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Community Radio In India: From Free Waves To Sustainability

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German playwright and author Bertolt Brecht wrote:

“The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication. Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So, here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organise its listeners as suppliers.”

This is where the concept of community radio finds its roots: a participatory radio for the people, of the people and by the people. Today, with nearly 200 community radio stations across India, broadcasting in languages like Bundelkhandi, Garhwali, Awadhi and Santhali, we should be proud of the fact that broadcast radio today reaches a large number of the Indian population. Rural India relies on it overwhelmingly for information. It also remains the most inexpensive and portable medium.

The legalities of setting up a community radio station came after a long and voiced revolution from various grass-roots organizations, individuals and communities. Community radio is not just something which is feeding the people’s mind with few people’s choices, interests and beliefs, its inception goes back to the logic of providing voice to the voiceless, being a tool of development communication, acceptance of multiple voices and of course giving space to multiple voices – in order to remove the homogeneity of views, ideas and beliefs. Secondly, its focus on covering micro level issues, which are directly linked with people’s lives increases its importance. The participatory approach makes it different from the mainstream media, as it involves people to talk their concerns and listen to their voices on radio.

Some practitioners and scholars argue that function of community radio is:

  • To reflect and promote local identity, character and culture by focusing principally on local content.
  • To create a diversity of voices and opinions on the air through its openness to participation from all sectors
  • To encourage open dialogue and democratic process by providing an independent platform for interactive discussion about matters and decisions of importance to the community.
  • To promote social change and development.
  • To promote good governance and civil society by playing a community watchdog role that makes local authorities and politicians more conscious of their public responsibilities

Many studies have also tried to find a linkage between the functions and aims of community radio with what Amartya Sen wrote as “Capability Approach”- the key idea of the capability approach is that social arrangements should aim to expand people’s capabilities – their freedom to promote or achieve what they value doing and being– makes more sense. Here it is noted that the community radio is helping to expand people’s capabilities by disseminating information, which ordinary people can use to overcome problems such as hunger and malnutrition. This can help people to achieve a life they value.

Farmers are more likely to adopt and implement agricultural messages that help them to meet basic needs such as food and escape a life of poverty.  In adopting modern methods of farming, ordinary people are moved by the incentive of increased yield that is associated with those techniques. Increased yield leads to freedom as a result of food sufficiency. Food sufficiency leads to the attainment of yet other freedoms such as social and economic freedom which ensue when farmers sell the surplus food to earn money.

A UNDP (1994) report documented that “The purpose of development is to create an environment in which all people can expand their capabilities, and opportunities can be enlarged for both present and future generations.” This is one way through which community radio as part of communication for development can be used to address the challenges that people in rural communities face. The hallmark of development communication is the explicit and implicit desire to change the way people behave. Here we note that community radio is playing that role – changing the way ordinary people used to practice farming thereby enlarging their opportunities for the improved agency. Similar can be argued for health literacy, carrier counseling among other basic issues that a community needs advice with.

During situations like the 2004 tsunami, and the 2013 Uttarakhand floods, radio played a stellar role in conveying information on relief work, aid and recovery efforts when other mediums became inaccessible, and hence proved to be the last man standing in times of calamity and disaster. Audio programmes easily take-over barriers linked to literacy allowing everyone to comprehend the information they need. The incurring cost is lower than other mediums such as TV and newspapers.

It is important to see the issues related to funding of community radio stations as well, right from the fixed cost of establishing a community radio station to its day-to-day functioning. The Telecom Regularity Authority of India website mentions: “As long as the Community radio stations are limited to Educational Institutions, funding is not really a problem even without any advertisements or sponsored programmes. However, expanding the scope of Community Radio stations beyond educational institutions requires a serious look at the possible fund raising and income generating mechanisms for Community Radio.”

Funding sources vary from national to international agencies, friends of community radio stations to earning money from advertisement. Given the government rules and guidelines there is only certain type of advertisement permitted for Community Radio broadcasters, making the task of fund-raising even more difficult. Theoretically, being an NGO based activity in India fund-raising through donations is the first approach we look into. However, it is important to challenge it and try to see the market orientation as well. A good connection with local market can most likely provide some or major parts of funding to support the recurring cost (day-to-day expenses)

Should we be overly worried about this fact? Not really, we have come a long way from the Pastapur initiative with all these challenges. Given the important role community radio stations can play, we need to a bit more creative (or so to say innovative) with content and fund-raising techniques; continue the broadcast and community engagement- and sooner or later self-sustainability both in terms of content and funding can be achieved. Hope, although begets hope, has never been limited as just a word.

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