Breaking Radio Silence
Community radio stations have been making a difference, but are struggling to survive
Everyone has a story, but not everyone has the privilege of their story being heard. More so, in a country like India with a population of over 1.4 billion people. Mainstream media gets to choose which stories are ‘important’ and which don't matter. Here's where community radio stations have been making a difference.
Here, every story matters. Here, it's about 'them' - the people. An inmate in Rajkot Central Jail gets to hear a birthday greeting for him on Radio Prison, a fisherman in Rameswaram tunes in to Kadal Osai first thing every morning to hear about the auction price for the fishes, a local musician in Mewat gets to showcase his talents. What sets community radio stations apart is that they are owned entirely by the community.
Over the years, India has seen a steady growth in the number of community radio stations. Today, there are almost 370 community radio stations across the country catering to rural communities, fishing communities, ethnic minorities and tribal communities. However, it is also true that these stations are all struggling to survive.
Lack of funding and advertisement is a constant concern. Most community radio stations get ads initially because of the excitement of something new. But in the long run, after a period of say, 10 or 12 years, it gets very difficult to sustain.
More so, because most of these stations are in rural areas which don't have big malls or industries. No one wants to advertise, and these stations are dependent on the government. When they go to the government, they are told they don't have the money. The government is hesitant to give ads to community radio.
Archana Kapoor, founder of Radio Mewat, a community radio station that has been around for more than 12 years said, "The government wants to use you for free because they are already giving you a licence. But that comes cheap. It costs only Rs 23,000 a year. A commercial radio would need a few crores. There is this understanding that they don't need to pay, you can ask us to do whatever. In the process, we're doing ads for free, work for free, because of our commitment to the community and because we're working in a small geography."
Only in few places like Kerala do community radio stations really get support from the government as they are more aware of its role and sensitive to its requirements. The availability of ads also depends on the purchasing power of the communities they are catering to. In big cities and small towns, it's much easier to get ads because of the industries around.
For stations in rural areas, there continues to be a huge survival crisis. "We have no money, we have no ads. We are driven by passion. So it is difficult," said Archana.
She added that another big struggle was that there was no way to measure their impact. We also have no way to measure the impact. "Whenever I go to any of the marketing people, they ask us about the stats for our reach. Our stories do not matter to the social media world where everything is about numbers. Even when I go to the social sector, they ask me who listens to us. My radio has no way of registering who has logged in."
Most times, even producing content becomes a struggle. Archana said, "We cannot keep talking about development. We do entertainment, we do programmes for children, but where are the resources to bring in professionals? Everyone has a family to feed, even if you call in local musicians, you need to give them food, their conveyance, and money for their time. There are several limitations, of reach, connectivity, tools and training.
Gayathri Usman, station head at Kadal Osai, a community radio station dedicated to Rameswaram's fishing community said, “We get rent from the shops which are owned by our trust. Our government is not supporting community radio as it is supporting commercial radios. Though we reach the rural area, for the layman, at the grassroots level, we are not getting the DAVP ads.
“Commercial radios play ads on dengue, and open defecation, paid by the government though it is ten times costlier than us. It will be nice if CR stations get advertisements from the ministries as per their needs in reaching the public on schemes and awareness."
Sangam radio, started in 2007 in rural Telangana is an initiative of the Deccan Development Society and was started with the intention of preserving culture, local language and local songs. What's unique about this station is that it is run entirely and exclusively by Dalit women.
Although it's been more than a decade and they have got their equipment through organisations like UNESCO, maintenance is still a problem. They are struggling to survive. Their salaries need to be paid, and money is needed for equipment maintenance and building maintenance.
Abhishek Arun of Radio Mayur spoke about how the initial years were 'painful'. He said, "We didn't have projects, campaigns or any local ads. People would not give us ads. Somehow we managed, we took loans to survive. After three years, we got some projects from SMART (an NGO that supports community radio stations) and they supported us.
“We did not get any financial assistance from the ministry or any other organisations. We did it on our own. We collected funds from the local stakeholders, local people. Sustainability is the main issue with all the community radios. The government should help community radios by giving them government ads, government projects and also financial assistance schemes."
Radha Shukla, founder of Waqt Ki Awaz, rural Kanpur said, "There's no proper source of funds. This year, we've been working on a digital literacy and gender based violence project. We are a team of six and it's difficult to sustain. The government keeps talking about having more community radio stations, but they don't help us sustain. They need to think about how they can support us."
Community radio is important for democracy. The stations take a multi pronged approach - one is broadcast and one is community engagement. Without the community, these stations are not relevant. While sometimes the staff go to the people, sometimes the people come to them.
The stations are required to continuously engage with the people to get their stories out and then build content. Radio Mewat, for instance, has been working on a gender based violence project. Archana said, "It wasn't easy for women to share their stories. Our continuous engagement with them is what helped them open up.
Her NGO SMART has also partnered with over 300 community radio stations in the country and has disbursed almost Rs 3 crore to these stations. "We look for partners who are invested in communities that our community radio stations are invested in. During COVID, we partnered with foundations that were involved in information dissemination. We worked with about 200 stations and worked with organisations that had the money to promote awareness on the need for vaccines.
“We use the radio to reach out to the masses. We adopted villages in Mewat, got funds and ensured 78 villages are fully vaccinated. We used the reporters to go door to door and mobilise the community. Now, we're working with 60 stations to talk about Beedi Mukt Bharat. We've done this for nutrition, digital literacy and climate change. We are working with 26 stations for lymphatic filaria."
Kadal Osai is another powerful example of how community radio stations can bring about change. Started in 2016, Kadal Osai literally means the sound of the sea. It was started by a fisherman from Rameswaram named Armstrong Fernando, who wanted to do something for his people.
The intention behind starting it was that a fisherfolk’s exposure is much lesser than a person who lives inland. A fisherfolk spends most of his time on the sea and considers the land a place to celebrate or spend time with the family. During the tsunami period, most fishermen lost their lives due to lack of communication. So Armstrong Fernando wanted to have a medium of communication at the local level and a radio station was the best option.
Today, Kadal Osai caters to the the needs of the fishermen in 15 villages in and around the radius of the radio through the following programmes - an hourly time check (24/7) – for fisherfolk who are at sea, a weather report – once per each show and twice through listeners whatsapp groups, fish rate from the auction centre, alternative sustainability methods to improve their livelihood, information about government schemes and subsidies.
They also run women empowerment programmes on nutrition, mental health, helpline numbers for violence against women and programmes for children, both educational and entertainment.
They also have a science through radio drama series with I.I.T Bombay on marine conservation. The show titled ‘Samuthiram Pazhagu’ speaks about endangered species, legitimate fishing methods, about the technologies followed in other states and countries.
They also conducted activities like Kadal Kapan, through which villagers were urged to save sea turtles and release them into the sea. Villagers were asked to send videos of them doing it and won cash awards worth ₹1,000 and an appreciation certificate.
Gayatri said, "Our awareness campaigns on throwing plastics into the sea have brought a major behavioural change among the fishermen, nowadays mechanised fishermen in Pamban are using dustbins on their boats and traditional fishers are bringing back their plastic waste to the shore. In the upcoming days, we would like to bring a change in open defecation."
Radha Shukla, founder of Waqt Ki Awaz said, "In 2014, we had a programme on water sanitation. It was a 100 episode series. That made a huge impact. Then we did one on indoor pollution and how it results in respiratory infections."
Community radio stations also play a role in preserving local culture. It is a conservation and preservation tool in the hands of the community. They can preserve their songs, their stories and culture.
For instance, Radio Mayur is an initiative of one of the oldest cultural organisations of Saran district, Bihar named Mayur Kala Kendra, a cultural organisation. It was started by a prominent theatre artist Mr Pashupati Nath Arun and his artist friends in 1979. They used to do social plays. Many students have gone through the portals of this organisation and become renowned artists in India and abroad.
The organisation's main objective is to remove social evils through art forms like plays and music and other art forms. Radio Mayur was started in 2016 as an upgraded form of this organisation led by a young mass media professional Abhishek Arun.
The main objective of this station was to become the voice of its community. The audience is a mix of rural and urban communities and 65 per cent of the listeners are female. Abhishek said, "We know the needs of our locality. We understand it and then serve the people. They listen to us, they come to our studio, they perform and they become local celebrities." It gives them a sense of achievement.
Abhishek recalls how during the pandemic a female audience member called up the station and told them her husband wasn't letting her take the vaccine. They were from a Muslim family and no one in the family was getting vaccinated. This even led to a fight and domestic violence. The couple was called to the studio.
Abhishek showed them pictures of himself getting vaccinated and after more than two hours of continuous counselling, the lady and her husband got convinced and got vaccinated along with their entire family.
Sometimes, it's the little stories of impact that count. During Chhath Puja in Bihar, Abhishek and his team were busy sticking posters at night. One night at around 11.45 pm, a plastic bag full of garbage just fell down in front of his bike. The next morning, he sat down for a live show and started talking about the incident. After a few minutes, he received a phone call from a lady. She apologised for throwing the garbage and said she would never do it again.
The stations also empower people at both ends of the line. At Sangam Radio, for instance, the Dalit women who run the station have seen a tremendous change in their lives. Once oppressed and having no voice, they are now able to speak out freely without a second thought. At almost no cost, they are able to reach people and impact them.
A lot of people ask why does radio matter in an age where there is YouTube and social media. We boast about more than 700 people who have access to the internet. But what about the rest? Not everyone has a smartphone. Internet connectivity is another problem.
Of the millions who have access to the internet, how many are women and girls, how many of them have uncontrolled access to the phone? Archana said, "Even if you have a smartphone, it's always the man or boy of the house." At Radio Mewat, her team focuses on their mission - to create equity, quality and access to information. They go one step ahead and even ensure they have women's groups, adolescent girls groups, and that all of them have instruments to listen to the radio.
Community radio stations were started in 2004, with a bandwidth of 20 Km. Gayatri said that in order for them to thrive, they need recognition from the Indian government as a media. "Let there be an exam to pass or a benchmark to achieve that position. Let the CR stations earn it. But we do require it as we are the ones who reach the neediest community without giving any importance to x-factors like TRP or IRS. General Narsamma, Programme producer at Sangam Radio spoke about how their station is currently limited to a 50 km reach. She hopes that the government extends their radius so that they have more audience.
Archana added that community radio stations cannot keep talking only about development. She feels that they need to be allowed to broadcast news. "You can't afford filmy songs for entertainment. You can only use songs which people have sung in your studio or songs that are available for free. The time has come to revisit community radio stations, how they function and their mandate and I'm saying that after running one for 12 years.
“Giving a licence for a community radio is far more difficult. We have to go to five ministries, 16 processes to get a licence and still the government thinks they cannot trust us with news and current affairs. When we start doing news, obviously there will be more listenership because everybody is interested in it. At some point, the government will have to give us permission to broadcast news."