John Nelson

John Nelson

John Nelson, Managing Trustee, Saranalayam Charitable and Educational Trust, Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu, is credited with setting up India’s first emergency radio station in December 2015  (see story in CR News October-December 2015) – the Cuddalore Disaster Emergency Radio 107.8 MHz in Tamil Nadu. Taijrani Rampersaud, Research Assistant, UNESCO Chair on Community Media, University of Hyderabad, spoke with him about the station’s activities and aspirations.

The Cuddalore Disaster Emergency Radio 107.8 MHz hopes to transition from a six-month disaster radio license, to a permanent license in order to continue serving the community. The station will be registered with the Saranalayam Charitable and Educational Trust and based in Vadalur, Cuddalore District, Tamil Nadu.

According to John Nelson, the community radio (CR) station is currently fulfilling its mandate as a disaster station by sharing pertinent information about relief and rehabilitation in the region. Such information is packaged in the form of audio magazine programmes and short news bulletins. Other programming produced covers health and agricultural issues as well as entertainment in the form of folk songs and moral storytelling.

The Chennai floods in November and December 2015 had prevented students from attending school for one month. To compensate for this loss, the station entered into a special arrangement with the Chief Education Officer enabling educational broadcasts to be carried out. Through these broadcasts teachers delivered lessons to students preparing for public examinations.

The beginnings

The Cuddalore Disaster Emergency Radio story however, began much earlier. The heavy rainfalls which eventually resulted in flooding the district started on November 8, 2015 and occurred in three spells. The first spell was seen as normal but the second was of greater magnitude and resulted in the entire district being affected. People were unable to leave their homes due to rising water levels. The third spell, which commenced at the end of November spread into December and resulted in a gradual  increase of water that reached disaster levels.

This was when John Nelson saw the possibility of a community radio station which would broadcast important messages to the affected community. On the morning of December 4, 2015, he met with the District Collector and presented this idea. By December 9, 2015, the station was officially launched.

However, there were challenges involved in setting up the station within such a short time. Getting permission to set up the station,  organising the space for the station, infrastructure for transmission and other logistics – these were just a few of the concerns that needed to be addressed. According to Nelson, everything was a bit of a struggle in the beginning. However, they learned through trial and error. The public assisted wherever possible and as much as they could.

Initially, the content that was broadcast came from the District Collector’s Office. However, as the disaster period passed, more individuals were able to participate in the programming. Content generated by teachers and doctors in the form of education and health programs exemplified the shift.

The station’s management and daily operations   have underscored the role and importance of community participation.  It is run by volunteers who were trained in radio production about ten years ago through the Saranalayam Charitable and Educational Trust in the Vadalur village knowledge centre. This was around the time when broadcasts from the Anna University campus radio station in Chennai started in the district. The volunteers, then youths, are now mostly undergraduate students at university.

The future

While the station plans to continue with its educational, health and agricultural programming once a permanent license is granted, more community development based issues will be incorporated. This apart, the programming will include a rich basket of folk entertainment programs.

The memories of the 2004  tsunami and 2015 floods are also likely to exert their influence on the programming content. It is hoped that the radio station will continue to broadcast information on disaster preparedness and how to deal with the aftermath as well as act as a personal counsellor of sorts for affected individuals.

Programmes will be generated by the communities and in the communities. According to Nelson, if there is a need, producers from the station will take laptops, mixers and other necessities to the communities where the content can be generated. Once the programmes are packaged, they will be taken back to the station where they can be broadcast. The Village Knowledge Centre, established under the Trust, will continue to provide volunteers for the station.

(See Emergency radio in India happens at last)