On Tuesday, November 29, I and our project leader Prof. Soichiro Itoda had the opportunity to visit the radio station Radio Café
in Kyoto, which pioneered the idea of non-profit community radio in Japan. The story they told us about their trials in achieving this goal was truly amazing and inspiring!
The cafe itself
in the 1928 building in Kyoto's Sanjo district. It's a very cozy place in the basement, and I strongly recommend a visit (you'll find a map and business hours etc. via the above links). The building was erected 1928, and has a very interesting architecture. It also houses another cafe as well as an art gallery. The actual radio station lives around the corner, looking down from the second floor onto a shopping arcade. Inside you'll find two small studios and an office. But in spite of the humble looks of the place, the story of how it came into being is one of a small miracle.
The original idea was to create a radio station for the locals and by the locals - a non-profit organisation, independent from industry and sponsors. At the time, nobody had heard of such a thing in Japan. Nevertheless, somehow the concept started to catch on at a grassroots level. One after another, people started to offer their support. The movement got stronger and stronger, until a symposium could be held with around 150 attendants to discuss the idea of establishing a community radio station. It ended with everyone voting yes, to the surprise of the originators.
This was the igniting spark, and the beginning of an excruciating process of realisation. As this was in the age before podcasting, a broadcast licence was needed. The application form was not a form - it was closer to "the thickness of a telephone directory" and extremely complex. Short of funds the members had no other choice but to put in the time and effort to fill it out by themselves, something normally done by expensive consultants.
Finally they were able to complete all paperwork and submit it to the authorities, eargerly waiting for a response. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, but still there was nothing. When the call finally came Mr. Toshiji Machida, now general manager, picked up the phone. "The caller simply said, 'you've got the licence', but my heart leaped. It was the happiest moment of my life", he recalls.
The broadcasting licence was a big step forward, but now an even greater hurdle waited. The station had no funding, no staff, and no equipment. "We were told that we would need close to a million US dollars to get started", says Machida. "I could not see how we could ever get that kind of money - the banks were certainly not very helpful."
This is when the second miracle of the story happened. With no other options, the founders started to ask the local population for contributions. Each share was a million yen (circa 13,000 US dollars), not exactly a modest sum. Nevertheless, the idea of the local community having their own, free voice, free of sponsorship pressures, seemed to have strong appeal. Patrons started to line up - virtually all of them retirees with some cash to spare. In the end, 24 people made a contribution; equipment could be purchased, and salaries for a small staff paid. But the voice of the people could still not be heard: when the first investigation was conducted, it was clear that the reception of the signal would be terrible.
With its limited funds, the station could only afford a 20 watt transmitter. Due to the tall buildings nearby the signal would be virtually impossible for listeners to receive. But once again, the project was lucky. Because of its status as a non-profit, the station was able to get access to a spot on the rooftop of a building owned by a foundation, and the transmitter could finally be installed. "When I heard the test signal, again my heart leaped to the sky", says Mr. Machida. The first Japanese radio station run by the locals, for the locals, was a reality.
I can't help thinking that we have many lessons to learn from Kyoto. Envisioning a similar approach to Asakusa and Tokyo, I see opportunities for building a strong local foundation for the Tokyo-Edo Radio as well. I can't wait to get started.
Tokyo Edo Radio
(Images kindly provided by the Radio Café)