Teen radio show breaks taboos about sex in NepalKATHMANDU - In a Kathmandu recording studio, young workers sift through piles of letters from Nepalese teenagers seeking advice on everything from unrequited love and homosexuality to drug abuse and H.I.V.
Two presenters in their early twenties talk animatedly into microphones as they record the latest episode of “Chatting with My Best Friend” or “Sathi Sanga Manka Kura (SSMK),” one of Nepal’s most listened-to radio shows.
The program, a blend of discussion, drama and music, was launched nine years ago as part of a project funded by Unicef to spread awareness among Nepalese teenagers about the dangers of H.I.V. and AIDS.
Since then it has become required listening for young people across Nepal, a deeply conservative, majority-Hindu country where teenage sex and drug abuse are usually taboo subjects.
The show - the first to be produced by and for young Nepalese people - began as a half-hour slot on national radio, considered the most effective medium in a country where around a third of the population is illiterate.
Its no-holds-barred approach to sexual health quickly won it a loyal following among young people. Within months, so many letters were coming in that it had to double its running time to an hour.
“Before SSMK started, there was no tradition of talking about such problems in Nepal,” said Kaustuv Pokhrel, a former presenter on the show who now works behind the scenes.
“The show was designed in such a way that it felt like your friend talking to you in a non-judgemental way. The hosts talk about anything under the sun - sexual and reproductive health, career or study concerns, family problems, whatever.”
Now SSMK draws six million listeners a week and has even featured “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Orlando Bloom, a Unicef goodwill ambassador, in one of its dramas.
Gillian Mellsop, Unicef’s Nepal representative, said the mainstream media gave little attention to the issues facing young people before SSMK came along.
“This lack of guidance and information on issues that were important to young people left them feeling a little neglected and also increased their vulnerability to risky behavior,” she said.
But SSMK’s willingness to tackle any subject has also brought criticism and on one occasion, the threat of removal from the airwaves after a particularly controversial early episode about masturbation.
“We were accused of putting out vulgar content on the radio, so we invited the station managers in to see the letters we received to show we were not making it up - this really was an issue that concerned young people.
“Eventually they were persuaded, but for a while we had to send them scripts for approval. They said we couldn’t use the word ‘condom’ on the radio, for example, which was problematic.”