“When I see ordinary people speaking on the program, I feel motivated and confident that I also could speak in front of the public.”
This was what a 46-year-old woman from the rural area of Surkhet district told a researcher studying the impact of the radio/television show — Sajha Sawal, literally, Common Questions.
Produced by BBC Media Action and presented by Narayan Shrestha, Sajha Sawal is a show that brings panelists who are in positions accountable to the public together with common people in a platform. Participants question the panelists and Shrestha, 33, plays the role of moderator.
The program is broadcast at 9 pm Sunday by Kantipur Televison, BBC Nepali and more than 200 radio stations across the nation. It is also available worldwide on YouTube as video and at BBCSajhaSawal.com and BBC Nepali Service website as audio. These together make Sajha Sawal a program with largest audience.
Some amazing numbers can give an idea of the show’s achievements: the show has been live-recorded in 45 districts, has covered 60 districts in its reporting, more than 16,000 people participated as live studio audiences, at least five radio stations outside Kathmandu are successfully running similarly designed programs at local levels and the show is celebrating its 250th episode this Sunday!
The program has not only been hugely successful in raising contemporary issues but also exemplifies how large-scale audience engagement is possible through use of technology.
Real Public Opinion
“When Sajha Sawal was designed, we had to think over how to ensure active civic participation because it was a time when the concept was relatively new,” Shrestha says as he moves out of the ‘newsroom’ cramped with computers to a small meeting hall at the BBC Media Action office at Sanepa, Lalitpur.
“When we began, the participants would not directly question the panelists but put forth their views as suggestions,” Shrestha recalls. “Now, people put good and meaningful questions that challenge the panelists. That’s the biggest achievement.”
No wonder the program has had words of praise from everyone. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai once told the team that the program helped him understand public opinion instantly. UML leader Rabindra Adhikari told them the questions asked by people were a lot more effective than when the same questions were asked by journalists.
Senior producer Dipak Bhattarai, 36, said that probably the most important aspect of the program was what Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa experienced. “He told us that as a leader when he visits places, everyone would clap as those who come are all party cadres, but he watches the program to learn what exactly people think,” says Bhattarai.
“Sajha Sawal is a platform for raising real issues by real people,” Shrestha adds.
Civic Participation & Technology
Sajha Sawal has been funded by the UK government until 2016. When it started, it was more focused on the peace process and civic participation in democratic discourse and constitution writing. However, the show is changing, with many social agenda issues now being discussed.
And the team has already started to use social media to take it to the next level. “We are using social media with four objectives — for audience participation, for receiving questions/comments, for selection of panelists and for promotion of the show,” says Nepal.
Shrestha sometimes asks the panelists questions from Facebook and Twitter. “During a program on road safety, we used a question by UN Country Representative Robert Piper posted on Twitter,” he says.
Shrestha as the face of the program has a big following on his personal Facebook page, and Bhattarai was a well-known blogger and Twitter user even before he joined the show. They along with other team members use their personal accounts as well as official accounts to achieve four objectives.
“As soon as we post the issue for the next program, there is numerous feedback all over social media,” says Bhattarai. “It’s amazing how quickly people react.”
“It makes it easier for us to understand public views on any issue and evaluate that issue,” Bhattarai adds. “People add new dimensions or perspectives to the issue that we may have overlooked during our meetings.”
Grey Area of Technology Use
Dhruba Hari Adhikary began in journalism when the Gorkhapatra was still composed by hand, printed on an old printing press and folded as newspapers by employees with the designation ‘folder’. More than three decades have passed since those humble beginnings and now as the newly-appointed editor of Sajha Sawal, Adhikary best understands the risks of technology use.
“Technology has brought positive change by expanding the area of engagement,” he says. “However, social media is so huge and scattered that it’s difficult to oversee everything.”
As much as the social media response to programs amazes him, it also worries him. “There are numerous questions people send to the panelists as soon as we ask them, but due to time constraints, we cannot accommodate all the questions,” he says. “This could frustrate people and we have no mechanism to address that frustration.”
BBC Media Action is in the process of buying a professional tool to monitor social media conversations and hopes to extend the use further into the show.
A Futuristic Look
What could the program look like in 2016? When this question was thrown on the table, Shrestha, Bhattarai and Nepal looked at each other and thought for a couple of minutes before setting out a futuristic design.
“How good it would feel if we could record like Al Jazeera’s The Stream or BBC’s Have Your Say,” says Nepal. Both the mentioned program are live and take real-time questions and opinions from social media.
“Ït is possible that our panelists are at the studio and participants are connected via social media – Twitter, Facebook and Skype,” Shrestha adds.
“Even the panelists can be on Skype; questions can come on social media real-time, with the program live streaming on web,” Bhattarai dreams.
Although this seems like not such a big dream, in a country where bandwidth is terribly limited for video viewing and internet penetration is less than one-fifth of the population, it will be a big leap.
But had the team expected such huge audience participation when they designed Sajha Sawal? Had they thought that their show would be on hundreds of radios and websites, impacting Nepalis at home and abroad? Certainly Sajha Sawal has transcended all expectations and it could transcend some dreams as well.
If not, Sajha Sawal will for long be an example on how mainstream media can significantly boost audience participation — more so by using social media, which is already a very big achievement.