When India gets going…

IN Community Media | 23/02/2008
The development of community radio in India is going to have an international effect when it really gets going.
STEVE BUCKLEY, president of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, tells PIYA KOCHHAR.

Steve Buckley is a community radio buff and president of AMARC, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. He was recently in India for the first time since the Community Radio policy was approved here in November, 2006. Buckley is excited by the scope of CR in India and has plenty of wisdom to share from his 25-year love affair with radio that he began in Cambridge, as a pirate broadcaster…


" Pirates of course are illegal.  Pirates in the sea are illegal, and pirates on the airwaves are illegal…but at that time it was impossible to get a broadcasting license. There were only a very small number of commercial radio stations and most radio was run by the BBC. So we decided we¿d just have a go at doing it anyway. We weren¿t the only people with this idea. There was a growing movement of pirate broadcasting across Europe because the equipment had become very easy to access and obtain. So we started broadcasting for two hours a week. We usually used to go out of town to one of the hills surrounding the city, and then climb up a tree and tape our coat-hanger aerial to some of the branches higher up. We¿d cover things not really covered by mainstream broadcasting— the work of women¿s refuge centres, issues about Northern Ireland (which was a complete no-no in the media)… Eventually, the authorities decided we were being a bit too controversial and they started tracking us down. We¿d be broadcasting for about 10 minutes, and then we¿d see this van come over the hill, bristling with all these direction-finding aerials, and we¿d switch off our transmitter and run. After one too many car chases I decided to give it up and campaign for media reform instead.


Why radio? What draws you to this?


Radio is an extraordinarily accessible medium. It¿s a medium that¿s immediate, easy to use, and low-cost. What I discovered during my pirate broadcasting days, was that it was not so difficult to actually become a radio broadcaster. I mean we didn¿t really pay any money to start our radio station… we just cobbled together a few easily accessible bits of electronics, built a transmitter, and went on the air. So I realized that broadcasting didn¿t have to be medium of the elite. It didn¿t have to be something inaccessible. We could actually take control of this media; we could appropriate it for community use. And that¿s what really inspired me and continues to do so every time I visit a local community radio project. I see people doing extraordinarily inspiring things.


What are your thoughts on community radio in India?


What¿s exciting about it is the enormous potential there is. India really is just at the beginning. It¿s entering into a completely new paradigm; a different sort of radio as you actually give people the opportunity to take a little part of the airwaves and occupy it and make it their own. I think that the development of community radio in India is going to have an international effect when it really gets going. This is such a vast country, so diverse.  There¿s so much innovation and creative potential here and also so much need. It¿s a tremendously exciting time.


How will it have an international effect?


Well it already has. Community radio really is a global movement.  I was at our last world conference, the 9th world conference, where I was re-elected president. It was in Aman, Jordon in 2006. And on one of the last days of the conference we received news from India of the adoption of the community radio policy, and a huge cheer went up around the room! People from 90 countries were cheering, because we¿d all known about the struggle to get community radio recognized and for licensing processes to be put in place. This has gone on at least since the 1990s to recognize the airwaves as public property, and yet it¿s still taken so long despite the declarations of Bangalore and Pashtapur and wherever else that have come from CR advocates. So even this breakthrough is important. India is a major player in the world today and for community radio to begin to take its presence in India… it¿s going to have a major impact, no doubt about it.  


But it took so long just to get the policy approved. Going by how slowly things have moved, do you think it¿ll be another 10 years before we actually have programming? How are you envisioning this playing out?


There are things in this country that slow things down and there are things that move very quickly. I mean look at the way the economy has moved in the last few years. With the new CR policy, we¿ve overcome the most significant obstacle—which was that you couldn¿t get a license to run a community radio station. Of course, there are still a few beuracratic obstacles remaining—I mean to get a CR license there are four different government departments that have to approve your proposal and every project is visited by the Ministry of Home Affairs to interview the people and decide whether they¿re good and fit enough to hold a broadcasting license.  So this is going to slow us down a bit, but not very much. I think once community radio gets on the ground, once one village has one the next one¿s going to say ¿Well, we should have one to¿… and I think the whole thing will begin to snowball.


And where do you think radio is going to be 10 years from now in India?  What¿s possible?


Well 10 years from now, there¿s no reason why there shouldn¿t be a community radio station in every village. If the ministry officials are to be believed there¿s enough frequencies out there for four or five thousand community radios, which in its own will be a huge phenomenan. The pace of development is a little bit slow to start at the moment, but in other parts of the world much smaller countries have been building 100 or more community radio stations a year. So there¿s no reason why we shouldn¿t achieve that target of 4 or 5000 community radio stations across India. Now if you imagine that there were that many new radio stations--a whole new tier of broadcasting that is outside of All India Radio, that is not run for profit, that is not part of 10 or 12 major chains—but is owned by the community themselves, it¿s just going to completely change the media landscape. 


How would you complete this sentence—"Community Radio is…."?


Community radio is the voice of the people. Community radio is our own radio, it¿s not somebody else¿s radio. Community radio is radio that belongs to us. A Community radio station isn¿t just a space where people can speak, it¿s where they can really speak out about issues that concern them and their lives. The type of programming that emerges will just sound completely different. I think people will find that it¿s something that they can really call their own. They will hear their family and friends on the airwaves and really know that that radio station belongs to them.


It sounds very democratic. So many more people will be involved in changing and shaping their lives…

Yes, participation in community radio is a fundamental part of what it¿s about… and also to hold people to account. Community radio has a broader role in the democratic framework. Democracy doesn¿t work if you just elect governments every few years. It¿s not just about elections but what happens between the elections. How do you ensure that whoever is elected does what they said they¿re going to do? And that requires certain checks and balances and the most important checks and balances is the media and the most important media is media that really gives the voices of the people independently.


Any advice or wisdom you¿d like to share from your personal experience? Something you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I think the most important thing when people begin in community radio is that they do start from the bottom up. I mean there¿s a lot of agencies out there that want to be part of a new fashion and have great ideas about how this should be done, but what any given community radio is needs to be defined by the community itself. Its sustainability will come from its social base and not from its economic donors. 


 So how long do you plan to remain in community radio?


You know the development of community-based communication systems is a very long-term process. It¿s very closely connected to the way in which the world develops politically. So it¿s not necessarily a steady process of development but sometimes one of quite difficult struggle for people involved in this movement, because we¿re part of broader struggles… struggles against racism, struggles for women¿s rights, struggles for the right for people to live a decent existence and be able to relinquish the conditions of poverty. And, you know, how long is that going to take? Certainly I expect I¿ll be doing this for the rest of my life. This is a long-term project to make a better world.



Piya Kochhar is co founder News Radio India (www.newsradioindia.com)



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