October 2007

Radio broadcasting uber wires

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India is such an interesting country, as far as the media is concerned (well, admittedly, for many more reasons, but they don't really relate to this note). It simply explodes with publications, thousands of them in print, tens of television channels, and hundreds of radio channels. Why then, is the situation so parlous as far as community media is concerned? And more to the point, how can we emerge from this morass?

All over the world, there has been a refreshing wave of positive change, as far as the media is concerned. From the 80s, when pervasively 'corporate' media was the norm, being chronicled in later novels like Jeffrey Archer's 'The Fourth Estate', to the days of Radio Caroline and the angst of Seattle, there has been a palpable and spontaneous outpouring of desire for media unfettered by hidden agenda.

Radio reaches out

Radio is the odd one out, actually. The Indian government was always amazingly open to the print media, conceptually honouring Gandhiji's tremendous leadership and tireless writing. Much later, it repeated its proactive attitude to the revolutionary impact of television, which took only a short time to become incredibly pervasive. While print is widely visible, it has a limited reach, since it demands literacy. Television doesn't, but the medium is terribly expensive, and that defines its creative quality. Sadly, in a very constricted fashion. And that leaves radio. For many decades, radio was totally controlled by the government. The manner in which this happened inevitably led to a perception that radio was a pretty big deal, but the reality was that during the same period, radio had become almost child's play in other parts of the world.

Unlike television, terrestrial radio comes in several 'flavours', due to the different technologies in use. One kind is 'shortwave' (SW), which (given enough power) can be reliably broadcast across the world. Another is 'mediumwave' (MW), which doesn't go very far. Both these technologies were enthusiastically backed by the government for the decades immediately following Independence, but finally, in the '90s, the third technology commonly in use elsewhere was activated here.

This is also a low-range solution, needing 'line-of-sight' for reliable reception, like MW. It is called frequency modulation, or FM, because its adaptation of audio to a radio frequency (RF) carrier wave uses that means, unlike the other two forms, which use AM, or amplitude modulation.

After trying controlled broadcasting for a few more years, in the early '90s, leasing out shared time to private broadcasters on the government stations in a few major cities, and prompted by a Supreme Court judgment that declared the airwaves as public property, the medium was liberalised, very slowly and carefully.

It began in 2000, by empowering the Indira Gandhi National Open University, and awarding them 40 licenses. It took several years for the licenses to be operationalised. Some regard this as a failure of policy, but the reality is that it merely points to the genuine difficulty of involving people who are totally unfamiliar with the media. Without involvement (the management jargon for this is 'passion'), no venture can succeed. It doesn't actually take advanced management thinking to realise this, although there is a lot of money floating around some highly visible management schools, for purveyors of such trivia.

In 2003, however, the government began to feel a little pressured, and opened up the sector a little more. Now, other educational institutions were also allowed to apply for their own stations. By doing so, the government got an excuse to close down the village stations that had already started work.

[Disclaimer: I was personally involved, together with several other dedicated techies, in helping Mana Radio in Oravakal, a small village in Andhra, source the technology for their station]. The situation was not helped by the intense sectoral rivalry between the ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and its counterpart, the ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

However, announcing a policy and making it work are two different things. After a four-year hiatus of public denial (including several Parliamentary assertions that “the policy is successful”), punctuated by the sporadic launch of a few scattered university and school radio stations, a new policy became effective in February 2007. The government of course, in keeping with its desire to seem proactive, claims the policy was announced in November 2006, but that was when the Cabinet acquiesced with the ministry's proposal, not when it was promulgated, pragmatically, with a set of rules and processes.

The situation now, in September 2007, is so far from hopeful that one really must looking for viable alternatives.

First, the policy itself. In a spirit of kindness and generosity, let us simply say that it is full of holes. By attempting to define technological boundaries and cheekily declare support for 'people's', 'community', media, the process of getting and operationalising licenses has been made difficult. So much so that not a single application has yet been cleared. To add insult upon injury, the government has set up a special panel to vet the organisations who claim to have community support for such stations, although no such layering exists in the clearance process for commercial and educational radio station licenses.

Then, the technology. There are so many bounds that it is easy to unwittingly slip out of consideration. Tower heights, transmitter power, and even a 'hidden agenda' (perhaps even the minister doesn't know, but when only a cosy little number of vendors have carte blanche, no other choice is possible).

And lastly, the funding. Again, huge complications and contradictions, with different ministries setting opposing standards. Foreign funds, local funds, revenue streams, commercial funding – a plethora of restrictions designed to ensure that this media form has as difficult a birth as possible.

With midwives like this, evolution itself stands threatened.

How about retrogression, in that case?

Simply put, when broadcasting over RF is well-nigh impossible, the options open to communities are either not to intercommunicate, or to explore broadcasting by other means. In their very new publication (Alternate Voices, Sage Publications, 2007), my friends Dr Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan Malik have explored the phenomenon of 'narrowcasting' in India. The experiments of Kolar (Namma Dhwani), KMVS in Kutch, DDS in Medak and communities in Jharkhand (Challa Ho Gaon Mein), show, in Vinod's words (reported by Fred Noronha), how they had to “come up with creative ways to do audio production in the absence of the right to broadcast themselves.”

Of the four examples of sustainable community media, one (Namma Dhwani) is borrowed from a technological innovation evangelised by my good friend and colleague, Dr Arun Mehta, way back in 1998.

The regular radio programmes produced by the community in Kolar are transmitted to households by simple television cable as a carrier, instead of wireless broadcasting over RF. Arun had suggested that, given sufficiently low quality cable, some amount of wireless broadcasting will take place anyway under such circumstances. If exploited properly, some amount of mobile listening becomes possible.

The other community media groups either use narrowcasting, recording audio programmes to tape or CD and then playing them back to groups of people for listening and discussion, or lease/borrow airtime from local AIR stations. The former technique is actually very interesting, but it does impose a certain amount of deliberation into the radio listening paradigm. Ordinary radio is of course very liberating, in that listeners can do simple routine tasks while the radio is on, unlike television, which demands complete attention. Reading, of course, demands attention as well as literacy.

Research based solutions

I have been researching a different innovation, that of distributed sound, something I learned about by experience while doing all this practical work in wireless. It is not only not in the textbooks, but acoustic specialists seem to hate the idea, maybe because it costs peanuts and involves no esoterics. I found that actually it is not difficult to distribute to many multiples of acoustic radiators using a single powered source device.

In a home system (or any PA system), this is normally considered a little difficult, because adding speaker units adds uncertain amounts of 'impedance' (electrical resistance, when the current and voltage are both fluctuating). This can mess up a power device in a major way, as it happens.

But there is a workaround, and it works quite well. This workaround is used for outdoor public functions, and PA system companies actually make ready made devices for the purpose.

What this means, in simple English, is that sound can be broadcast over wires faithfully. Of course, it may cost a little more than broadcasting wirelessly, but one thing I have learned from my years on the fringes of the IT industry is that the only thing that really matters is the total cost of ownership, never the equipment cost.

In the Indian broadcast environment, community wireless radio costs too much, because it is either entirely illegal or impossible for regulatory reasons.

Broadcasting over cable is not only legal, it is very simple. Licenses cost only Rs 100, and are issued by the local post office. There are no overwhelmingly obnoxious provisions on content, and in fact common sense should prevail.

Doing this will enable local communities to focus on the important things, namely the activities of creating content and interacting within the community.

Here's what Vinod points out, “In order to be good citizens in democratic societies, one needs to participate in the larger democratic sphere. In terms of both information consumption and information production and transition.”

We need to critique the layers of opacity that have constrained the use of accessible community media in the past, and that purpose is being served by the forum set up by supporters of community media.

As importantly, however, we need many, many more examples of working, participatory governance, not just of the people, but by the people. Only then can it ever hope to be for the people. At this point in time, technology is being used as a barrier to achieving such a result. It only takes a little thought to find ways to use it wisely and well, instead.   

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