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Community Radio — Its Evolution and Effectiveness in Rural Development

Offering a third model of radio broadcasting — in addition to commercial and public broadcasting — community radio is local people producing and broadcasting their own programmes, who also participate in operating the station. Usually a short-range, not-for-profit radio station or channel, it caters to the information needs of people of a particular locality, a geographical community, or communities of interest, in languages and formats appropriate for local context. Community radio stations are operated, owned and influenced by the communities they serve. It is a medium that enables individuals, groups and communities narrate their own stories, share experiences and become content creators — contents popular and relevant to a local, specific audience but of little value to commercial or mass-media broadcasters. It is a community space for people to meet and collaborate.

In India, the advent of community radio can be traced back to the mid-1990s. It followed the February 1995 Supreme Court judgment that said “airwaves are public property”. In 1996, VOICES, a development communications NGO based out of Bangalore, organized a gathering of community radio stakeholders. A declaration calling for the establishment of a third tier of broadcasting, i.e. community broadcasting, was signed. Calls were also made for grant of licences to NGOs and other non-profit groups to run community radio stations. At this time, UNESCO provided a portable production and transmission ‘briefcase radio station’ kit to VOICES to do experimental broadcasting and get hands-on experience in setting up an independently-run community radio station. In early 2003, the Government of India released the first set of community radio guidelines, but restricted eligibility to educational institutions only.

It was finally on16 November 2006 that the government implemented new Community Radio Guidelines, which permitted NGOs, educational institutions and agricultural institutions to own and operate community radio stations. The first community-based radio station licensed to an NGO was launched on 15 October 2008 by Deccan Development Society, in Pastapur village, Medak district, Andhra Pradesh. Government guidelines require community radio stations to produce at least 50 per cent of their programmes locally, and, to the maximum extent possible, in the local language or dialect. The stress is on developmental programming.

As of 31 May 2019, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has listed 251 operational community radio stations in India. In its blog titled ‘Community Radio — Aiding India’s Rural Development’ dated 1 Nov 2019, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) says, “Community radios help connect the disenfranchised, airing their challenges and concerns. Often, we tend to view rural development merely from the prism of economic growth. It should rightfully also include social, spiritual and moral enhancement too. Its role includes poverty eradication, illiteracy eradication and employment. Community radio is the common link which binds all these development factors over a common communication channel.”

As part of our study, we have had the opportunity to look at three organizations that have deployed community radio services in parts of Tamil Nadu:

  1. Gram Vaani — GRINS (Gramin Radio Inter-Networking System) is an integrated software solution for running a community radio station that allows programme scheduling and play-out, full telephony and SMS integration, Internet streaming, content management and statistical analysis of play-out history. This helps community radio stations manage complex station management tasks in an easy and error-free manner. With this popular low-cost radio management solution and its IVR based solution, Gram Vaani is able to reach around 2.5 million listeners in 6 countries.

  2. Radio Kotagiri — Radio Kotagiri was launched in 2013 by Keystone Foundation, an organization committed to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Community Radio Station (CRS) is located in Kotagiri, a town in the Nilgiris District of the Western Ghats. Using this medium, Keystone Foundation is able to reach about 25,000 people in 15 villages in a 15-km radius from its main station in Kotagiri. Its users belong to native communities who possess a distinct identity when it comes to knowledge with respect to culture, folklore, customs, festivals, traditional knowledge etc. Through this ‘connect’, the organization has been able to gather, transcribe, archive and share this information by making it immediately available and relevant to their listeners and to also preserve it for posterity. The content aired also aims to address information gaps in key areas that are relevant to the communities particularly in the areas of healthcare and well-being and is thus directly contributing to improving the capacity of the communities to address these issues themselves.

  3. Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli — After the devastating tsunami of December 2004 that ravaged coastal Tamil Nadu and badly affected fishing and farming communities in this belt, DHAN Foundation started to work towards empowering these communities with a long-term developmental focus. Recognizing the particular vulnerability vis-à-vis natural calamities, building disaster management-related capacities of these communities were recognized as an imperative. ICT (Information and Communications Technology) systems were introduced in all the villages through village information centres equipped with and connected using the internet. To complement this ICT initiative, the Foundation launched a community radio station Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli in October 2005 with resources from the United Nations Development Programme under its Tsunami Recovery Support Programme. The vision was to create a community media centre combining radio with video using web-based technologies.

When asked why community radio is so popular, all the three organizations had similar responses. In their document ‘Building Communities through Media Kalanjiam Community Radio Experience’, Dhan Foundation sums it up: “Communication is about the human factor in development — it gives people a voice, makes them ‘visible’, and helps them to learn and take action. Communication is most useful when it starts by listening to what people already know, what they aspire to become, what they perceive is possible and what they can productively sustain. People need information as much as they need water, food, medicine or shelter. Information can save lives, livelihoods and resources.”

Lamuel Enoch of Gram Vaani says their Integrated Voice Response (IVR) based platform gives a voice to the voiceless, bridging the gap between what they know and what they are facing. He believes that this phone-based menu interface is perhaps its greatest feature. Using a simple touchpad, these users can navigate the platform for information easily, and share/ publish content through two-way communications. Thus, they can develop bottom-up content that is relevant, replicable and reliable.

Members of both the management team and the ICT team at Keystone Foundation spoke about community radio’s support for representation and agency of the indigenous communities they serve and the preservation of their strong oral traditions and cultural heritage. They believe community radio has helped their outreach in otherwise inaccessible areas with low ICT penetration and low literacy levels, through purpose-driven and diversified content related to community well-being, peace, justice and, in more recent times, COVID-19 awareness.

When asked what endears community radio to the constituency it caters to, the answer was again unanimous — it is of the community, by the community and for the community. A sense of ownership of the content, the joy of sharing of knowledge and the participation in local community matters all make for greater societal cohesion. Lamuel Enoch told us that he had gathered over three lakh voice recordings in one year. Community members derive great happiness from hearing their own voices on the platform.

In an article titled ’Community radio gives boost to rural development’, The Hindu quoted Akanksha Shukla, associate professor and head, Centre for Development Documentation and Communication (CDC) and leader of a study team from the National Institute of Rural Development & Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR) as saying, “The Central Government has initiated a convergence between Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Self Help Groups (SHGs) to facilitate rural transformation and adding community radio stations may have far-reaching benefits as radio is now accessed over mobile phones as well. Community radios speak the dialect, language, and voice of the people in their own style. People can look forward to participating in the programmes as, speaking on radio, makes the local villager a celebrity in the area.”

It has taken over twenty-five years for Community Radio to evolve into the current avatars that are finding application in many parts of the country. If the promoters and experts above are to be believed, then its role and impact in rural outreach and transformation may well be immense.

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