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Reinventing the radio in India

Community broadcasts and 'narrowcasts' bring the world to tribal Indians

<p>Ramvati takes over as RJ at the Radio Dhadkan station in Shivpuri, India</p>

Ramvati takes over as RJ at the Radio Dhadkan station in Shivpuri, India

  • Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad
  • India
  • February 18, 2014
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An old radio set plays the morning news bulletin as Ramvati gets ready in a thatched hut adjacent to the national highway leading to Shivpuri, a major district in India's central Madhya Pradesh state. Carrying the radio set with her, Ramvati takes the bus to her workplace, the Radio Dhadkan 107.8FM community station in Shivpuri.

The local NGO that runs the station, Sambhav, started broadcasting in 2008 after receiving funding from UNESCO. The growth of community radio in India’s tribal areas has been key to developing information flows in regions long neglected by the central government – programs covering topics such as maternal health and livelihoods can now be broadcast in local languages, offering a vital source of education.

UNESCO celebrated World Radio Day on Feb 13 with a call to strengthen the role of women in radio around the world, drawing on the part played by Ramvati, a member of the Saharia tribe, and scores of Indian women in community radio.

“I talk to Saharians in their own language about their village, livelihood, food and so on, and broadcast it through Radio Dhadkan,” says Ramvati.

In India, licenses to run radio stations remained the sole possession of the government until 2006 when New Delhi gave NGOs permission to run community radio. Topics that could impact on politics are still deemed off-limits however, reflecting a lingering reluctance on the part of the government to completely relinquish control over media.

Ramvati is among a number of Indian women who take their recorded programs on the road, traveling to remote villages that cannot receive a radio signal. These programs, many with a social message, are played at public gatherings, known as “narrowcasting”.

Six years working in radio gave her the confidence to contest a seat in the local government as an independent candidate, using radio as her campaigning symbol. “Radio transformed me from an ordinary housewife into a village celebrity. If it weren’t for the radio, I would have remained behind my veil and sat at home,” she says.

Other radio journalists talk of overcoming their initial fears about illiteracy and lack of technical knowledge.

“Initially when I was introduced to the technical side of radio, I was not sure if I could do it,” says General Narsamma, a Dalit woman who is now the station manager of Sangam Radio in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which in 2008 became the first rural community radio station in India. “But I realized it is possible for everyone irrespective of their gender and literacy standards.”

Women like Narsamma and Ramvati came to community radio after long stints with grassroots development work in their villages.

“Women have repeatedly proved to be reliable partners in grassroots development work as they seem to have at heart the interests of the family, the community and the village,” says Professor Vinod Pavarala, who leads the UNESCO chair on community media.

Pavarala recalls an incident in 2010 when a 22-year-old woman named Manjula, who heard tsunami alerts for Indonesia on the BBC, rushed to a community radio station in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu at 5am and began broadcasting alerts to her community, knowing how devastating the 2004 tsunami had been for parts of India.

While some hail the growing participation of Indian women in community radio, others believe that like any other media, women in this role are under-represented.

“A conservative community tends to hold back women from playing an active part in community radio,” says Pooja Murada of the Institute of Rural Research and Development, based in Gurgaon, Haryana.

“Apart from having a gender policy to have more women participate in content creation, radio needs to have more programs that would break the gender-stereotypes existing in society,” she adds.

But the work done by Narsamma and Ramvati provides an early indicator of a bold push by Indian women, long subordinated to men, to assert a more influential role in the community. In tribal areas, community radio becomes a vital tool both to disseminate the kind of information in local languages that is key to social and economic progress, and to emphasize the necessity of female voices in Indian society.

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