Reformasi on the Air: Indonesia's New Political Climate Spawns a Radio Format
Not many radio stations would segue from Barry Manilow singing
"Copacabana" to a call-in discussion on the role of the military in
national life, but on Jakarta's Safari FM (97.4) that kind of eclectic
programming is an everyday occurrence.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, for example, magazine reporter and former political prisoner Ahmad Taufik
was hosting a two-hour segment of Safari's late afternoon talk show,
"Wacana Jakarta," ("Jakarta Discourse") heatedly working over the
military, racial tensions, press freedom, and a range of other issues
with a guest from opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri's political
organization. A steady stream of listeners called in to add their
views; the breaks were filled with the sounds of Kenny G. and Suzanne
"This is reformasi radio, man. We say what we want," enthused Sri
Megawati Kurniadi, a 24-year-old announcer who was engineering Taufik's
With the spirit of reformasi (reform) seemingly everywhere in Indonesia
these days, the staff of Safari FM is trying to distill the spirit
behind the catch-all term for political reform and change into a radio
station format. Safari FM, once a mainline commercial station, operates
on a shoestring budget and the belief that radio can be revolutionary
in a country marred by crisis, poverty, and low literacy rates. It is
now run by committed young broadcasters who want to open the country's
electronic media in the same way that a wave of unrestricted reporting
is transforming the nation's print media in the aftermath of the
resignation of President Suharto last May.
"At first the students and others did not believe that radio can be
revolutionary," said program director Nor Pud Binarto. "But radio is
free. It is everywhere. This can change the people. I really believe
Binarto has tried to test his radio revolution theory before. As host
of "Jakarta Round-Up," the country's first current-affairs radio
call-in show, on the air from 1991 to 1994, he claimed 2.3 million
listeners on Trijaya, a major radio station. Binarto used the relative
openness of the early 1990s to challenge the Suharto government. But he
went too far when he invited Goenawan Mohamad, the editor of the
popular newsweekly Tempo,
to discuss the government's sudden closure of the magazine in 1994.
Goenawan delivered an on-air denunciation of the government's action
against what had been the country's most popular magazine; within days,
Binarto's radio career was on hold and his program was by the station's
management under government pressure.
After his show went off the air, Binarto bounced around the radio
business for the next few years, setting up commercial stations and
trying to do public affairs programming at several stations, with
little success. Finally, on May 21 -- the day that Suharto left office
-- he got his chance. The station's owner, Jakarta businessman Purnomo,
gave Binarto the keys to Safari FM, which had been broadcasting light
jazz and business news. "Mr. Purnomo gives me full creative control,"
Binarto said. "This is my radio station now, and we want to do
politics, because the problem in Indonesia now is politics, not
business. We have to defend our new freedom using the radio."
At Safari, they are the children of reformasi," said Wimar Witoelar, a
well-known Indonesian television commentator who, like Binarto, was
banished from the air by the Suharto regime in 1994. "They can say what
they like for now, because no one wants to go against this trend of
reform and liberalization."
FM broadcasts from two cramped studios inside Purnomo's residential
compound in South Jakarta. There is an air of controlled chaos, as
programming changes from moment to moment. For example, a spontaneous
on-air campaign to feed squatter families recently generated hundreds
of donated 50-kilo bags of rice, some of which are stacked in a corner
of the studio, awaiting distribution.
The station has a staff of four reporters and two announcers, and a
signal that covers all of Jakarta. A series of hosts -- like Taufik,
who was jailed for three years starting in 1994 for insulting Suharto
in print -- volunteer their time to handle the late afternoon talk
show. Binarto himself hosts the daily morning show from 6 to 9 a.m.,
during which he and actor Butet Kartagasa, a frequent guest, poke fun
at Jakarta's elite. The rest of the time, jazz and easy listening music
fill the air, punctuated by periodic calls from reporters on their cell
phones as they scour the city for demonstrations, human rights news,
and commentary on the unfolding drama of reformasi.
A new kind of radio news has begun to emerge in Jakarta. In recent
years, broadcast outlets were hamstrung by political considerations;
forced to carry Indonesia state news broadcasts throughout the day,
local radio stations stagnated. Those requirements have been eased
considerably now, and at Safari FM, Binarto hopes to train a new
generation of radio broadcasters who eventually will learn how to do
serious radio journalism.
It will likely be an uphill battle. The deepening Indonesian economic
crisis has stripped the station of almost all commercial spots. Binarto
says that it may take a year or more to develop an audience large
enough to attract cash-strapped advertisers.
"We survive now on the idea," said Sri Megawati Kurniadi. "It is long
hours and very low pay, but we will stay at it." Binarto himself
frequently goes without his salary. He spends most nights on a mattress
in a tiny room next to his broadcast studio. A pair of microphones sits
on a nearby table, in case he needs to broadcast from his makeshift
bedroom. Binarto has never been happier. "I love my job. I love my
radio station," he said. "We are making something new."