It has been a few months now that India’s first emergency radio has been broadcasting in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu. There is little doubt that the radio station, based out of the District Collector’s office, broadcasting on 107.8 MHz, has provided information that is important, relevant and useful to local communities. Although programming began in the context of disaster and it remains the dominant theme, the initiative has also engaged its listeners on other themes like education, agriculture and health that are of daily utility and relevance. What are the lessons and challenges that we could draw from this important initiative?
Convergence: FM radio is useful in disaster situations in terms of affordable receiver sets and free to air access. On the other hand, listeners will need telecom networks to ‘call back’ and participate in the programming. Often emergency radio may not have staff to go out and conduct field recordings from communities. Telecommunications and online platforms are wonderful opportunities that allow two way traffic and enhancing community communications.
Frequencies: Cuddalore district has plenty of spare frequencies so allocating one for emergency radio was accomplished relatively quickly and easily. Imagine an earthquake or a flood in a city like Delhi or Chennai. It would be much harder to allocate frequencies in a radio-saturated environment. Speaking recently at the World Radio Day celebrations in Delhi, the UNESCO Communication and Information (C&I) representative, Yusuph Al-Amin and I, both reiterated the need to reserve frequencies as a crucial component of a disaster communications framework. The Joint Secretary of I&B, Mrs. Jaya emphasised the need to better utilize existing frequencies, i.e. training operational community radio stations to prepare themselves and their communities. The CR Support Scheme from I&B can go a long way in addressing both these aspects.
Cross-Media Alliances: The Cuddalore Emergency radio continues to be highly localised while the Pondicherry All India Radio addresses a couple of districts, and there are one or two commercial radio stations broadcasting entertainment content. Each of these can contribute something and can work with each other meaningfully. Cooperation rather than competition is the need of the hour. Public service radio has excellent coverage, infrastructure and resources but is often low on listenership. Commercial radio is often low on infrastructure and lacks competence in doing public interest programming but often has excellent listenership. Community radio has good audience engagement and has good programming but lacks wide coverage and infrastructure. If all three tiers of radio can work together- before, during and after disasters, they can create an impact with communities that other electronic/digital media will find hard to match. Could the government or civil society come together to forge a common platform so that such collaborations can be discussed?
Focused Programming: The Cuddalore Emergency Radio has received excellent support from the District Collector’s office. This has converted to programmes on available support schemes from the district administration for mitigation, information on health camps etc. The radio station has also created linkages with institutions like Anna University and such linkages will also go a long way in contributing content. To enhance the effectiveness of emergency (i.e. short-term temporary infrastructure) and more long-term disaster preparedness efforts on community radio, a focused programming plan will need to be worked out. Preparedness is not just about warning systems but also holding local environmental, urban planning and infrastructural practices accountable. It is poor planning that exacerbates the impact of disasters. During disasters, radios need to be trained to disseminate credible, accurate and objective information. In the aftermath, radios need to be trained on how to counsel communities, handle trauma and pay attention to abuse of human rights (e.g. selective distribution of resources along caste/gender lines etc.). Both government and civil society need to invest in capacity building programmes that make available resources along above mentioned lines.
Acting President, AMARC Asia Pacific