As a medium of mass communication, radio is fascinating and has stood the test of time to strengthen its hold on people even in the face of stiff competition from other channels of mass communication such as print and TV. Radio by and large means commercial communication and broadcasting, but a third pillar of radio communication is community radio. This is meant to cater to the needs of a community whose interests are overlooked or not as well served by regular commercial and broadcast radio services, for example rural India where mainstream language radio communication often overlooks the needs of vernacular communication. Community radios help connect the disenfranchised, airing their challenges and concerns.
The landmark 1995 Supreme Court judgement which declared airwaves as public property to be used to advance public good was instrumental in firmly establishing community radio in India. Since then, it has been playing a catalytic role in bringing rural India closer to the national mainstream and serving as a vital tool in strengthening the ‘Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression’ in rural India.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, with our FM radio and multiple television channels, community radio has emerged as a viable and trustworthy alternative to mainstream media in the rural areas, linking various communities of rural India and covering more than local news and entertainment. It is a medium that has kept our ethnic languages and cultures alive daily in the far-flung hamlets and villages of rural India.
Often, we tend to view rural development merely from the prism of economic growth. It should rightfully also include social, spiritual and moral enhancement too. Its role includes poverty eradication, illiteracy eradication and employment. Community radio is the common link which binds all these development factors over a common communication channel. In the years to come, it will prove to be a vital tool that Governments will use for social upliftment.
Community radio adopts two distinct approaches in its broadcast, not necessarily mutually exclusive. While one stresses what the station can do for the community, mostly information based, the other involves listener participation. The earliest pioneers of community radio in rural areas were the University channels which played a vital role in binding the rural communities through their various rural oriented programmes.
Community radio broadcasts also help in promoting values and morals, access to education, information on economic and social justice, dispelling discrimination on the lines of class, gender, class-based violence and other social evils. Effectively, it is a novel way of communicating government policies and programmes to bring about transparency in governance in rural areas.
In development terms, this effective communication link in rural India could be utilised to bring about improvements in health, literacy, and raising income levels. We are already witnessing how marketing pundits are targeting the huge market potential of rural India. Community radio could be useful in accessing contextual local information which can be used in enhancing skills development, capacity building and ultimately job creation.
A lot more scope exists which can make community radio more incisive in rural development. Unlike in many countries, the central government controls communication channels, and the current licensing mechanism to commence community radio services is lengthy and bureaucratic requiring approvals from several Ministries. Besides, there are certain restrictions on broadcasting news and current affairs.
A change in government policy of channel spacing and formulating comprehensive community radio guidelines, including reserving spectrum will help make it attractive for additional players to come forward. The policy of utilising community radio in disturbed areas of the country to reach out to local inhabitants also needs to be reviewed in an effort to negate miscommunication and project development programmes of the government.
The broadcast content of community radios is extremely localised. The time has come to debate whether the regulatory process needs to be de-centralised and the States be empowered to further popularise this important medium of communication with the people. A suitable mechanism can be evolved through a central regulatory authority with adequate checks and balances.
As an evolving medium of communication, community radio has the potential to be the best medium of communication at the grassroot level as development experts strive to integrate rural India into the national mainstream.