Samoan Radio Sale Threatens Public Radio Future

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It’s unusual for a public radio and TV broadcaster to be sold, but that’s what’s happening this year in Samoa.

The old 2AP, more recently known as the SBC, is up for sale in its 60th anniversary year. Two local companies [Radio Polynesia and Samoa Quality Broadcasters] have been in the running to take control of SBC1 on AM and FM, SBC2 on AM and SBC-TV.

Radio Polynesia has since withdrawn from the tender process, after inspecting the studios and transmission facilities on the outskirts of Apia. This leaves just a recently formed group of mainly senior SBC staff members still in the running.

Studios were originally built in 1948 for 2AP Apia
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

The local Samoa Observer newspaper said recently:

“SBC’s AM band radio, formerly 2AP, covers the whole nation and beyond. It can be heard clearly in Niue and Tokelau, and emails from Samoans in Alaska say they too, get snatches of it. It is the radio station of choice in many American Samoan households. SBC-TV reaches 95% of independent Samoa.”

Privatization was foreshadowed 20 years ago, and some would say that the SBC has been a lingering patient starved of resources since.

Caravan outside SBC’s Apia studios used for educational broadcasts on 747 AM
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Whoever wins the tender for SBC inherits the original studios built 60 years ago, a loyal [but relatively small] audience of mainly older listeners who still tune to the AM band, an energy draining AM transmitter already running at reduced power to save money, one single tower sitting in a salt laden tropical environment literally metres from the beach, and a TV station that produces just a few hours of local news and current affairs programs each week.

Talofa FM studios [Radio Polynesia] Apia, Samoa
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

In the meantime, Radio Polynesia captures the major share of the local commercial radio market with four separate FM stations, including the incredibly popular Radio Talofa and Magik 98.1. Even the local Roman Catholic Church has an FM station, along with a growing number of other churches who each have their own FM station.

Christian Radio Laufou studios and tower, Apia, Samoa
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Somewhere along the way, SBC lost most of the contemporary radio market. It does, however, hold a magnificent archive of Samoa’s musical and oral heritage through 60 years of recordings.

UNESCO funded archive training at SBC in Apia

A UNESCO funded project a few years ago to protect these archives foundered on lack of interest from within the SBC. The future of and responsibility for this treasure trove of Samoan history isn’t clear. A commercially driven private company isn’t likely to have much interest in spending funds on preserving old radio recordings.

Not when they’re faced with an uphill battle to find listeners for new and brighter programs, upgrading studio and technical facilities and finding local advertisers.

And all in the face of strong commercial competition, plus a bright new ….. commercial free….. 24 hour FM station that recently came onto the Apia airwaves. More about this surprising new development shortly.

Then there’s the future of SBC’s AM station. Currently, it fulfils a public service for both Samoa, American Samoa, Niue and Tokelau as an emergency broadcaster to warn of impending cyclones and tsunamis. It’s useful for other important broadcasts such as state funerals and election results. FM signals simply don’t have the same reach.

SBC’s heavily anchored AM tower at Mulinu’u, Apia
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

Two other Pacific nations have privatized their public radio services in the recent past.

In American Samoa, once powerful AM station WVUV gradually faded into silence once in private ownership and is only now preparing to return to the airwaves with a construction permit and as part of a larger radio group in the territory.

The FM dial in Pago Pago of course, has almost as much variety as its counterpart in Apia, certainly if one likes listening to religious stations.

At one stage, WVUV boasted it covered the South Pacific from Pago Pago.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

But what American Samoans currently lack is a strong AM signal that can provide emergency coverage during bad weather. For years, the American Samoans tried to get the FCC in Washington to agree to have a relay of the old 2AP for just this purpose. Because it was ‘foreign’ owned, all requests were denied and currently American Samoa has only one AM station on air, KJAL… and still on low power as it recovers from a direct cyclone hit more than two years ago.

ZK1ZC once broadcast on shortwave as well as AM to all the Cook Islands.
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation.

The other example is the Cook Islands, which sold its only AM radio station to a private broadcaster. Within a short time, listeners in the outer Cook Islands were complaining that they couldn’t hear Radio Cook Islands any more, as the station reduced power to save money and energy costs. The sense of nationhood that the old ZK1ZC provided, as well as emergency cyclone and tsunami coverage, became weaker.

Just recently, Radio Cook Islands obtained access to a new network of state funded low powered FM relays on most of the outer islands across the group. It now feeds its own Rarotonga based program to each one, restoring a sense of national community whilst keeping its AM transmitter at reduced power.

In early 2005, Cyclone Meena was one of five cyclones to hit the Cook Islands. Trader Jack’s bar on the Avarua waterfront was wrecked.

Like Apia and Pago Pago, competing commercial and community FM stations now serve the local audience…. and…. again, just like Apia and Pago Pago, several stations in Avarua are church owned.

What about that bright and breezy new commercial free station now on the air in Apia? Well, Radio Australia has opened a 24 hour relay there, and has also opened one on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.

Isabelle Genoux & Clement Paligaru present Radio Australia’s popular ‘In the Loop’ program for a growing Pacific audience
© ABC Radio Australia

With the end of local public radio in both the Cook Islands and, now Samoa, it seems that Radio Australia sees a chance to introduce its own version of public radio to the islands.

Will the privatization of national public radio in Samoa and the Cook Islands and new Australian taxpayer funded programs from Melbourne meet all the public radio needs of local listeners?

China Radio International broadcasts from Beijing

How long before the BBC from London, Radio China International from Beijing, National Public Radio from Washington and Radio France International from Paris all join Radio Australia on the air in Samoa and Rarotonga?

All these stations already have local FM relays in other Pacific islands where local public radio increasingly struggles to be heard.

Is it really just a matter of time before local public radio heritage in the Pacific fades under new, more powerful voices from outside the region? Is this the Pacific Plan in action?

Stay tuned.

This article was first broadcast as a radio heritage documentary on the Mailbox program of Radio New Zealand International, January 21 2008. Since it went to air, the Samoan Prime Minister has announced that government funding remains available to maintain the AM radio service after privatization. However, existing state funds are already insufficient to keep the transmitters at full power and the educational and parliamentary broadcasts on 747 AM are very limited.

SBC Headquarters at Apia, Samoa
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation

If you enjoyed this item, you’ll also enjoy our story about radio broadcasting and 2AP Samoa, the story about the sale of WVUV, how radio began in the Cook Islands, and the establishment of three local FM stations on Tokelau.

For details of other radio stations currently broadcasting in Samoa, American Samoa, the Cook Islands and other Pacific islands, use our free Pacific Asian Log Radio Guides to find AM and Shortwave outlets and frequencies, and our new Pacific Radio Guides as they become available. These include Pacific Islands AM and Pacific Islands FM with details of hundreds of stations you can hear across the region.

The busy offices of Radio Polynesia in Apia, Samoa
© David Ricquish Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation
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