Community Radio: On air, with a heart

21 Aug,2012

 

By Robin Thomas

 

Community Radio began with the aim of being a medium for the welfare of the community, civil society, agencies, NGOs and citizens to work in partnership to further community development. That’s the Wikipedia definition, and community radio has been living up to it, making deep inroads around the world, even in a country like India which is largely dependent on external factors if one has to reach out or convey messages not openly possible on commercial radio stations.

 

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) website states that as of May 15, 2012, there are about 126 operational Community Radio Stations (CRS) in India today of which 78 are centred on education, 38 on NGOs and 10 around Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK). The year 2011-12 has in fact seen a total of 25 operationalised CRS and a total of 100 Letter of Intent (LOI) issued in the same year, which is said to be the highest so far. Although community radio is still considered to be in its nascent stage, the government is expected to roll out over 4000 community radio stations in the near future.

 

The MIB has also revised the DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) advertising rates for community radio stations from the earlier Re 1 to Rs 4 per second. Also, one of the recommendations from the Sectoral Innovation Council to the MIB was that Community Radio stations must provide grassroots content to AIR (All India Radio) and AIR in return should train the CSR workers in capacity building, content creation and station management.

 

The DAVP which had for the first time issued advertisements to CR Stations in 2011 is said to have released its second campaign in the month of August under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs. However unlike last year wherein the ‘Bharat Nirman’ campaign ran for just 10 days, the consumer affairs campaign released this month is said to be for 30 days. In conversation with MxMIndia, Ms Archana Kapoor, Director, Radio Mewat, NIH, Mewat spoke about the implication of DAVP advertisements on CRS, “This month DAVP has released a month-long campaign of the Ministry Consumer Affairs. This too has been released after much lobbying with the Ministry. I was told that it will be a 212-day-long campaign, but as of now the release order is just for 30 days. I hope we will get the entire campaign as proposed by the ministry. Once DAVP decides to apportion a certain amount from each campaign to community radio the immediate resource crunch could be addressed and it could be a life-saver.”

 

Since most community radio stations are not for profit, they do not follow any specific business model. While these stations air mainly DAVP ads, stations like Jago Mumbai (a CRS in Khar in western Mumbai) is said to have gone the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) way and approached corporates to fund specific shows that cater to their TG. Ironically, the response is said to have been poor.

 

Do CRS have enough support?

So what exactly is the status of community radio in India today? Is it receiving enough government support? What scope does it have? According to Mr Virender Singh Chauhan, Secretary General, Community Radio Association, “The community radio movement in India is still in its nascent stage as there are less than 140 stations that are functional. The government had set itself a target of 4,000 such stations in the country over two years ago. However more support from the government is required. In March this year the spectrum fee was hiked from Rs 19,700 per year to Rs 90,700 by the Communications and Information Technology Ministry. Such steps have hindered the expansion of the CR network in India. Despite our demand and despite having the support of the I&B Ministry, the Communications and Information Ministry is yet to announce a rollback of this illogical and irrational hike. The fee should be completely waived.”

 

Mr Nitin Makasare, Station Head – Creative and Programming of 90.8 Jago Mumbai was of the opinion that government support is crucial and will lead the industry on a growth curve. “The government is currently in an active mode and a couple of decisions have been taken in the last one year to help expedite the process of making CRS self sustainable – DAVP advertisements being one of them, the other being the formation of a CRS fund at the central level. Once this gets implemented, it will prove to be a major help to community radio stations, all of which are trying hard to stay afloat.”

 

Mr Pankaj Athawale, Station Manager, Must Radio, noted, “Government support is certainly there as far as policy matters and capacity-building is concerned. Financial help is in the pipeline from the government. There are about 130 operational CRS in the country and many of them are doing well. Unfortunately the CRS operators have just an emotional vision before them, whereas they need to have a practical outlook towards sustenance. They need to treat this as a social business so that the funds can be planned. Besides, most of the CRS are not interested in updating themselves regarding the technical information which is very important. This creates hurdles in the working of the CRS and thus impacts listenership.”

 

However, Ms Kapoor disagrees with the view that CRS has been receiving the support it deserves. “As of now, CRS is not receiving the kind of support it deserves. Some of the radio stations are working in extremely difficult regions, with extremely deprived and exploited communities, and it is difficult for them to raise money even for day-to-day expenses. The increase of the license fee is one example of the inconsiderate attitude of the government. Despite promises of revoking the hike we have not heard anything from the Minister of Telecommunications or his office.”

 

Only a rural phenomenon?

While community radio is a very effective tool to bring about inclusive growth and spread social welfare in the rural parts of India, it is also seen as a medium through which it can help a particular community (ie the TG of that community radio) to provide information about various government initiatives, and social welfare schemes as well as to train the listeners in developing their skills. So is community radio only a rural phenomenon? What impact does it have on urban listenership? Are more community radio stations the need of the hour in urban India considering that urban issues are immense?

 

Mr Makasare of Jago Mumbai was quick to respond that community radio is not a rural phenomenon, but a national phenomenon. “Nearly 35 CRS’s out of the 130 active stations are in the urban landscape. In fact the need for more to come up is immense. Issues in rural areas are pretty defined and known, but the challenges of an urban community are tough and hard to cope with. Community radio stations in the urban landscape can play a major role in developing citizens and equipping them to be able to face the rigorous challenges of living in cities and sub-cities.”

 

Mr Athawale of Must Radio, the community radio of the University of Mumbai, explained that although community radio is very effective in rural India, it is also equally highly effective in urban India, “It has a great rural impact, but it can also be very effective in urban areas. In either case, it is up to the people to use radio as an effective means of communication. It has to be used in the right context in both areas. Today technology and its usage are very cheap in both rural as well as urban areas. Unfortunately people have lost the touch of talk-based radio in India, so attracting people towards CRS as a means of infotainment will be a challenge.”

 

The road ahead

With 4,000 community radio stations expected in the near future, industry players are very optimistic about the medium and its positive impact on listeners in both rural and urban landscapes. Community radio stations across the globe are said to have played an integral role in building communities, in India however the challenge is seen to lie in evangelising the importance of community radio and its benefits to the masses in both urban and rural landscapes. Community radio may well need to increase its visibility especially in areas where FM radio stations are the only form of radio known to the consumers. Mr Chauhan of Community Radio Association observed, “A bright future is ahead for community radio stations, provided certain policy hitches are removed. More government support and a flexible policy would strengthen the movement. Ten years down the line there will be a 4,000-strong network of CR stations in India, all fully digitised and interconnected, and all of them even available on the internet.”

 

While Ms Kapoor of Radio Mewat was optimistic about the future of CRS, she also pointed out a list of challenges that CRS needs to overcome: “I think there is a huge potential in reaching out to untouched communities. I feel community radio stations are here to stay and can only grow in numbers and strength. The community will have to become a stakeholder and contribute effectively in the working of the radio station. However for making a real success of CR, it has to grow out of government control. Even today we cannot broadcast news, not even local news. We can get funding or sponsorship only from government or multilateral bodies. We cannot play commercial advertisements. Licensing is a tedious process. The future of the CR depends on it becoming independent and sustainable without having to look to the government for everything.”

 

Mr Makasare noted, “The potential is amazing. The Community Radio Association (CRA) is doing its best to spearhead this movement and forge ahead in terms of creating the kind of opportunities that are required. If CRS stay together and are dedicated in their approach to empowering communities they will always have a chance of surviving and forging ahead to impact lives – something that commercial FMs are not really bothered about.”

 

Mr Athawale said, “It is very encouraging, because the government is not just keen on setting up CRS, but also supporting them in some way. The major challenge will be in making sure that radio is used in its technical and practical capacity to reach out to the masses. The success of the CRS will depend on how good the planning by the operators is for the future. It cannot become a mechanical radio station which is run without understanding the local context and the needs of the people.”

 

One of the biggest concerns facing the community radio stations today is the spectrum fee hike from Rs. 19,700 per year to Rs. 90,700 per year by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. Although the community has demanded a waiver of the spectrum fee, it is believed that this move is draconian and would negatively impact the growth of community radio stations in India. The industry is hopeful that the government lends some extra support and will be flexible with its policies, particularly in the area of news and advertisements. With nearly 4,000 community radio stations to be available in India in the near future, the revision of DAVP ad rates for community radio stations and the Sectoral Council’s recommendation has made the industry optimistic about the future of community radio stations in India.

 

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