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Let the communities operate their radio stations, says Dr Sreedher

Jul 12, 2012

Dr R Sreedher, media expert and community media practitioner, who recently retired from the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA) speaks to Rahul Kumar of OneWorld South Asia, on how the community radio should be entrusted in the hands of the people to make it a really empowering tool for social change.

OneWorld South Asia: Dr Sreedher you are credited with starting the first educational radio station in India and, later, also the first community radio station. It’s been a long time since then, so how do you see the progress till now?

Dr R Sreedher: I happened to start the first educational radio station called Gyanvani in 2001. It came as a bonanza to the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) when privatisation was taking place and the government decided to reserve one frequency for the social sector. They were afraid of giving it to the communities so they said, ‘let us reserve it for education’, so that is how IGNOU got 40 radio stations.


I was able to start the first radio station in Allahabad on November 7, 2001, but unfortunately I left in 2003 and the way in which I visualised the educational radio channel did not happen. I wanted it to be a decentralised one with every centre having its own committee—deciding content. I saw it this way–local content, local school, colleges and local NGOs making use of the radio station. It has somehow become IGNOU-centric. So it is a failure to me. Educational radio channel is a failure because of lack of initiative, lack of innovation and lack of dedication.

That is why I was thinking of starting a community radio channel because when one of the ministers of Information and Broadcasting saw four different languages, four different cultures were being projected through the educational channel, she told the minister of Human Resources Development that if this is good to be the role of educational radio, I don’t mind giving you frequencies to all colleges and universities to start a radio station. So that’s how it started. 

Seeing the success of the first few Gyanvani radio stations made them give low power radio transmitters to all other educational institutions, that is why the first campus community radio policy came into being in 2002. The guidelines were first notified in 2003 and we framed an application form. I was one of the parties to develop the form and they said, ‘don’t ask any questions, just ask the name and address and the institution’s name and address and we will be able to find out their antecedents and be able to give the license. I myself happened to apply for the first license for Anna University and found that even the guidelines of which I was part of, it took me more than a year to get the license.

From one radio station in 2004, today it is more than 136 stations. That means the growth is good. People are expecting at least 1,000 radio stations very soon. We have already got 1,000 people applying for community radio stations. The applications may be held up with various ministries for various reasons, may be even the applicants themselves also but the growth is fine. Now, there will be a leap forward so I don’t think the community radio is non-starter, it is taking place but it is a slow growth.   

OWSA: You just mentioned that you are not very happy with the educational radio stations or do you think there have been improvements or innovations, particularly in content, in educational radio now?

Sreedher: The educational FM radio channel of India, called Gyanvani, with 37 radio stations is degrading day by day—no new content is provided, no new talent is found and it has become a rotten government channel that is IGNOU-centric. There is no decentralisation as it has centralised programmes which are not meant for local students. I think something has to be done seriously to see that good content is produced, although the transmission and infrastructure is all complete. They don’t have good staff, so something drastic has to be done.

Maybe the MoHRD is thinking that the educational channel was started by the NDA government therefore it should not take up this responsibility. But money is going down the drain. Ask anybody in Delhi if they have ever heard Gyanvani? Is Gyanvani as powerful as Radio Mirchi or Radio City? And it is also on the same transmitter and covers the same area. After 11 years of its inauguration in Delhi, nobody knows what is Gyanvani... why is the tax-payers money being wasted, I don’t understand.

OWSA: Do you share the same pessimism regarding community radio also? 

Sreedher: No absolutely no.

OWSA: And why so?

Sreedher: See pessimism is given only by the so called community radio activists who are all armchair critics and don’t run community radio having associated themselves with some international agencies. They are trying to think of text book community radio stations and ideal community radio stations. They themselves are unable to run an ideal community radio station. On one hand they say that community radio is for the community, by the community and of the community; and on the other hand, they want the government to give everything free and when anybody funds the radio station, they always expect something in return.

They showpiece some four radio stations in the country as the ideal community radio stations... I don’t know why those four radio stations could not even be replicated and duplicated to 40 or 400. So what they have done then? Still you will find them all over internationally. In India, then are those four radio stations the only radio stations in the country? There is a radio station in Andhra Pradesh that claims that it is the first community radio station run by the Dalit community and they have a Dalit woman who I have been seeing from 1990 being showcased by the same group across the world.

If you are running an ideal community radio station for the past so many years, you should be in a position to replicate and duplicate the same. Having said that, there are so many similar other women who are coming up from so many other community radio stations. But they are unseen and unheard voices who are doing service through their community radio stations. I can quote at least 50 such women in the country who are not getting projected by the mainstream media. This is because people who run community radio stations do not have good friends in the media while the community radio activists have friends all over the media. But I say that the movement has peaked. Even educational institutions which didn’t have an idea of running a community radio station, are now empowering the community around them through their campus radio stations.

Watch Dr Sreedher speak out on why radio stations run by communities have been a success. He also speaks on the milestones and challenges of the community radio movement over the last ten years.

OWSA: I think one of the most important things in community radio is the content. Are the communities able to produce enough content, relevant content and one that is liked and understood by the people easily?

Sreedher: It’s a million dollar question. Today the whole media world does not have good content. Getting good content in the commercial world is costly. Good content, though we cannot say popular content, is costly but we cannot say whether it is good content. In community radio, good content is still a dream but there are no trainers, no leaders who understand community radio. Community radio is not a campus radio, it not also an NGO radio.

An NGO may be working on communal harmony or it may be working on AIDS. But it does not mean that the community only wants AIDS, so we have to have an overall picture of the needs of the community. But who is running a community radio station today? Retired All India Radio people, commercial radio people, advertising personnel, newspaper people or NGO’s... there is no real community radio professional who is running a community radio today.

Unless that happens, unless that leadership is developed, you will not get relevant community radio content. There are indications that some NGOs and campuses are trying to create community leadership and community-based programmes. A step must be taken in the right direction. It takes another five years and you can see some good content coming out.

 Dr R Sreedher speak about the content that is being produced by the community radio stations.

OWSA: So how do you see the future of the community radio movement and the stations for now on?

Sreedher: Sooner or later they will all become sustainable. This world cannot live on subsidies alone. We have to have sustainable models. Sustainable does not mean financial sustainability; sustainability includes manpower, human resource, infrastructure and also, content sustainability.
They have to network, they have to have a larger base and have to market themselves. If it has to work, micro marketing is needed, this community radio station has to be run by the community and not by the so-called NGO leaders who want to keep it under their control, or the campus leaders who wants to keep it under their control. If the community radio has to be sustainable, hand it over to the community members and tell them to make it sustainable. There would be so many ways through which the community will try to bring sustainability instead of the one brain, who started the radio station. So just decentralise it, make it wide open, give it to the people, let them produce content and slowly tell them to please bring in the money.

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