Community Radio: eliminating voice poverty

IN Community Media | 08/02/2012
Free speech and freedom of expression are the raison d'être of CR anywhere in the world and they are going well beyond their mandates to do so in India,
but it is imperative they are given a boost, says DR. KANCHAN K. MALIK

Prachi and Dalchand Kushwaha of Orchha (MP), Bharati and Ahmed of Kutch (Gujarat), General Narsamma and Algole Narsamma of Pastapur (AP), Shilwanti Biranchi of Bhalmanda (Jharkhand), Sudha Rawat, Manvendra Negi and Rajendra Negi of Bhanaj (Uttarakhand), Shantha of Budhikote (Karnataka), Naguveer Prakash of  Nagapattinam (TN), Helina Sina and Narsingh of Konark and Koraput respectively (Orissa) have one thing in common. They are all, much-admired community radio (CR) reporters and presenters, who produce amazing programmes, which go on air at the CR stations set up in their region following the announcement of the updated, inclusive policy on Community Radio (CR) by the Government of India (GOI) on 16th November 2006.

All of these CR reporters have a number of other things in common too, which have, in no way, restrained them from carrying out their tasks adroitly. They belong to rural areas or the suburbs; none of them have gone to journalism schools; many have scarcely completed their secondary education; they had negligible exposure to media production before getting involved with radio; and they are members of a disadvantaged cluster (be it on basis of caste, class or gender) even within their own community.

The driving force behind their enthusiasm is an abiding faith that their “own” radio will give them and their community a “voice” that matters most in the struggle for a better life. These superbly motivated CR reporters also aspire to deploy what Jean Burgess calls their “vernacular creativity” to mobilize and empower the communities they belong to. They already have several success stories of local level civic engagement to their credit.

The CR policy has been in operation in India for over five years now. The evidence available so far demonstrates that the small number of radio stations operational in the country that belong to non-government and grassroots-based developmental organizations not only endeavour to be effective tools of community development, but also increasingly trying to alleviate what some academic scholars such as Jo Tacchi have termed as “voice poverty.”

Defined simply, voice poverty is the denial of access to opportunities, agency and means of self-expression and political participation (advocacy) for groups who have negligible access to the mass media.

As a consequence of the globalization and commercialization of the media and communication sector (which ranges from telecommunication networks and the Internet, through to radio, television and film), gigantic media corporations have gained an unyielding foothold in the cultural and information market place of every region of the world. This is true for India too, where we observe an oligopolistic control over the terms of public debate and discourse by a few multi-sector conglomerates and power-wielding personalities. There is a deliberate push towards cultural homogenisation and consumerist lifestyles and hardly any avenues for innovative ideas and opinions in the ‘mainstream’ media.

More than ever, it indicates an unhealthy national mediascape where freedom of speech and expression by way of access to media is confined to elites. Ordinary citizens are treated as passive consumers of media content which is unabashedly driven by profit-oriented agenda.

Free speech and freedom of expression are the raison d’être of CR anywhere in the world. CR locates its quintessence in societal and media democratization with a view to empower the marginalised sections of society and ensure diversity and plurality of representation. It seeks to employ radio to give a voice to the unheard and the disenfranchised.

According to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the historical philosophy of CR is to use this medium as the “voice of the voiceless, the mouthpiece of oppressed people and generally as a tool for development.” The essence of CR lies in the community owning and controlling its own means of communication. The La Plata Declaration of Community Radio Broadcasters adopted by AMARC in 2010 endorses Freedom of Expression as the fundamental right that ensures other freedoms established in international Human Rights instruments.

In India too, if we go around the country trying to discover what the limited numbers of operational CR stations are endeavouring to accomplish, we understand that this versatile medium is going much beyond its predictable mandates of social change and disaster management. CR is functioning as a cultural broadcast mechanism that adapts perfectly to reflect the interests and needs of the community it serves, and offers people of the marginalized sectors a platform to express themselves socially, politically and culturally.

CR stations such as Sangham Radio, Radio Bundelkhand, Namma Dhwani, Rudino Radio, Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli, Mann Deshi Tarang, Radio Namaskar, Radio Dhadkan,  Hevalvaani Samudayik Radio, Radio Dhemsa, Lalit Lokvani,Gurgaon ki Awaz and Radio Nazariya, to name a few, are privileging the little-known, nameless, undiscovered, and unsung members of the community as well as reviving diminishing local knowledge and practices in their regions. Local talent, vanishing folklore, forgotten folk songs, disappearing or new music, dying sport, unfamiliar radio formats – everything is being given a fresh new spin by CR in India. Indeed, if supported appropriately, CR stations have the potential to be an institutional space for creative expressions of ethnicity as well as a repository and purveyor of cultural and linguistic diversity.

Some of the CR stations in India are exclusively run and managed by rural women’s collectives. The women in these organizations use CR to talk about their issues and concerns and to augment their own developmental activities. CR helps to build the capacities of discursive interaction of women for collective action, and also their media competencies. Equipped with the confidence that their voices and lived experiences would not be disregarded, more and more women are participating in producing programmes that are locally relevant and gender sensitive.

Potential of Community Radio

Freedom of speech and expression for a community is the concept of being able to speak openly and freely about matters that concern their lives closely, and influence the decisions making process in their favour. By providing a voice to the neglected and disadvantaged, CR can play a role in preventing governments from shielding themselves from public comment. CR, as an alternative to public and commercial radio, has the potential to revive the plurality of viewpoints that alone can guarantee every community the opportunity to express its concerns without exclusion or discrimination.

Horizontal, non-hierarchical and participatory processes of CR have the ability to strengthen communicative and analytical skills of the people, enhance their engagement in civic life, and build involvement in local democratic governance, thus ensuring membership of communities in the process of social change, while maintaining local identities and language diversity.

At the time of the announcement of CR regulations, officials in the Indian government had enthusiastically predicted that there would be 4000 CR stations in India in two years. If this were to come true in near future, then a vibrant CR sector can be instrumental in subverting the differential access to technologies of self-expression. They can serve as a potent tool of freedom of expression and of deliberations and negotiations among the multiple stakeholders of any social change initiative. The need of the hour for the Indian government, fixated as it is on drawing the 12th plan estimates, is to give a boost to the CR in the country with a view to foster freedom of speech and expression among the underprivileged, and thereby strengthen its claims towards participatory democracy.

Indeed, for those who have traditionally been unacknowledged and silenced, socially and culturally, the opportunity to have one’s voice heard can be an imposing experience of self-worth. In the words of the social activist bell hooks, “Moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side a gesture of defiance that heals, that makes life and new growth possible.  It is that act of speech of “talking back,” that is no mere gesture of empty words; that is the expression of our movement from object to subject - the liberated voice.”

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