Sound waves break barriers

broadcast band: Jamila (right) along with other community women recording a programme at Anna CRS, Chennai.

‘When credits of a film roll, we see the names of those who made the film. They must feel very proud seeing their names. Today, women associated with Anna Community Radio (Anna CR) have a similar sense of accomplishment. We know we have the talent to make radio programmes just like famous filmmakers.” When Mallika, 35, of Kotturpuram, Chennai, says this, she sums up the feelings of a growing number of women — around 500 — in India, who are learning and participating in community radio programmes. 

Across the country — in Perunthurai, Tiruchirappalli, Ludhiana, Baramati, Bangalore, Dharwad, Chennai, Puducherry, New Delhi, Rajasthan and Thiruvananthapuram — an experiment titled Science For Women (SFW), conducted by select educational institutions, aims to reach out to women and link their lives with science through innovative radio programmes. 

The project is sponsored by the Rashtriya Vigyan Evam Prodyogiki, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. The Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia plays a catalytic role in the project supporting baseline surveys, capacity building and mid-term monitoring. The pilot study for SFW was conducted at Anna Community Radio, Anna University, Chennai, during 2004-2005. “Anna CR is Anna University’s contribution to society to ensure the dissemination of knowledge to weaker sections of society,” says Dr M Alagar, Director, Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Anna University.

The community radio initiative in India seeks to provide media access to communities, give voice to the voiceless, especially those that the mainstream media and commercial FM ignore. This form of radio is intended by and for communities. While ownership of hardware and licence is currently vested with an educational institution or an NGO, the community is expected to be mobilised to own the content and participate actively in running the station, including determining the agenda by sitting on the programme advisory committees.

Volunteers of change
Under the Anna CR project, 40 women training to be radio jockeys were briefed on issues related to health, nutrition, computer basics, yoga and communication skills. In the initial stages, the university students helped train these community volunteers with digital recorders. Mallika, who has studied up to Class XII, became a community volunteer for Anna CR in 2004. She was initially hesitant to join up when the university first approached women like her and encouraged them to support a baseline survey. Once Mallika agreed to come on board, she was put through a capacity building exercise and was soon participating in interactive programmes. 

At Anna CR, women’s roles are determined by parameters like time, interest, capabilities, and willingness to participate. At the highest end of participation, women create and produce content for broadcasting for the station, which has a reach of 15 kilometres within Chennai. (In India, the law permits a transmitter of 50 watts and a tower height of 30 metres from ground level.) On flat, uncluttered terrain like in Baramati, Maharashtra, the signal reaches beyond 20 kilometres. However, since FM is basically line-of-sight transmission, in cities like Chennai and Kolkata the area covered could be reduced to just five kilometres because of high-rise buildings.

Benefits of science
Another trainee, Jamila John Bosco, 32, of Kannagipuram, who has worked as a guest executive with a leading hotel in Chennai, says she was thrilled when she was invited for the three-month training at Anna University. Jamila, who has a masters degree in English literature and is also fluent in Tamil, revealed that participatory programmes designed on a specific issue encouraged women like her to think about the benefits of science. There was another incentive: By correctly answering questions during an interactive show they won household items as prizes. “Our programme format is simple. We take a vox pop, opinion of the doctor/expert, add our research, take soundbites from the community and draw a conclusion,” explains Jamila, who has been making programmes since 2005.

Around 135 kilometres away, in Puducherry, there is further evidence of the impact of community radio. A programme produced by the Nila Community Radio (Nila CR) run by the Sri Manakula Vinayagar Engineering College compelled a village panchayat (village council) to address the serious issue of contaminated groundwater. Ezhilarasi, the leader of the Udaya Manglir Sangam SHG in Kumulam village, six kilometres from the Nila CR station, was trained in 2007. Through her shows she addressed the problems of her village where people were suffering from chronic ailments and even dying from them. 

As Ezhilarasi honed her skills, she interviewed Dr Shah Nawaz Khan at the Manakula Medical College regarding the problems of villagers. Following the broadcast of her programme, Manakula Medical College held a health camp in Kumulam and the findings were shocking. Shares V S K Venkatachalapathy, Principal, Sri Manakula Vinayagar Engineering College, “Due to pollution from factories around the village, the groundwater was contaminated and the camp revealed that there were several cancer patients in the village.”

Through a series of programmes, Ezhilarasi detailed symptoms of cancer and encouraged listeners to get in touch with Manakula Medical College. After listening to her programme, those with livestock, too, became more alert. This in turn forced the panchayat to change the source of drinking water in the area.
Breaking the sound barrier has become the norm for this unique radio initiative.

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