Come February, the Pragati Maidan grounds in New Delhi will display some 'revolutionary' items during the Broadcasting Engineering Society of India's Expo-2007. Some of these will be a radio in a box, a radio in a (paraffin) lamp, and solar-powered FM transmitters and receivers. The exhibition (February 1-3) will also introduce the concept of e-Tuk Tuk, a radio station and a common service centre in an autorickshaw! Optimists say that such innovations can change the landscape of grassroots media and propel the Community Radio (CR) movement to greater heights.

The promise of CR is indeed exciting - its advocates have long argued that it can give voice to the voiceless; challenge and, eventually, provide a viable alternative to mainstream media's monopolistic and trivial interpretation of news; and reinforce democracy. And the government's recent CR policy is considered a big leap forward in enabling people to participate in the mass media. So far, the government has allowed only private companies to bid for FM radio stations, which entail huge costs. In the next three-four years, the number of these expensive private FM stations is likely to swell to 300! But more interestingly, the next five years will also see some self-help groups, fisherfolk and farmer groups, in areas remote and near, bid for radio stations of their own. The traditionally marginalised will have a mouthpiece of change in their own hands.

In India, the idea of CR has been used in different ways. In Uttarakhand, young men and women make and broadcast programmes that inform the public about developments such as Panchayat elections, and record the historical and folk literature of the hills. In Kutch, Gujarat, realising the low literacy level of the area, the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), supported by UNDP, started Radio Ujjas, a radio initiative focused on women's issues in the local dialect. "The radio programmes have had a ground-level impact. Once a woman just barged into our studio and talked about how she was tortured by her in-laws. The in-laws were later arrested," said KMVS's Preeti Soni.

Most communities today feel the need to create their own content as the programmes on existing mainstream media appear irrelevant to them. Dalit women in Medak district, Andhra Pradesh, supported by the Deccan Development Society, refused to air their radio programme on AIR. They feared that before or after their programme on organic agriculture, AIR would run an advertisement of a pesticide company. Today, the women run their own radio station and narrowcast the programmes.

"While on one hand we have had a fairly free press in the country, radio has been tightly controlled for long. Things may change now."

 •  Community radio gets its day
 •  Between cup and lip For many years, CR supporters have questioned why marginalised societies have to switch to more expensive (television) and more demanding (newspapers) media as their only sources of information and as means to air their concerns. After all, the radio is cheap, mobile, and is all about speaking - something that people who are illiterate can also do. Most CR projects have NGOs assisting the community in making/recording programmes that are either narrowcast or broadcast on AIR (after paying a substantial fee). But once the new policy comes into practice, this need not be the case. The airwaves have been literally unshackled. "CR is an alternative voice. It now needs to be treated as a stand-alone discipline and an effective form of public service broadcasting," says Jocelyne Josiah, Advisor (Communication and Information in Asia), UNESCO.

The most empowering aspect of CR is that it promises to nurture an alternative media - a media not controlled by large business houses or multinational companies but by slum dwellers, craftspeople and folk singers. Further, as Frederick Noronha, an independent journalist and co-founder of Bytesforall (an ICT for development initiative) puts it: "While on one hand we have had a fairly free press in the country, radio has been tightly controlled for long. Things may change now."

Today, 30 TV channels broadcast news and current affairs and almost all reflect an obsession with celebrities and entertainment. Even the print media, largely preoccupied with only literate India that lives in towns and cities, reflects the dreams and concerns of only a small minority. The biggest casualty of this has been the communication of real issues and the cultural diversity of India. As for radio, unfortunately, what people understand today is still its mainstream form - heavy-duty technology, studio costs, expert voices - everything that only big companies can afford. CR could change that; enthusiasts envisage small groups dotting the media landscape all over the country and networking amongst themselves. "The emphasis [of CR] is not on technology but on the message. The emphasis is on being out there in the community, making members interact, inform, participate," says Josiah.

The key to the fulfilment of such dreams is technology - not expensive high-tech gadgets but low-cost innovations that help the urban and rural poor to broadcast their news and views. Noronha believes the creativity for this exist. "People are very creative. An electronic shop mechanic in Bihar started a radio station by creating a radio transmitter out of a battery-powered tape recorder." The idea of CR has spurred many to find new means to broadcast their voices.

In the last 30 years, UNESCO has supported several CR projects across the world and encouraged the use of low-cost technology in broadcasting. In Budhikote, Karnataka (a project supported by UNESCO and run by NGOs), local women's self-help groups established a cable radio network that uses computing technology to produce and disseminate radio programmes on sericulture, organic agriculture, child and reproductive health. In the 1980s, UNESCO helped develop the first 30 Watt solar-powered transmitter used in several CR projects. More recently, UNESCO supported the development of a radio in a box - something that is small, effective and can be repaired by people themselves. This 55 x 50 cm box contains a laptop, mixer, CD/Cassette player and a 30W FM transmitter and antenna. It is most useful in broadcasting to remote communities and in disaster-hit areas where broadcasting infrastructure gets destroyed.

Another innovation is the e-Tuk Tuk, now very popular in rural Sri Lanka. This is a self-contained mobile telecentre and radio broadcasting unit set up in an autorickshaw, with a laptop, a battery-operated printer, camera, telephone and scanner. It runs on a generator and the roof carries the broadcasting unit. The weekly route of the Tuk Tuk is broadcast beforehand and people assemble to listen and participate in the programmes.

Most of these products don't cost a great deal. By demystifying technology, making it low cost, CR supporters are changing the established concept of communication - moving from big to small, making it the property of the common people. (Women's Feature Service)