In fiscal 2016, the number of community radio stations in Japan exceeded 300 for the first time. With hundreds of such stations operating across the country, it is expected that local radio will continue to play a valuable role in keeping society informed. However, when it comes to making money, nearly half of community radio stations are struggling.
According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey, 40 percent of community radio stations are losing money, and 23 community stations have closed to date. With this harsh reality in mind, there is a need to make sure that community radio stations can be financially viable in the future.
Making use of very high frequency (VHF) waves to deliver an FM broadcasting service within a specified region, community radio first came to the fore after an amendment to Japan's Broadcast Act in 1992, which enabled community radio to become institutionalized.
Later, according to the ministry and other sources, there was a rapid surge in new local stations following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, after the effectiveness of local radio during disasters became apparent.
In the case of the 1995 earthquake for example, the effectiveness of community radio was demonstrated through the broadcasting of detailed information on matters such as evacuation sites as well as advice on how to deal with daily life. Similarly, community radio also proved to be an informative medium during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011.
By late 2015, 46 of the 47 prefectures in Japan had all possessed at least one community radio station. The only prefecture without one was Tochigi. However, this situation soon changed in November 2015 when "FM Kurara 857," a local radio station based in Tochigi city, made its official launch. As of the end of last year, there were 303 community radio stations across the country.
Following a revision to Japan's Broadcast Act in 2010, the government placed greater emphasis on the role that community radio can play in fields such as broadcasting during major disasters. However, with profitability being an issue, a number of community radio stations have since faded away.
In a survey conducted by the communications ministry, 177 (64 percent) of the 278 companies asked said that they made a profit during fiscal 2015, while 69 companies (25 percent) stated that they had achieved a cumulative profit. The reality is that narrow broadcasting areas make it difficult for stations to attract sponsorship money, and since around 2003, the closing down of community radio stations has begun to stand out.
From fiscal 2016 onward, the government has tried to assist by allowing the use of special tax grants to local governments in relation to their promotional programs, but this scheme is heavily dependent on how keen the relevant local body is on making new programs.
Speaking on the financial challenges that local radio stations face, an MIC community broadcasting promotion office states, "It is difficult to just inject tax money directly into private companies."
However, it is also important to remember that community radio stations provide a useful service to local communities, particularly in times of trouble.