While the entire world is hustling to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, community radio (CR) stations in India are fighting another battle as well – a fight to sustain themselves in the maelstrom of inadequate funding and low advertising revenues. The problem of funding is one that is not new to the CR stations and has been a prominent talking point from the very inception of community radio in the Indian community media landscape. The pandemic, however, has exacerbated these problems leaving CR stations forlorn, as many of them struggle to meet even their operational costs.

Even in these times of struggle for sustenance, CR stations have put on a brave face to ensure that their communities do not stay in information darkness. By employing strategies like collective action and cultivating symbiotic relationships with their community members, the stations have strived to not compromise on the quality of their programmes or deter from their mission of empowerment and emancipation.

“In these extraordinary times, the existence of community radio stations is crucial. Despite our financial burdens, it is our duty towards our communities to keep going,” said Fr. Bijo Thomas Karukappally from Radio Mattoli, Kerala. Radio Mattoli is one of the biggest CR stations in India and, consequently, has running costs that are almost five times higher than most other stations. Additionally, since the station is located in remote regions of the Western Ghats, advertising opportunities are limited. Despite these challenges, Fr. Thomas ensured that no radio programme had to be dropped because of financial struggles. With some help from the National Health Mission and small financial compromises made by the staff members, Radio Mattoli is moving forward with an indomitable spirit to help their community in these devastating times.

Radio Mattoli with help of experts addressing listeners’ queries and spreading awareness about COVID-19.

Policy recommendations like increasing advertising slots from seven minutes per hour to twelve minutes, as suggested by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, are either grossly under researched or are mere attempts at pacifying enraged community media advocates since such interventions overlook the fact that very few stations in the country are able to raise even five minutes of advertising per hour of broadcast time (Pavarala & Jena, 2020) because of a slump in advertising demand owing to the pandemic.

In Uttar Pradesh, station Waqt Ki Awaaz was utterly devastated when the local advertisers, an essential source of revenue for the station, withdrew owing to the imposition of a lockdown in the state. Little to no support from the local government and malfunctioning of the station’s transmitters only added to their mountain of challenges. However, the station decided that nothing was going to keep them from taking care of their community. By initiating several collaborations, the station organised corona kits and masks for staff and collaborators to ensure that operations could go smoothly. “As long as the pandemic persists, we have to ensure that correct information reaches the people. It is their right, and we cannot take that away from them. If we as a station can emerge from this financial crisis, we want to set an example for our people that they can overcome their challenges too,” said Ms. Radha Shukla of Waqt Ki Awaaz.

Community listening conducted by team Waqt Ki Awaz.

For several CR stations, collaboration with other radio stations and social organisations was the way to endure the pandemic. Mr. P.K. Dutta of Radio Kissan, Odisha believes that if stations can come together and help each other in times of crisis, it would ease out a lot of burden for them. Collective action in the form of sharing programmes and curating content in partnership, as well as providing technical and infrastructural assistance to each other can prove to be greatly beneficial.

Community broadcasters recording a programme at Radio Kissan.

For stations like Radio Snehi and Radio Jagriti from Bihar and Jharkhand, respectively, which work on a self-sustaining funding model and do not receive steady funding from other sources, withstanding the pandemic was an arduous task. “Hope is all we have. We have put in a lot of labour in establishing our station. We will not let it die out this easily,” said Mr. Rajesh Prasad Verma of Radio Jagriti. Furthermore, the local governments switching to commercial radio stations for running announcements to reach a wider audience only added to their predicaments. With dues from previous MoUs getting delayed owing to the pandemic, such stations relied heavily on support from their community members. Mr. Madhusudan Pandit from Radio Snehi exclaimed, “We have received tremendous support from our people. Be it doctors, professors or our huge base of unpaid volunteers, everyone has come together to help us out in any way they can. Things look difficult this year as well, but I have faith in my community.”

Radio Jagriti Reporter interviewing community members.

While the situation was not as crippling for stations that receive financial support from partner organisations, their journey has not been obstacle-free either. For instance, station Alfaz-e-Mewat, Haryana, which receives support from the SM Sehgal Foundation, saw a sharp drop in revenue from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wings since most redirected their budgets towards on-ground Covid-19 relief activities. Despite this, the station utilised the power of volunteers to deliver government programmes and announcements on a pro bono basis. “We were driven by the needs of the people. Financial challenges have been recurring, but our prime focus has always been community sustainability. If the community helps you, the programmes can go on,” said Pooja Murada of Alfaz-e-Mewat.

These stories of community radio stations emerging from financial distress to continue empowering their communities serve as a testament to the notion that with the right intentions and an undefeatable spirit, nothing can hold you back from making a positive difference. It is imperative that various stakeholders take concrete measures to bail out CRs from the current challenges and ensure the sustainable proliferation of the CR movement in India. The government needs to establish autonomous CR support funds or utilising proportions of existing funds like the Universal Service Obligation Fund (Pavarala & Jena, 2020) clear pending advertising dues, channelise public health advertisements through community radio, and also temporarily exempt CR stations from spectrum fees to strengthen CR operations (Chandran & Sen, 2020).

Philanthropic organisations and CSR wings, on the other hand, can consider sponsoring CR reporters and RJs. They can also create opportunities for thematic projects that can have a far-reaching impact, owing to the proximity of CR stations to the ground realities and their authentic voices and potential for diversification (Chandran & Sen, 2020). Joint initiatives, multi-stakeholder coalitions and sincere efforts from individuals will not just bail out CR stations from the present situation but also be a definitive step towards fostering a public-owned media landscape.

 

By Swarnima Anand

 

References

● Pavarala, V. & Jena, A. (2020, December 12). Expanding Discursive Spaces: Community Radio during COVID-19 and Beyond. EPW Engage https://www.epw.in/engage/article/expanding-discursive-spaces-community-radio-during-covid-19

● Chandran,P & Sen, A. (2020, July 4). Why community radio needs a bailout. Network of Women in Media, India. https://www.nwmindia.org/network-news/chapter-updates/why-community-radio-needs-a-bailout/