Challenges of Community Radio in India

Community Radio

The Indian government’s failure to disburse funds to small community radio stations is slowly strangling an endeavor that was supposed to be a means of empowering local communities. Hyper-local, low-power community radio stations, run by local groups, are aimed at people in a five-to-10-kilometer radius in areas not served by conventional and mainstream media or, in urban areas, as an alternative to mainstream broadcasting. According to government data, India is home to 217 community radio stations in 29 states. However, most of them, especially those in rural areas, are struggling to survive mainly because of the apathy of responsible authorities, radio operators told in media.

A media company response to a Right to Information (RTI) request showed that their flailing condition isn’t because of lack of money, as 40 million rupees (about US$585,000) was allocated in 2017-18 to support these stations. Rather, it is the government’s failure to use that money to support community radio efforts; barely 4.8 million rupees, a mere 12% of the total funds, was spent. As the third-tier broadcasting system, after the public broadcaster (All India Radio) and private FM channels, community radio stations create content to broadcast in local dialects, with focus on educational and other relevant information. But they are not permitted to broadcast their own news, only unedited news broadcast by All India Radio.

The government wants to reach out to people through the medium of the community radio, but doesn’t want it to influence and empower them, social activist and founder of Radio Mewat Archana Kapoor said. Kapoor, also a filmmaker, said the government does not readily lend voices to the grassroots community. “The biggest challenge to community radio’s growth is the administration and the government itself,” she said. There is fear among government officials about the empowerment of the community, Kapoor said. “I have been threatened for running a community radio station in Mewat. I have been called by the district collector and told to remove people because they become very powerful and empowered.”

Kapoor said that a community radio station is for, of and by the people who come together to discuss and address issues related to the community. It is a way to bring the voices of the minorities, the tribal communities, women and the underrepresented to the forefront. “Community radios are owned, operated and influenced by the community hold up a democratic spirit,” she added.

On 9 February 1995, in a Supreme Court ruling by Justices P.B Sawant and S. Mohan, air waves were declared public property. However, the first community radio in India, Sangham radio, came up in Andhra Pradesh only as late as 2008.

When asked about the problem of possible advocacy of violence and discrimination through community radio, Kapoor said self-regulation was an integral part of the system. “The community is guided by an unwritten code of ethics,” said Kapoor. “Why fear only the community radio and not the internet which is promoting every other misogynist views and unfiltered comments?” asked Kapoor.

She added regulations are in place to ensure all content aired on the radio be recorded and kept for a minimum of three months. In case of any complaints or discrepancies, they are to be revisited as a source of evidence.

Kapoor advocated that areas in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Kashmir valley and the Nepal border also be issued licenses to run radio stations as people there were as much a part of the Indian democracy as the rest of the country.

What is Community radio?

Community radio is a radio service offering a third model of radio broadcasting in addition to commercial and public broadcasting. Community stations serve geographic communities and communities of interest. They broadcast content that is popular and relevant to a local, specific audience but is often overlooked by commercial or mass-media broadcasters. Community radio stations are operated, owned, and influenced by the communities they serve. They are generally non profit and provide a mechanism for enabling individuals, groups, and communities to tell their own stories, to share experiences and, in a media-rich world, to become creators and contributors of media.

In many parts of the world, community radio acts as a vehicle for the community and voluntary sector, civil society, agencies, NGOs and citizens to work in partnership to further community development aims, in addition to broadcasting. There is legally defined community radio (as a distinct broadcasting sector) in many countries, such as France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Ireland. Much of the legislation has included phrases such as “social benefit”, “social objectives” and “social gain” as part of the definition. Community radio has developed differently in different countries, and the term has somewhat different meanings in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Canada and Australia, where freedom of speech laws and de facto realities differ.

Modern community radio stations serve their listeners by offering a variety of content that is not necessarily provided by the larger commercial radio stations. Community radio outlets may carry news and information programming geared toward the local area (particularly immigrant or minority groups who are poorly served by major media outlets). Specialized musical shows are also often a feature of many community radio stations. Community and pirate stations (in areas where they are tolerated) can be valuable assets for a region. Community radio stations typically avoid content found on commercial outlets such as Top 40 music, sports and “drive-time” personalities. A meme used by members of the movement is that community radio should be 10 percent radio and 90 percent community. This means that community radio stations should focus on getting the community talking and not solely on radio (which is a technological process); the social concerns of community radio are stressed over radio per se. There is also a distinction drawn in contrast to mainstream stations, which are viewed as pandering to commercial concerns or the personalities of presenters.

Several restrictions

There are several restrictions keeping community radio stations from raising their own funds in India. For instance, only seven minutes per hour of advertisements are allowed. Moreover, the government itself fails to pay promptly for advertisements it puts out over these stations, let alone supporting them in skill development or equipment upgrades. “As these [radio stations] aren’t for profit, these stations mostly rely on government support,” said N A Shah Ansari, chairman of Radio Namaskar, a community radio station at Konark, Odisha state. “The government has not paid its advertisement dues for the last three to four years amounting to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of rupees.” A few non-governmental organizations and activists have been battling to ensure the viability of community radio using the British model.

Vinod Pavarala, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) chairman on community media in India, based in Hyderabad, said: “We had demanded an independent fund for such radio stations with disbursement decided by an independent panel of experts. The UK government, through the regulator Ofcom [Office of Communications], funds sustainability managers for radio stations. Such an arrangement eludes India and the funds get spent on other, less productive areas.”

Pavarala, co-author of Other Voices: The Struggle for Community Radio in India, pointed out that India’s neighbour Nepal hosts around 300 community radio stations and Congo around 400. Given India’s size and population diversity and density, the country should be able to accommodate 3,000 to 4,000 such stations to reach out to local populations in different areas and convey information in their own dialects or languages, he added.

Radio Kotagiri is a community radio station in Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu state run by tribals. In 2014 it filed a consultative paper to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommending the provision of repeaters for uninterrupted broadcasting in hilly areas like Nilgiris and Himalayan regions. But Pratim Roy, director of the Keystone Foundation, which manages the station, says such a provision is yet to take place.

Regulation barrier

India woke up to the potential of community radio only in 2002, after the Supreme Court opined that the airwaves were public property and the government only a regulator, which had been a popular concept in many other countries since the 1970s. Permission for starting a community radio station was at first restricted to educational institutions; it was later expanded to include state and centrally managed agriculture research centers, NGOs and charitable institutions. But the bureaucratic structure, involving clearance from multiple agencies, makes the process cumbersome and time-consuming.

According to media data available up to May 21 of this year, 350 applications for setting up new community radio stations are pending, some since 2013, while 1,148 applications have been rejected. The main problems are the delay in granting a license due to the involvement of multiple federal ministries, delays in the release of advertising revenue, lack of sponsorship, the reluctance of the government to open such stations in conflict zones, and delays in reimbursement for equipment costs, say experts and people working in the sector.

Money crisis

Experts say community radio stations owned by educational institutions and those in urban areas are still able to sustain themselves. But rural-area stations are marred by a lack of local advertiser support and federal and state assistance. Not that money is not available. Replies to RTI queries show that in the last six years, the government has never utilized all the funds allocated for community radio. Even the 12% spent in 2017-18 of the allocated 40 million rupees was mainly on organizing awareness campaigns, some on staff salaries and some on listenership surveys.

No answers were available on why money is being spent on awareness despite the fact that community radio made its debut 16 years ago and not on improving productivity and quality of content. This is despite the lofty claims made by the central government of boosting these stations. In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government led by the Indian National Congress announced 1 billion rupees for community radio stations under the 12th Five-Year Plan besides setting up 500 new stations. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. However, five years down the line, the number of community stations remains at 217, showing that the NDA too has ignored this sector and failed to utilize allotted funds during its four-year tenure.

Community radio for Army

In a significant move for the first time, the Centre is planning to launch a community radio for the Army in across border areas of India, including Jammu and Kashmir and in the North-East region. The Indian Army is helming this entire project, with Army chief General Bipin Rawat playing a pivotal role. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mooted this idea, and the blueprint of the project was firmed up during the tenure of the former Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Irani. The Signal Officer in Chief (SO-in-C) of the Indian Army Lieutenant General Nitin Kohli had a detailed discussion in this regard with the new I&B Secretary Amit Khare at his office in Shastri Bhawan here. The idea would be implemented by the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA), in collaboration with the I&B ministry.

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