE. Compliance with this would jeopardize the license of any engineer who would affix their stamp for a project in Afghanistan. There is no insurer who will underwrite the liability of a PE stamp for Afghan construction. This was the issue that almost saw the project scrubbed. Resolution of this single item finally
happened but left us with less than two months to complete all the work prior to the end date of the contract that funded the project. This was after negotiations that provided a five week extension for the work. No more time could be allotted because the funding agency itself was closing out the work in this region.
The happy conclusion of the construction is that the rebuilding of Radio Yawali Ghag proceeded from this point to a successful finish on 7 July 2012. The station again had full facilities to provide independent programming for this Pashto speaking district in the east of Afghanistan, 45 miles from the capitol. Training was provided for the station manager by Internews tech team at the conclusion of construction. Staff were unable to attend because of security concerns. Internews returned to provide additional training as the station returned to a normal schedule.
The unfortunate epilog to this story are the effects of another nearby bomb blast on 1 September. Again the radio station was not the target but this bomb was also a large one. The attack followed the same scenario as the 2011 attack. A single suicide bomber began the attack and blew himself up to serve as a distraction from the movement of a truck loaded with explosives to the target of the attack. The station managed nearly two months of broadcasting before it was removed from the air for the third time. The Technical Department Manager at Internews told me that a lot of Radio Yawali Ghag equipment survived the blast as “repairable.” He hoped the station could be back on the air in some form in a few weeks time. That rebuilding may be the subject of a future article.
- – - Mark Timpany, CPBE, worked at Internews in Kabul through May of this year. He is presently at Kandahar Airfield with TechMIS LLC where he helps support the operation of a group of Pashto language radio stations funded by NATO.