April 2007

The responsibility of community broadcasting

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The culture of listening to the radio has almost disappeared. To revive it every CRS will have to think about innovative ways of programming that will draw and keep its listeners

The plurality imperative

From the time that the Government of India released the Community Radio policy in November 2006, I have received many calls/mails from people telling me, “I want to start a community radio, or my NGO wants to start a radio service for the community”. My humble advice is to please substitute the word 'I' with 'we' and 'my NGO' with 'our community'. The plurality of the words 'we' and 'our' is what signifies the philosophy of CR and differentiates it from the state and private owned media.

This philosophy of democracy and representation makes running and sustaining community radio stations (CRSs) a difficult task. It requires for the defined community to understand the responsibility that they need to shoulder as active stakeholders and assess their readiness and commitment, whether it be as fund-raisers, as management, as programmers, as listeners, or as participants. Community radio is not a project that can be impleme-nted within a time-frame either. It is a process of constant engagement and participation that local citizens should be in charge of.

Instances

In a dialogue with members of a federation of Self Help Groups in Bhanaj, Mandakini Valley, Uttarakhand, I inquired as to who would pay for the repairs of the satellite receivers, which were broadcasting some of the programmes they were producing. After a short and what seemed like an intense discussion in Garhwali (Language spoken in the area) they replied, “of course you, since your organisation is the one providing us with the receivers”. I was just about to delve into a long monologue about ownership, when I noticed that all the women were smiling and soon broke into a roaring laughter. Later, the president of the group asked me teasingly, “if you gave us the cow, it is our responsibility to milk it, no?” At that meeting, the same group of women discussed, decided and noted in their ledgers a small amount of money that they would put aside for the community radio station equipment repairs.

There are many other instances where local communities have contributed wood to build the studio, rice to meet the annual budget expenditures, money for special functions etc. While fund-raising may not always meet the entire expenditure of running the community radio stations, it is a good indication of how seriously the community takes its station, and the level of participation and endorsement of its programming.

Listening to listeners

My other favourite question to potential community radio broadcasters is why they want to start a community radio station. The usual answer is, 'the people in this area are poor, marginalised and community radio is the best way to develop them'.

Whenever people tell me this, I try to rationalise and tell myself, that either they too are struck by the disease of political correctness, or they say this because I am representing UNESCO.

Community Radio is not child's play. It is broadcasting minus the glamour and money of private broadcasting and the security of a cushy job in All India Radio. And if development messages and programmes are the only reasons you want to start a community radio station, then you might hit some early roadblocks. If a CRS wants to develop a loyal following of listeners, some intelligent strategic thinking needs to go behind the programming.

Ask Sunil Wijesinghe, station controller of Kothmale community multimedia centre, what the primary duty of a station manager is, and he would tell you to: “Satisfy your listener. If as a radio broadcaster you are not enjoying making your own programme, how can you expect the listener to like it?”

Thanks to the penetration of satellite television to almost every nook and corner of our country, the culture of listening to the radio has almost disappeared. To revive it every CRS will have to think about innovative ways of programming that will draw and keep its listeners.

A study commissioned by UNESCO on Local Information Networks in 2004, analysed patterns of programming in Namma Dhwani cable community radio station in Budikote, in the state of Karnataka, where local community members have been producing programmes from early 2003 on a day-to-day basis. The study positively concluded that the most popular and effective programmes were the ones which were interactive, and catered to the timely information needs of the community with an element of  'fun'.

Prudent questioning

So while or before you apply for that CR license, do begin a process of introspection. Some questions that may be worthwhile trying to answer are:

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