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Community Radio: ‘Voice of the voiceless’

By The Assam Tribune
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Dr Bharati Bharali

In the case the Union of India vs. Cricket Association of Bengal in 1995, Justices PB Sawant and S Mohan gave the landmark verdict that the airwaves or frequencies are a public property. They directed that the use of airwaves has to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interest of the public and to prevent the infringement of their rights. Since the electronic media involves the use of the airwaves, this factor creates an inbuilt restriction on its use as in the case of any other public property. Further, the judgment stated that a citizen has a fundamental right to use the best means of imparting and receiving information and as such to have access to telecasting for the purpose. However, this right to have access to telecasting has limitations on account of the use of the public property, viz., the airwaves, involved in the exercise of the right and can be controlled and regulated by the public authority.

As a result of this historic verdict, the Government of India opened up airwaves for community service in 2002. The institutional community radio at Anna University became the first community radio in the country. On the other hand, Radio Sangham of Deccan Development Society, Andhra Pradesh was operationalized in 2008 and became the first community radio licensed to a non-governmental organization in the country. Today, India has more than 300 community radio stations operating in an aerial distance between 12 and 15 km of range, reaching to the people, who are otherwise unreachable by the conventional media.

The need of community radio is growing louder day by day in the developing countries. Community radio has turned out to be a part of participatory media of communication encouraging democratic decentralization of information sharing, in countries like Japan, Nepal, Bangladesh and others. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay recently said that “more than ever, we need this universal humanist medium, vector of freedom. Without radio, the right to information and freedom of expression and, with them, fundamental freedoms would be weakened, as would cultural diversity, since community radio stations are the voices of the voiceless.”

Radio Luit-90.8 MHz, was established by Gauhati University in 2011, opening a new gate for alternative media in the region. Initially broadcast for eight hours, today Radio Luit delivers programmes for 12 hours with active involvement of students and teachers of the university as well as of the community. Addressing the needs of the students and the community, Radio Luit broadcasts programmes on women, children, literature, legal aids, cinema, etc. After three years of lone endeavour, Radio Luit started to produce programmes in association with different Central and State government departments as well as NGOs. These programmes are always aimed with non-profit motives. Community members are engaged as programme designer, content writer, editor, etc., in various awareness and skill development programmes produced in the radio station with local community involvement. For example, Radio Luit produced 365 new episodes on women health and nutrition in association with the National Council for Science and Technology Communication (NCSTC), Department of Science and Technology, Government of India in 2016. Named as ‘Bandhabi’ (The Friend), the programme was made entirely with the women and girls of the community. Formats of the programmes which were based on various issues related to health and nutrition of women included drama, interview, discussions, features and talks. Women, for whom operating a computer was beyond their dream, produced the programmes after a training where they were trained to do research, develop script, doing anchoring and operating a studio for narrowcasting their programmes. It is interesting to note that many of these participants were homemakers and retired working women.

Apart from the studio-based productions, a group of community members from different geographical locations under the coverage area functions as volunteers in the field and monitors the impact of the programmes on the audience and provides feedback, thus encouraging volunteerism within the members of the community. During the lockdown period, Radio Luit continued its service through Facebook Live and completed hundred programmes in total.

While social media is flooded with fake data and news, mainstream media is busy with global issues, community radio stands as the suitable example for vocal for local. There are more than three hundred community radios in India. Assam has four community radio stations – three functioning as institutional community radio and one granted for NGO (Radio Luit-Gauhati University, Gyan Malini-Dibrugarh University, Gyan Taranga-KKHSOU and Radio Brahmaputra -Centre for Northeast Studies, operating from Dibrugarh respectively).

Community radio has to struggle for survival as it is a non-profit association. That mass media belongs to the service of humankind is still cherished in community radio service. As such, community radio encourages volunteerism, selfless service to develop a locality and is a facilitator for empowerment of a society. Assam is gearing up with two more community radio stations to be operational soon and processes are on for four more stations to be launched in the sensitive and marginalized areas of the State.

Community radio is instrumental as an agent of change among the vulnerable section of a society. In a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural region of Northeast India, the significance and demand for more community radio stations become higher to engage local communities in their language, thus protecting, preserving and empowering them to have democratic participation in expressing opinion and influencing policy makers according to their need.

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