Personal computers to cell phones, rickshaws to kitchen, radio is almost everywhere. With its low cost, wide reach and mobile receiving sets, it is the most effective medium of communication. Community radio can be a big thing in transforming lives and helping in the development of rural India.
To make this vision possible various efforts are being made by the community radio stations. M.O.P. Vaishnav College for Women's community radio in Nungambakkam, Tamil Nadu delivers health and nutrition tips for women. For a radius of 15 km around the college in Nungambakkam, women can tune into M.O.P. FM 107.8 for a daily broadcast of 'Pennae Nee Arivai'. Another community radio Ramana Voices (90.4 MHz) works for the disabled people.

The Early Days
After the 1995 Supreme Court judgment that airwaves or frequencies are a public property, demand for community radio was started. To begin with, government only allowed the campuses to set up their radio stations. The medium was restricted to campuses because government was not in a position to regulate the content aired over a large number of radio stations dispersed throughout the country. It was only after 2006 that government allowed NGO’s to own community radio.

But the journey of community radio was started much before that and was a success too.
Like, the “FM Ranchi” that came in the news after it forced MLA of the Khijli Vidhan Sabha of Jharkhand to come to their village, Angada, and promise to open a school there. This all happened after the play performed by the villagers was aired on the local FM channel.

Similarly the story of “Radio Ujjhas”. In the year 1999 it started as an educational activity by Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) in Gujarat. But with the help from United Nations Development Programme and Ahmedabad-based Drishti Media it turned into a full-fledged community radio. The Radio Ujjhas was such a success that it caught attention even in Delhi. The National Foundation for India decided to replicate their experience in Jharkhand by launching a similar initiative, titled "Chalao Gaon Desh Mein".

Community Radio at a Glance
Radio as a medium works in three different forms. One way is to have a public broadcaster like AIR. Their job is to concentrate on the larger issues of the society like education health etc. Second type is in the form of commercial broadcasting like Radio Mirchi, Big FM etc. Their objective is to grab the market and earn profits.
Community radio forms the third category. It is different from the other two and caters only to a small community. This community may comprise of a university, colony or a small village. So, it helps in giving a voice to those who other wise won’t get the chance to speak. In the sense, it helps in transforming the lives of the local people.

Prof. S Raghavchari, in charge of “Apna radio” a community radio station at Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), says: “Community radio stations are by the people and for the people of the community. It broadcasts with the objective of serving the cause of the community by involving them in their programmes.”

“Community radio has the ability to bring about a revolution in a society,” says Sajan Venniyoor, founder of Community Radio Forum, a Delhi-based organisation that is working for broadening the scope of community radio by taking them beyond campuses. The positive impact can indeed be seen in the near by areas of radio Jamia

Abdul Ahmad who owns a Tailor shop at Batla House, a small area in Zakhir Nagar, is very optimistic about the community radio. “I was taken aback when I heard my daughter singing on radio. I always knew she can sing well but it was radio Jamia which provided perfect chords to her voice.”

Community radio has injected people with a fresh source of energy. “A man who runs a three wheeler came to studio one day and asked us to air his complaint of getting filthy, unhygienic drinking water. They feel it as their own station” says Prof. Raghavchari. Radio’s ability of wide reach and quick action makes it more effective.

Women benefit a lot from community radio. In villages they hardly get any chance to step out of their homes. This is their only mode of connectivity with the outer world.

“We have seen a very positive change in the lifestyle of women after the advent of community radio. They take social messages very seriously. Even government realises it and is spending lot of money on such ads,” says Dr. Sreedher, who is acknowledged for the setting up of India’s first community radio station at Pondicherry University in 2006 and is the director of Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMA)

Bone of Contention
Non-profit organisations with a proven record of at least three years of service to the local community can apply. Well-established educational institutions or State agricultural Universities and Krishi Vigyan Kendras can also apply for license. Apart from that, the government has laid some stringent eligibility conditions.

Community radio stations can air only those programmes that are relevant to the educational, developmental, social and cultural needs of the community. At least 50% of the content should be generated with the participation of the community.

“It’s all about community’s combined effort. If you tell them how to speak and what to speak, you are killing their ability to speak,” says Sajan Venniyoor, founder of Community Radio Forum.

Guidelines also restrict CRS to transmit sponsored programmes. They are also not allowed to air news or current affairs programme on air. However programmes sponsored by Central & State governments and other organizations to broadcast public interest information are allowed. Earlier, even advertisements were restricted.

And then the problem of campus radio and community radio. The picture is not as rosy as it seems. There is a debate to define campus radio and community radio clearly. A tussle between civil groups and government is raging. A couple of people who believe that campus radio is the community radio in a true form.

Says Sreedhar: “Community radio in its idle form can never exist. In India it’s not the right time to give the stations in the hands of the community completely. It’s quite evident that whenever autonomy is given it is used against the establishment. Then there is always a chance of getting CRS in the hands of the extremists/ fundamentalist who want to revolt”.

There are also people who want to a make distinction between campus and community radio. Community Radio Forum is one such initiative. “Campus radio is meant to be for the community. Why are Universities and Campuses given licenses in large numbers? Government is unwilling to understand the community and then unwilling to provide what they need,” says Sajan Venniyoor. The government should come out from the mindset of not trusting people, he adds.

Most of the campus stations even adopted villages. Students of “Apna radio” of IIMC Communication adopted a small village near its campus. Once in a week they go there to discuss problems with them. In the process they also teach them the technicalities of how the community radio works. “They are working to make them understand the nitty-grittys of the station. This has a dual effect. Student will have the first hand experience of the community. They will eventually develop a sense of their responsibility for the community,” says Prof. Raghavchari.

Dr. Sreedhar view it as a process in which students are just catalyst. Once the whole system is developed and everything will get in place, the role of the students will be restricted to campus activities. He also said that about 102 NGOs were given licenses but not a single station has started. “They are asking for the subsidies and tax reduction on transmitters.”

So where this issue is heading is indecisive, as of now. But there are lacunas in the policy framework, which needs to be ironed out first.

[Part 2-next week]

Story By: Saurabh Sharma
Photo: Gargi Nim