Cover your ears--community radio is polluting us!

BY Sajan Venniyoor| IN Community Media | 18/10/2016
….or so it would seem from shocked monitors who say community radio stations aired ‘’obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ content without defining what this means.
What a silly exercise, argues SAJAN VENNIYOOR

 Earthy rural expressions are a no-no for government monitors of community radio.

Some time last week, the Times of India stumbled across the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s Annual  Report for 2015-16 (published in April 2016) and was appalled to find that community radio stations in India "have aired obscene and vulgar content on numerous occasions". (Community radio not always in tune with rulesTimes of India, Oct 11, 2016)

"Violations came to the fore after a check of 30 community radio stations across the country,” said the Times with finger-wagging reproof.  “The electronic media monitoring centre (EMMC), which was tasked with monitoring content through various media, started monitoring radio from January 1, 2015. A wing of EMMC monitored community radio stations to see if they were violating the general agreement between government of India and community radio stations (GOPA).”

Buried deep in the Times of India report is the minor detail that "several violations" were also reported from TV channels. The Ministry’s Annual Report itself is rather coy about innumerable violations of the Programme Code, the Advertisement Code, and pretty much any other code you can think of, by over 850 TV channels that are available in India. (There are fewer than 200 CR stations in India). 


"The Times of India, naturally reticent in such matters, does not disclose that its parent company owns 10 TV channels and commercial FM stations in 38 cities, none of which were presumably in violation of anything except perhaps good taste."


According to EMMC, reports of programme and advertising code violations by TV channels run into thousands, and range from obscenity and vulgarity to excessive violence, offences against women and children, and ‘national issues’.

Violations by private FM radio channels, some 300 of them, are not mentioned in the MIB report; one assumes commercial FM channels are exceptionally law-abiding.

The actual number of violations for which show cause notices were issued to community radio stations is two.

The Times of India, naturally reticent in such matters, does not disclose that its parent company owns 10 TV channels and commercial FM stations in 38 cities, none of which were presumably in violation of anything except perhaps good taste.

EMMC, a remarkably secretive organization, gives no details whatsoever of the nature or gravity of the vulgar and obscene acts performed by community radio stations. 

Unlike satellite TV channels, which are monitored live in Delhi, there is no practical way of monitoring centrally – in real time – radio stations scattered across the country and broadcasting within a radius of ten kilometres. In any case, community radio stations are known to use a bewildering variety of languages and dialects that are scarcely understood outside the area of broadcast.

Community radio stations are expected to send recordings of their programmes once every three months or so to Delhi, where EMMC monitors presumably listen to discussions on sesame seed cultivation and educational opportunities for the girl child in the hope of finding something deeply offensive.

In a reply in Parliament (Unfit community radio stations, Unstarred Question, Rajya Sabha, 1 Mar 2016), the minister of state for Information and Broadcasting said that show cause notices were issued to two community radio stations for broadcasting programmes in violation of Point (iii) of AIR Code and Clauses 7.6 and 11.2 of Grant of Permission Agreement (GOPA) after "it came to the notice of the ministry that two community radio stations had broadcast programmes, the content of which was prime facie, found to be violative of the licensing conditions.”

Point (iii) of the AIR Code prohibits the broadcast of obscene and defamatory content. As does Clause 7.6 of the commercial FM GOPA.

If only two show cause notices were issued during the period, one can safely assume that the 'numerous occasions' on which community radio stations were supposed to have broadcast obscene content are a figment of the EMMC monitor's fevered imagination.

I spoke to the manager of one of the offending community radio stations and found that their violation consisted of a brief utterance – one that has roots in India's rich native traditions – in a joke broadcast over the station a year earlier. 

The subject of "fleeting expletives" on radio and TV is a fascinating one. Musicians in particular are prone to express themselves colourfully while receiving awards. Cher and Bono have both used the F-word on live TV in the United States and equally vivid was Nicole Ritchie’s statement at the 2003 Billboard Music Awards, "Have you ever tried to get cowshit out of a Prada purse? It's not so f***ing simple.”  

And who could disagree?

After several humongous fines were levied by the Federal Communications Commission for fleeting expletives, a US Court ruled in favour of TV networks as they considered the Commission’s ruling on expletives to be "unconstitutionally vague", in that its rules had "a lack of guidance on what content is considered offensive". 


"Does the government of India have the responsibility to be annoyed on behalf of radio listeners?"


"A fundamental principle in our legal system is that laws which regulate persons or entities must give fair notice of conduct that is forbidden or required," said one of the justices. 

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry in India would never, ever, tell you what could be considered obscene or vulgar in a radio broadcast. They would consider it unseemly. They know vulgarity when they hear it. 

In the absence of any guidance from the Ministry, we have to go by IPC 294 (and 292 and 293), which again do not define what constitutes obscenity but is very clear that you cannot be obscene in a public place "to the annoyance of others". 

"Annoyance of others" is the critical issue. Were any community radio listeners annoyed by the fleeting reference to an unnatural act between siblings? We do not know. However, the EMMC monitor – a year after the actual broadcast – was annoyed.

Does the government of India have the responsibility to be annoyed on behalf of radio listeners?

Apparently, yes.

As a broadcaster, I have lost count of the number of times my announcers and RJs have accidentally blurted out four-letter words like "f**k" and "sh*t" on air, without causing their sensitive listeners to tear out their ears and die in convulsions, but in those spacious days, we didn't record our live programmes. Fleeting expletives had usually travelled beyond the orbit of Jupiter before someone realized he or she was annoyed. 

The idea of going through recordings of old radio programmes, months after the event, to decide if someone could potentially have been annoyed in 2014, is a useful source of employment for those who make a career out of hurt sentiments, but does no service either to the cause of free speech or common sense. 




The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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