Is it really broadcasting by the community?

BY Sajan Venniyoor| IN Community Media | 22/11/2007
After years of struggle, community radio is finally happening in South Asia. But is everything that goes by the name really community radio?
Sajan Venniyoor takes a closer look.

Halfway through a panel discussion on community radio on Lok Sabha TV the other day, the moderator asked me the inevitable question: why does India lag behind countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka which have had community radio for many, many years? Not wishing to be critical of our South Asian neighbours, I waffled a bit about how India’s new community radio policy would change all that.


What I didn’t say was that everything that passes for community radio in South Asia is not the real McCoy.


Early in July 2007, it was reported that "a community radio station in Nepal … is bidding to go international in an attempt to cover issues affecting the whole of South Asia." The station is run by Kathmandu’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications (CMJC), and according to its founder and director, Dr. Manju Mishra, the CMJC Community FM station¿s aim is to focus on covering issues "such as education, health, the environment, women, society and development"[i]


In what way, I wonder, is CMJC Community FM any different from, say, the Guru Nanak Girl¿s College radio station[ii] in Ludhiana, India which was coincidentally launched within a day of CMJC radio?

The Principal of the girl’s college, Dr Charanjit Kaur – who is also the Director of the radio station – says the programmes would include "health and environment, rural life, trade and technology, and science for women". Beyond the fact that the Kathmandu station’s director does not – mercifully – start her day’s broadcasts with a "message from the college president and FM director’, there is little to choose between the two stations as far as community ownership, management or programming is concerned.


The news story from Nepal says that about "60 community FM radio stations" are currently operational in the country. To my mind, there is no doubt that most of them are about as community-based as CMJC radio or the Guru Nanak Girl’s College radio.


This is not to say that Nepal does not have genuinely community-based radio stations. Radio Sagarmatha is the oldest and best-known among them, but better candidates for community ownership and participation would be stations like Lumbini FM and Madanpokhara. The fact is that Nepal does not have a separate policy for community radio, and all private FM channels – both commercial and community – have come up under a general licensing scheme. By any standards, it would be pretty far-fetched to suggest that 60 of them are community-owned or run.


Even India’s radio policies – which make a clear distinction between public service, commercial and community radio[iii] – throws up similar issues. Its critics point out that ‘NGO radio’ is not exactly a synonym for community radio, but NGO-run radio is as far as the government is willing to go now. The other eligible applicants are educational institutions and Krishi Vigyan Kendras, whose links to the community are no stronger than those of CJMC Kathmandu.


Community Radio in Sri Lanka doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny either. Writes Nalaka Gunawardene, "A globally persistent myth holds that community radio has been thriving in Sri Lanka for two decades. In reality, these broadcasters are nothing more than rural transmissions of the fully state-owned and state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). Yes, these stations are located in remote areas, involve local people in programme production and broadcast to a predominantly rural audience. But the bureaucracy in Colombo tightly-controls content: nothing remotely critical of the government in office is permitted. The rest of the world does not recognize this as community radio."[iv]


A few independent radio stations were permitted in Pakistan in 2005 in the wake of the October 8 earthquake, but the future of non-State radio in the country remains doubtful after the imposition of Emergency. In fact, for a number of years, the only truly ‘independent’ radio in Pakistan have been the ones run by mullahs and tribal warlords in the North West Frontier Province, like the pro-Taliban FM station run by Maulana Fazlullah a.k.a ‘Mullah Radio’ in the Swat valley.[v]


It is little wonder that Frederick Noronha calls South Asia ‘a dark-continent for citizen-run broadcasts’, and points out with the pessimism born of long familiarity that "this part of the planet has an almost uniformly unenlightened policy when it comes to opening up its airwaves."


However, 2006-07 seems to mark a turning point in the struggle for community radio in South Asia. Exactly a year ago in India, the Union Cabinet approved the Community Radio policy, opening up the airwaves to civil society and voluntary organizations, enabling them to own and operate their own low power FM radio stations.[vi]


In Bangladesh, it is reported that the caretaker government is about to "give permission for launching of some community radio stations on pilot project basis and will consider granting those full-fledged licences on the basis of its findings." This comes on the heels of a sustained campaign by Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) and other organizations of the Community Radio Advocacy Group[vii].


A nascent community radio movement is also gathering steam in Sri Lanka, led by well known civil society organizations and individuals who are publicly critical of the ‘persistent myth’ of community radio in the island. Media reforms are taking place even in the not-so-media-friendly Maldives, though by fits and starts.[viii] Private FM channels have come up in Male, and the government is at least willing to participate in discussions on community radio[ix].


After an agonizingly slow gestation, India’s new community radio policy finally shows signs of delivering. Seven NGOs were issued Letters of Intent – the green signal for CR applicants on the road to a radio license – just before Diwali this year. They are The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Alternative for India Development (AID), Society for Development Alternatives, Deccan Development Society (DDS) in Andhra Pradesh, Mann Vikas Samajik Sanstha based in Satara, Maharashtra, Indian Society of Agri-Business Professionals and the Mysore Resettlement and Development Agency (MYRADA) in Bangalore.


Of the seven NGOs who have been cleared for CR licenses, well-established community radio initiatives like the Deccan Development Society’s ‘Sangham Radio’ in the Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, and MYRADA’s ‘Namma Dhwani’ in Budikote, Karnataka are likely to be up and running by early 2008.


It is reported that ‘other groups are likely to get clearance at the next meeting [of the Inter-Ministerial Committee] at the end of this month.’ An official of the ministry is quoted as saying that they have received "a heartening response on the community radio front, with some 140 applications under the new broadened scheme." [x]


However, quite a few of the applicants under the new, broadened scheme are also educational institutions.


Due to infirmities in the community radio policy, established CR initiatives like Henvalvani and Mandakini ki Awaz in Uttarakhand are not eligible to apply for a license (they do not have the required three years’ registration), while many dark horses are in the running. At least a hundred hopefuls – ranging from the India Habitat Centre, Delhi to assorted panchayats (which are not eligible), hospitals and Krishi Vigyan Kendras have thrown their hats into the ring[xi]. Some of the applicants have years of community work behind them; others are known to front political and religious groups.


As Vinod Pavarala and Kanchan Malik note in their study of the ‘Big Four’ community radio initiatives in India,[xii] "Even as the government was dithering over legislation to facilitate the functioning of community radio in India, a few community-based organizations had initiated radio projects to support their community development work. Some made use of available spaces within the state sector of broadcasting while others, fearing co-optation and appropriation, steadfastly resisted the offer to use state radio."


Among those who use the state broadcaster – the many big and small stations of All India Radio – are KMVS in Kutch (‘Ujjas Radio’), AID in Palamau, Jharkhand (‘Chala ho gaon mein’), Urmul Trust-Panos South Asia in Bikaner (‘Kishor Vani’) and Samskar-Plan International in Nizamabad, Andhra Pradesh (‘Allari Muchchatlu’). Others use a variety of innovative ways to narrowcast their programmes, ranging from cable audio to loudspeakers. Quite a few are perfectly happy to continue buying airtime on All India Radio rather than apply for community radio licenses, reasoning that it is not only cheaper but that it gives them a greater reach and, in any case, they need to broadcast only an hour or less of programmes every week.


Even as NGOs gear up to operate community radio stations, a debate is raging as to whether NGO radio is any more ‘community radio’ than the existing 30 odd campus radio stations. Admittedly, most of the campus stations are not doing too well, caught as they are between the formal structures of educational institutions and the ideal of community ownership and participation. Can NGOs do any better in promoting radio "by the community, of the community, for the community?"


An official at TERI, which is setting up its radio station at its farm in Supi, Mukteshwar (Uttarkhand), is quoted as saying, "We are planning to involve farmers and the youth in the area in creating the right content for the radio station. Dissemination of education and agriculture-based information will be our focus area." The Indian Society of Agri-Business Professionals (ISAP) – a Section 25 not-for-profit company – will presumably do much the same thing from its base in Sironj in the Vidisha district of Madhya Pradesh.


Would the involvement of the local community ‘in creating the right content’ for the radio stations necessarily make them community radio stations?


"The issue of community ownership (and not just community produced content), says K Stalin, the convener of the Community Radio Forum, India, "is indeed the ideal that CRF urges all its members to strive for. While drafting the bill that¿s currently in place, members of this Forum were very aware that opening up the airwaves to ¿registered non-profit organizations’ is just one step closer to this ideal and is NOT the end of this journey." As Vinod Pavarala adds, for various historic reasons, since the 1980s, non-governmental organizations and other social movements have emerged to mobilize people at the grassroots in an attempt to seek developmental alternatives to state-and market-centred models.  The question of when an NGO ¿withdraws¿ and lets people ¿take over¿ is something that earnest NGOs are always grappling with."


It is something that all the license-holders under the new community radio policy – campus or NGO – need to grapple with, but sometimes don’t. A few days ago, when Amarjit Khera and her colleagues from ‘Desi Radio’ – the well-known Punjabi community radio station in West London – tried to visit the Guru Nanak Girl’s College radio station in Ludhiana, they didn’t get past the gates of the college. Nobody was allowed to enter the radio station without the Principal’s permission, she was told. A frankly puzzled Amarjit told me that "this is not the way to run a community radio station." At Desi Radio, she assured me, anyone could walk into the station even at midnight and if they had anything interesting to say to the community, they could even go live on air.


"After all, the station belongs to the people," she said.




[i] "International ambitions for Nepalese radio station" -


[ii] "First in state, city college gets its own FM station" -


[iii] ‘Policy guidelines for setting up community radio stations in India’ -


[iv] "Sri Lankan government¿s broadcast stranglehold" -


[vii] Pilot Project: Community Radio Soon’ -


[ix] ‘A workshop to develop community radio in Maldives’ -


[x] ‘7 NGOs get the nod to set up community radio stations’ -


[xi]  ‘List/Status of applications received for grant of permission to setup community radio station as on  31.07.07’ -


[xii] ‘Other Voices: The Struggle for Community Radio in India’ (Sage, 2007)

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