Putting radio in non-literate hands

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Community Media | 23/11/2006
Rural women who understand their own communication needs show how to take the newly cleared community radio policy forward.

B.P. Sanjay

At the end of a community media presentation video, General Narasamma, one of the three women who manages the Deccan Development Society (DDS) radio facility in Pastapur, Andhra Pradesh had asked:

?For over six years we are ready for transmission. We hear that the people in Delhi or foreigners get permission to start their radio. Does that mean that small villages like Pastapur have no right to have their own radio? For small people like us will that opportunity be denied for ever??

Many years after the question was asked the Government has cleared a community radio policy that considerably widens access to the airwaves. And General Narasamma and her group who have been narrowcasting programmes in their region are finally eligible for a license. A group of media persons visited DDS recently to familiarize themselves with the dynamics of a community radio facility and the promise it holds for the community.

The medium or the policy itself is not the factor for celebration. Behind DDS and similar organizations┬┐ work is their development approach that needs our understanding. The organization works in about 100 villages with about 5000 dalit women. The work is guided by what the director, P.V. Sateesh, describes as a string of sovereignties:  ?sovereignty over food, seed, market and autonomy over natural resources.? Translated into broader communication terms it would mean, ?an autonomous media owned and controlled by women from the marginalized sections of the community.?

The other development variable that is usually factored in many debates is literacy and in this case, the women are non- literate. The skewed approach that follows this reality is to focus on literacy, which although important negates the ability and capacity of these women to work with their environment. ?As farmers they had established complex ecological systems. As healers they had a fascinating repertoire of knowledge of herbs and plant medicines?they were barefoot foresters, bankers and primary governors of their communities.? Sateesh believes that just because they did not have a single skill called literacy they were looked down upon as second-class citizens. People with a fraction of their skills and understanding of their environment lorded over them simply because they had the so-called formal education and urban sophistication. The participatory paradigm so eagerly adopted by academics and the like had also in a way cheated these women out of decision-making process. The third area was media that for various reasons had been completely taken over by urban and corporate interests leaving very little space for rural people, particularly, women.

It was in this context that the DDS visualized and sensed the need for an autonomous media completely owned and controlled by the marginalized rural women to amplify their issues and concerns. The hope that airwaves could now belong to the community domain was kindled by the Supreme Court judgment that ruled that airwaves could not be a monopoly of any entity, including the government.  In the aftermath of the judgment the organization was ecstatic and the women saw and articulated their need for radio by completely rejecting any prevalent mainstream discourse on media and development operating within the confines of the government controlled broadcasting set-up. Their arguments were convincing in the sense that they felt that the mainstream radio had no time for micro details and was under the systemic control of certain dominant values and thinking. Biddikanne Samarramma, Matoor Siddamma, Chilukepalle Anasuyamma and Pushpalatha were articulate in expressing their reasons to the then UNESCO regional communication advisor in 1996.

When the DDS welcomed the Government┬┐s nod to Community radio it had many reasons to celebrate and important among them is their state of preparedness. A 1020 sq ft low cost building with about 340 sq ft of octagonal studio complete with the necessary equipment is ready and functional in sync with a vast terrain that can carry the signals without any barrier. More than the studio and equipment is the human resources led by three Dalit women, General Narasamma, Alagole Narasamma and Sukkamma. With rudimentary training they are now in a position to handle the radio station and share their capacities with many others wanting to have a community radio.

When General Narasama  was surrounded by a bevy of media persons she was confident and in control of both what she was saying and the console she was operating. Questions such as who listens, content etc., were obvious but she was confident that the medium to her meant a reinforcement of the horizontal communication patterns they were used to. With more than 500 hours of audio programmes on agriculture, gender, children not attending school, bonded labour, health tips etc.,  already taped, their enthusiasm is upbeat.

A typical magazine programme they have pertains to the agricultural seasons they wish to herald. The programme starts with the beats of the drum (alugulu), a song on the rains followed by announcements of possibility of cattle diseases and interviews with the traditional animal healer with his advice on natural cures. Discussion with animal health workers follows interspersed with songs. The anchor signs off later. The timely focus audio magazines are currently sent to the villages where the DDS works where village associations of women, Sangams listen to the programme and offer feedback etc for improving future productions.

This audio magazine narrow casting system may now give way to a broadcasting mode and enhance the scope of radio in the region. Aptly called as the Bichapolla Radio to signify the oral traditions of the mendicant bards in the Zaheerabad region, the era of community radio has arrived.

The state, market and now the third sector seem to be the route for media policy. Despite stalling and interference and atavistic perceptions of threats to security etc., the government of the day has relented and community radio is here to stay.  Giving the communities a control over their medium and content is a true reversal of communication dynamics.  When consumers become producers it adds a new meaning to our democratic fabric.

(This is based on several visits to DDS including the visit organized by the organization to hail the decision of  the Government of India.)


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