Journalist B. G. Verghese

Noted Journalist B G Verghese, who passed away recently, was also a supporter of community radio in India. Apart from a long stint at Prasar Bharati in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Verghese also chaired the Official Committee on Autonomy for AIR and Doordarshan which produced a report entitled ‘Akash Bharati’, the progenitor of Prasar Bharati in 1978. Among the recommendations contained therein, was a pitch for community radio/low budget radio.

As a tribute to Verghese, CR News is reproducing here, excerpts from “Radio for Empowerment,” his preface to the UNDP-VOICES publication ‘Community Radio in India- Step by Step’. Published in 2004, long before grassroots community radio became a reality in the country, his impressions, insights and wisdom still remain relevant.

Using radio for development and empowerment is an old idea in India. Unfortunately television has tended to replace radio. In turn, Indian broadcasting, more generally, has tended to cater to people who matter, rather than ordinary people, the little man and woman, the “We” who constitute the ultimate sovereign. It is time to change that syndrome, and maybe things are changing.

Long back the Punjab Commissioner for Rural Re-construction, F L Brayne wrote, “Properly handled, the wireless can be made to mean for the Indian village, such health, wealth and comfort as it has never known. Broadcasting can do more in the general spread of knowledge than all other methods of education put together in a life time.” He actually ran a trial radio transmission from Lahore YMCA in 1932, an experiment that enthused another civil servant to prepare a blue print for district radio stations.

However … with the advent of AIR in 1934, ‘big broadcasting’ took over. Ever since proliferation of ‘regional’ and ‘local’ stations, Indian Broadcasting has remained centralized and largely top-down. Radio is a very versatile medium and given the battery operated transistor, extraordinarily well suited to community broadcasting. National and Regional (essentially state-wide) broadcasting are obviously necessary and useful. However, for educational and instructional purposes in particular, the language/ idiom, dress, manner, environment, content, context and time of day need to be location specific and such that the target audience is able to identify with it. This is not possible with wide signal coverage. Community radio or television therefore calls for what might be termed narrowcasting. The critical issue is not range or signal radius as much as content.

The first FM radio stations that came up following the auctioning of airwaves in 2001 were essentially programmed for elite audiences. This is understandable as these are commercial stations that have to watch their ratings in order to fetch the advertising that supports them. The commercial broadcaster is market driven and must pay obeisance to the consumer. Community Radio can help bridge the gap.

Early in 2003, the government announced guidelines for community radio licensing on the basis which it invited applications from educational institutions. The catchment is too small and the clearances to be obtained from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Home and Defence are cumbersome.

The local radio station (that were set up earlier under AIR) were meant to be for local communities though the signal range of most transmitters would embrace one or two or more districts – a large compass indeed in terms of both area and population. Unfortunately, there was no more than notional and short lived provisioning for their budge and personnel with the result that most have lapsed into regular relay stations of mother units. They need to be rescued from this plight.

Some of these and other regional stations have meanwhile done well to lease time to approved NGOs and community based groups to go on the air for half an hour a week or longer/more frequently. VOICES in Budikote (Karnataka), Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghaan in Bhuj (Kutch, Gujarat), AID India in Daltonganj (Jharkhand) have initiated programmes with some success. The Population Foundation of India has also produced a series of audience participatory radio programmes to considerable success in different parts of the country. Others like Deccan Development Society (Medak, [now in Telangana]) have been denied licenses but have nevertheless reached people through taped programmes.

Whether in rural or urban areas, community broadcasting promises great potential. Local youth can quite easily be trained and communities surveyed to establish their social, economic and information needs. Listening will grow with relevant and interesting programming.