By Dr Kanchan K. Malik, Faculty Fellow, UNESCO Chair on Community Media

There is a great deal of talk these days about the Supreme Court allowing a PIL against the ban on news over private radio including community radio (CR). No one can deny the importance of CRs: they can be used as a vital information tool for disaster risk mitigation, reaching information to people who live in far-flung areas and also discuss issues that commercial radios won’t touch. Sadly, even after a decade of it becoming a legal entity, most people know nothing or little about CR, which is basically owned and run by community-based groups or NGOs and, in an ideal world, by the (ordinary) people themselves.

The core principle behind CR is to operate it as a medium that gives voice to the voiceless and the disempowered. CR fulfils the needs of self-expression for groups who have negligible access to the mass media. World-wide, CR is seen as a means to defend people’s rights, promote diverse cultures, and as a significant peace-building instrument.

When the first set of policy guidelines for CR were announced in India in 2003 following passionate lobbying by civil society groups, the limited spectrum for this non-profit sector was made available only to recognised educational institutions to run their stations.

The persistence in demand by social change and media activists brought in a more progressive and inclusive policy for CR in 2006. The new guidelines allowed non-governmental organisations to establish CR stations that would not only augment their own agenda and ideology, but also act as platforms where people congregate to deliberate, discuss, negotiate, and express their points of view on various day-to-day issues through programme making. Today, the CR movement is picking up and there are 150 stations including Radio Bundelkhand;  Sangham Radio; Gurgaon ki Awaz; Radio Mattoli; Waqt ki Awaaz; Alfaaz-e-Mewat; Radio Henvalvaani; and Saiyare jo radio, Radio Active; Bol Hyderabad; MUST radio.

The ministry of information and broadcasting has announced a scheme to support the expansion of this sector; several well-meaning capacity-building organisations have come up; multilateral agencies are co-opting CR into their developmental activities; efforts are on to make the licensing process more enabling; and technical innovations to bring down the setting-up costs are being encouraged.

When I started my research on CR, I was told that I was chasing a phantom. But today, CR stations are on-air and the sector is all set to become the third tier of broadcasting.

Kanchan K Malik is associate professor in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad. The views expressed by the author are personal