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Community Radio in India: Redefining the Media Landscape

Vinod Pavarala
August 15, 2011

Twenty-two year old Manjula reached the radio station before daybreak one day in August last year and started broadcasting Tsunami alerts at 5:00 a.m. Early morning listeners were caught unaware as they are used to the community radio station, Kalanjiam Vaanoli, beginning its broadcast only at eight. By mid-morning, Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu and the surrounding region were given the all-clear by the district administration, but Manjula had already done her job effectively and efficiently that day. This is a community radio station started in 2009 with the support of the DHAN Foundation in the small village of Vilunthamavadi in the Keelaiyur block of the Nagapattinam district, about two kilometers from where the 2004 Tsunami had wreaked havoc.

Hundreds of kilometers away, in a small town called Orchha in Madhya Pradesh, Anujaa Shukla and her colleagues run Radio Bundelkhand, broadcasting a heady brew of infotainment of local relevance in the Bundeli language since 2008. A community radio station supported by Development Alternatives, they reach out to listeners within a twenty kilometer radius with programming that especially addresses women, youth, and marginalized groups. In one innovative move, the station recorded over a thousand songs in Bundeli through the participation of local, amateur artists in a show called Bundeli Idol, a version of the popular reality television show, American/Indian Idol.

These community radio stations and other initiatives like the much-discussed Sangham Radio – India’s first rural community radio station – started by the Deccan Development Society in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, are fundamentally redefining the media landscape in India.  The cacophony over the airwaves in India built up to a crescendo by 2005 when the FM radio revolution started striking at the media consumption habits of people beyond the metros, with its non-stop film music and the often inane chatter. While this situation leads some observers to revel in a liberal-capitalistic rhetoric of “multiple outlets” and “consumer choice,” one cannot help but invoke Bertolt Brecht’s lamentation in the late 1920s that radio had been reduced to only a distribution system, an “acoustical department store.” He had pleaded to turn radio into “something really democratic” by making it a medium of two-way communication, enabling true participation by citizens in public affairs. The history of the struggle for community radio in India, which culminated in November 2006 in a new Government of India policy permitting community radio, has been an effort to realize this Brechtian mandate to use radio as a means to build a robust civil society in the country.

The processes of liberalization, privatization, and globalization in the media industries since the late twentieth century have intensified concerns about homogenization of content, centralization of power and control, and increasing marginalization of the issues affecting the lives of the poor and disenfranchised in mainstream media. The fight for freeing of the radio spectrum has been concerned with providing an alternative to the dominant media and a means of expression to a wide spectrum of social actors who have been socially, culturally, geographically, economically, and politically excluded from power. Taking into consideration the experiences and policy precedents from other democratic countries, the community radio activists have appealed for broadcasting in India to be based on principles of universal access, diversity, equitable resource allocation, democratization of communication, and empowerment of historically disadvantaged sections of society.

A historic judgment delivered by the Supreme Court of India in February 1995 ruled that, “airwaves constitute public property and must be utilized for advancing public good.” The judgment further decreed that broadcasting media as a whole should promote freedom of expression and speech, and therefore, should be able to enjoy freedom from government monopoly and control subject to regulation by a public body. Following this judgment, campaigners for community radio in India struggled through the good part of a decade for the creation of a new tier of not-for profit radio stations, owned and run by local people, typically in rural areas, which would enable marginalized communities to use the medium to create opportunities for social change, cohesion and inclusion as well as for creative and cultural expression. These intense advocacy efforts and passionate debates about community radio broadcasting for the social sector finally resulted in an inclusive community radio policy approved by the Union Cabinet in 2006.

The campaign had to contend with the Government of India’s rather Orwellian interpretation of the Supreme Court judgment (reading “public” to mean “private”) when a policy of demonopolization of the airwaves was set in motion in 1999 through the auctioning of FM radio frequencies to the highest corporate bidders. Through an inexorable process, the government made access to the airwaves a whole lot simpler and feasible for the commercial players across India’s urban landscape. Radio entertainment in India witnessed a revival of sorts, as the airwaves broke free from government control. The social sector, however, was left high and dry and no one seemed to have an ear for the voices from the rural areas that were seeking a “radio of our own.” Initially, the long-standing demands for a third tier of independent, not-for-profit broadcasting in the country yielded only a confined “campus” avatar of community radio in the first quarter of 2003. This allowed “well-established” educational institutions to set up FM transmitters and run radio stations. The decision somewhat diluted the hegemony of the state and market over radio. But to open up the broadcasting sector for an urban, educated, elite in areas that are already well-served by media violated the spirit of the community radio campaign. The government for a long time resisted demands for opening up this sector, under misplaced apprehensions that secessionists, militants or subversive elements would misuse the medium.  The Central government, headed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), eventually yielded to the demands for genuine community radio as part of a spate of avowedly pro-poor policies such as the Right to Information Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

Since 2006, the new expanded policy permits NGOs with a track record of community development work to set up radio stations. With an ownership and management structure that is reflective of the community, the policy mandates that at least 50 percent of content must be generated in the local language with the participation of the community. The new policy, in its present structure, still does not permit community radio stations to broadcast news and current affairs.

The application procedure for organizations other than government-recognized educational institutions is quite cumbersome and requires clearances from several ministries before a community radio station can be made operational. It is partly for this reason that after more than four years since the announcement of the policy, only a third of more than one hundred community radio stations in India are run by grassroots organizations, with the rest being campus radio stations. Groups such as the Community Radio Forum of India, representing the interests of this emerging sector, continue to campaign for more liberalized licensing procedures as well as for the lifting of the ban on news and politics. Most recently, this group has been working with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to set in motion a process for the creation of public funding through a Community Radio Support Fund to address one of the key inhibiting factors in the development of this vibrant sector of broadcasting.

In the meantime, “General” Narsamma and her colleague Algole Narsamma, two Dalit women who run the Sangham Radio continue to regale audiences with their Yarandla Muchatlu, a Telugu show that mimics gossipy conversation between sisters-in-law while exploring critical issues of social change in their community.

Vinod Pavarala is the Dean of the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts & Communication at the University of Hyderabad. He is the author, along with Kanchan K. Malik, of Other Voices: The Struggle for Community Radio in India, Sage, 2007. He is currently the President of the Community Radio Forum of India. Email: vpavarala@gmail.com

 


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