Radioing friends over airwaves

Radioing friends over airwaves

The amphitheatre in Machnoor village of Zaheerabad  mandal in Medak district was recently buzzing with women who had turned out in their finery: wearing brightly coloured, inexpensive but new sarees  and their traditional necklace of 'gundlu' and ear-rings called 'genteelu' with flowers in their hair, the women of nearby villages turned out for an occasion that was as historic as their own. Their 'Sangam Radio' had turned all of one year.

Sangam Radio is India's first community radio, entirely owned and run by members of women's groups or Sangams as they are known. These Sangams are supported by the Deccan Development Society that has been working for the poorest, landless, Dalit women of Zaheerabad for the past 25 years helping them reclaim their lives from the relentless forces of globalisation. This was achieved through regaining their control over food production, seeds, natural resources and management, the market and finally over the media.

Setting up the community radio was part of the efforts to shake off the grip of a centralised media that alienates the communities from their own roots that lie in their culture, traditions and language. Most importantly, the radio became the voice of the community as it highlights problems which afflict their crops, livestock and families as also the solutions that are thrashed out on air and solutions shared.

As Bidekanne Sammamma said: “Our radio is our friend. When we come home after a day's hard work our minds are full of problems we switch on our radio and are revived..with the radio by my side I feel my dost is there at home,’’ she said.  Sangam Radio had its beginnings in the idea that the media should be an expression of the community, articulated in its own language unique to the region; that it should be a mirror of their identities and traditions; that it should be a platform for day-to-day problems and issues of their lives and livelihoods; it should be an outlet of their joys and woes, of their creativity, of their music and songs, of their crops and food. The idea was to reaffirm their strengths rather than be swamped by an alien media propagating an alien culture.

 It was to take pride in them rather than be persuaded by a media that they were somehow lesser beings for being themselves. Sangam Radio started in 1998 with UNESCO's help. Half a dozen women from Dalit, poor, landless families were trained in all aspects of radio programming. They produced a few hundred hours of programming and since the stiff rules of broadcasting would not be relaxed, Sangam Radio 'narrowcast' their programmes, playing the tapes in the weekly meetings of the Sangam.

However following the revolutionary judgement of Justice P B Sawant in the Supreme Court that airwaves were public property, Sangam Radio went on air on October 15, 2008. It is on air daily between 7 and 9 pm. The programme content is a mix of interviews, discussions, songs, folk tales and plays. According to a study, 80 per cent of the participants are women and Dalits. Elders are particularly encouraged to participate as they are seen as valuable repositories of knowledge.

Sangam Radio has discarded the traditional top-down development approach and focuses on creating awareness in the community, based on the premise that critical information will trickle down and they will absorb information important to them. Instead the participatory approach has been adopted where the community makes the decisions about what is important to their lives.

Importantly, the community owns the radio. Out of the 5000 women members of the Sangam (that are active in about 75 villages), at least 2000 are 'active' members, each contributing Rs 5 per month which takes care of the expenses of the radio station and its staff. Thus, the community ensures that the radio like the mainstream media does not depend on advertising which comes with its own set of strings attached.

This model of community shareholding is unique in the country and which apart from financial sustainability, ensures social sustainability with a strong sense of ownership and identification of the community with the Radio.

Another unique feature of the Sangam radio station is that the community members are not mere listeners but active participants. The radio station keeps its doors open for people to come and record their talk, songs or share their problems or knowledge.  This promotes not just informality but a sense of belonging like we don't need to take an appointment to get into our home! People from different villages are encouraged to visit the station once a month to take part in various programmes. Sangam Radio is not just an experiment but a valuable lesson on democratisation of the media and a huge step towards demystifying it!