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World Radio Day 2024: How Community Radio Became Voice of Change Over 20 Years

The scarcity of literacy amplifies the radio's role, bridging the gap where newspapers falter & TVs remain elusive.

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On a breezy February afternoon in Gopalganj, a small district of Bihar, a 58-year-old host named Kripa Shankar sat straight-backed before a console mic at the station of Radio Rimjhim, the first community radio station in North Bihar.

He welcomed his listeners with: "Namashkar! Radio Rimjhim Nabbe-Dashamalav-Chaar" (Hello! Welcome to Radio Rimjhim 90.4).

Gopalganj mirrors Bihar's juxtaposition of tradition and progress amidst its serene landscapes and rustic charm. Despite its bucolic beauty, the district contends economic hardship and limited access to healthcare and education.

Here, the community radio, which often gets overshadowed by private FM channels and government-run AIR, serves as a friend to the farmer tilling the land, the artisan making his art, and the youth dreaming of tomorrow.

"In Gopalganj, radio is more than a technology; it is a thread binding the community, a voice for the voiceless, echoing through the lush sugarcane fields and bustling marketplaces. It keeps the old and the new together, fostering change, preserving culture," says Kripa Shankar, founder and managing director of Radio Rimjhim.

But what is community radio, you ask?  

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The Inception of Community Radio Stations

Dr Sreedhar Ramamurthy, a promoter of community radio in India, says, "Community radio is a radio of the people, by the people, and to the people."

The idea behind community radio is to bring programmes specially designed for a particular area or a local community. It is typically non-commercial in nature and focuses on providing content that is relevant, informative, and engaging to its local audience.

Often operated from humble spaces with just the basic infrastructure and a small team handling multiple roles, these radio stations broadcast content in local dialects. Their very basic workstations also turn into centres driving social change, bringing health awareness, and gender empowerment resonating deeply within the community's heart.

The scarcity of literacy amplifies the radio's role, bridging the gap where newspapers falter and the luxury of television remains elusive for the itinerant majority.

Dr Ramamurthy, who established the first community radio station at Anna University in Tamil Nadu, says:

"My journey into community radio began with becoming a science reporter for All India Radio. My initial challenge was to translate the visual and tangible aspects of science into audio formats that could resonate with rural communities. This endeavour led me to bring scientists directly to the villages, making science accessible and relevant to the daily lives of farmers and rural inhabitants."

"As my focus shifted from purely science communication to broader radio production and involvement with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the mission became clear: to popularise science across India's diverse linguistic landscape using radio as the primary medium," he adds.

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These efforts culminated in the launch of a national radio series, aiming to bring scientific knowledge to every corner of the country.

Ashish Sen, founder-president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters-Asia Pacific, says, "The pivotal moment came with the privatisation of radio in India following a Supreme Court judgment in 1995, which opened doors for entertainment but also emphasised the importance of education and information."

The concept of community radio, inspired by global examples from Sri Lanka to Brazil, appealed to the Indian context as a means to further localise radio content, making it more accessible and relevant to the immediate community.

The Indian government recognised this potential, initially allocating frequencies for educational institutions to explore community radio. However, Sen highlights, "There's a considerable gap between demand and supply. Back in 2007, it was suggested that India could accommodate at least 4,000 community radio stations. The current number falls significantly short of that mark, raising questions about why there aren't more stations to meet the potential demand."

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Role of Community Radio During COVID

During the summer of 2020, when India entered its first COVID-19 lockdown, numerous children in rural areas encountered a lack of access to basic education. However, in the parched district of Satara, in Maharashtra, young children gathered around their radios twice a day, morning and evening.

They tuned in to programmes tailored to their school syllabi, featuring their own teachers. This educational initiative was part of the manifold community service projects undertaken by Mann Deshi Tarang Vahini, a community radio station operational in the region since November 2008.

The Indian Institute of Mass Communication's (IIMC) Apna Radio is one of the oldest community radio stations of New Delhi. The Radio has been running as a Community Radio of IIMC, New Delhi, for the last 11 years now.

They have executed several impactful campaigns focusing on health awareness, including 'Teen Talk', 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao', 'Yoga and Ayush', and community-centric programmes like 'Apni Chaupal' and 'Apni Basti', among others.

Mandeep Yadav, an alumnus of IIMC, reflected on his experience, stating:

"Involving students in such initiatives is very important. Faculty members engaged us in weekly programmes aimed at a specific audience, primarily students from JNU, IIT Delhi, and IIMC. This involvement was key to disseminating information mostly around health campaigns and fostering community engagement. The station offered us a hands-on opportunity to be directly involved in creating, producing, and broadcasting content, ensuring it resonated with the actual needs and interests of our local community."

Sen explains that community radio in India emerged to address what he describes as "voice poverty" or lack of representation for marginalised populations, including both the urban and rural impoverished, as well as Adivasi and Dalit individuals.

Fittingly, in 2008, when the Indian government started issuing licences for community-owned radio stations, Sangham Radio emerged as the pioneer, broadcasting its first signals. Supported by the Deccan Development Society in Telangana, this groundbreaking station gained recognition for being entirely operated by women belonging to the marginalised Dalit community.

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Celebrating the Journey of Community Radio

Twenty years on, the country now hosts over 475 stations, covering diverse regions from the flood-affected areas of Koraput in Odisha to the drought-prone zones of Banswara in Rajasthan. These stations uniquely broadcast in local dialects like Bundeli, Kutchi, and Marwari, offering a voice to languages often overlooked by mainstream media.

In a nation with 22 official languages and dialects that vary widely even within short distances, this focus on regional vernaculars plays a crucial role in preserving and celebrating India's rich linguistic diversity.

For eight and a half hours a day, seven days a week, Radio Mewat promotes women's empowerment and entertainment at the grassroots level in around 300 villages in the region. Founded in September 2010 by social activist and filmmaker Archana Kapoor and operating under the purview of her Delhi-based NGO Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART), the radio station aims to bring about social change in a region beset with humanitarian issues.

In this region – which has some of the country's lowest female literacy rates, where early marriages are common and where violence against women is the norm – the station is the voice of change.

"In regions where merely 10 percent of households own a television and traditional values dominate, addressing essential needs remains a hurdle, from securing basic identification like PMJAY and ration cards to ensuring access to vital information. Our station was conceived to bridge these gaps, providing a platform tailored to the community's specific needs," says Kapoor.

However, the tide has turned significantly. "Women now actively participate and engage with the station, showcasing the shifting dynamics and acceptance within the community. Community radios cannot echo government rhetoric, we've strived to remain a community-centric outlet, where the content is driven by the needs and voices of the people we serve," she added.

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The Need for Policy Reforms

A significant portion of community radio programming consists of making engaging and creative content like dramatised stories, short dramas, and musical acts.

Furthermore, these stations frequently organise Q&A sessions with specialists in various fields such as agriculture, finance, healthcare, women's rights, and government initiatives.

Nearly all of these stations operate with a minimal local workforce, where staff members acquire skills directly through their work, such as engaging with community members, conducting interviews, producing and editing content, and frequently, conducting surveys to assess their impact.

Additionally, young volunteers from the community frequently assist in fieldwork, which helps to build trust and credibility.

Sen highlights that despite community radio's commendable service, there's a need for policy reforms to address challenges such as restrictive licensing procedures and the prohibition of broadcasting news. Financial sustainability remains a significant hurdle, with NGOs struggling to sustain operations due to lengthy licensing processes and limited funds.

Additionally, technological advancements present both opportunities and challenges, necessitating a blended model to adapt to the digital age while preserving core values.

Addressing funding challenges requires exploring initiatives like an independent community radio fund, supported by contributions from various stakeholders without compromising the sector's integrity. Moreover, a cross-subsidised model, similar to the one implemented in parts of Europe, could provide financial support for setting up and strengthening community radio stations.

Undoubtedly, the challenges of operating a community radio are manifold, exacerbated by meagre funds. It is often the sheer determination and zeal of these grassroots workers and visionary community broadcasters that drive the endeavor forward – their toil and dedication serving as the lifeblood of the operation.

The seventh edition of the Radio Festival in Delhi celebrates this incredible journey and unwavering commitment but also contemplates on lost opportunities and potentialities.

"We've extended invitations to podcasters, radio enthusiasts, and professionals from related fields such as theater and music. Our ultimate aim remains creating a platform where all facets of the audio realm – artists, RJs, scriptwriters, programmers, or audio technicians – converge," says Kapoor, the longtime organiser of this festival held at Delhi's India Habitat Centre.

(Zoya Hussain has been a journalist for the past 6 years. She is a Thomson Reuters fellowship on India's Dual Track Just Transition Training and has also received a Reuters Grant for Reporting on Social Inclusion. She is also an ICFJ fellow on combating dis/misinformation and reporting on religious freedom.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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