Focus Group Discussions for Community Radio

Dr. Kiron Bansal*

Communication is a pre-requisite for development. Information dissemination makes people aware of the changes taking place around them, the opportunities available and in turn be part of an informed society. In India, dynamic changes are taking place in the media landscape as print and broadcast media continue to thrive, cinema remains a popular medium, the Internet and mobile telephony have taken great strides in facilitating easier and faster communication. However, mass media in India continue to be largely urban oriented and highly centralized structures and functioning of commercial media do not fully reflect the diversity of the Indian culture and ethos. The emergence of community radio as a medium of change and development at the grass root level aims to bridge this gap. This medium enables the members of a community to express themselves socially, politically and culturally in a participatory mode. The dynamics of community radio are different from other media forms requiring specific tools of data collection. Focus Group Discussion can be effectively utilized for generating qualitative data for designing need-based programmes for community radio in a participatory mode.

Community Radio

Community radio is ‘people’s radio’ which reflects the hopes, needs and aspirations of a community and provides a forum to share their views, problems and concerns. Community radio is voluntary and non-profit in nature and draws upon the active participation of community in which people themselves decide their communication needs and priorities. This participatory approach creates a spirit of experimentation in which the interest of the community reigns supreme. However, communities are not monolithic units as they consist of people with different positions, individual/community priorities and varied approaches to their diverse questions and solutions (Jayaweera, 2002). Community radio provides a forum of self expression to different segments of population to discuss common issues from different viewpoints. Farmers, youth, women and other community members are involved in the selection of content, programming, scheduling and also managing the stations. Interactivity is an integral element of programming which enables the listener to seek reply to his/her questions and queries (Bansal. 2005).

Community radio is confined to a small geographical area using low power transmission covering a radius not more than 20-30 kms. It serves a community which uses common resources for livelihood, has common development issues and concerns which are relatively localized. Since community radio is a people’s venture and does not take directives from authorities, it can truly emerge as a democratic mode of communication. The strengths of community radio lie as a forum of self expression and reflection of people’s aspiration, the use of local language in addressing local needs and harnessing the local talent. Thus, representation and inclusion of the marginalized groups, reflection of local identity and culture, providing diversity of voices and promoting development, social change and good governance are some of the objectives of community radio. However, in achieving these objectives, community radio does not compete with Public Service Broadcasting; it rather plays a complementary role.

UNESCO has been at the centre of various community radio initiatives in Asian, African and Latin American countries and has defined Community Radio as ‘a medium that gives voice to the voiceless that serves as the mouthpiece of the marginalized and is at the heart of communication and democratic processes within societies’.

CR evolution and growth

Community radio evolved about sixty years ago in 1947 in Latin America – poverty and injustice were the stimulus for those first experiences. The principal focus was to unite and support the community of miners and peasants for better working conditions in Bolivia and Colombia. In Europe, community radio emerged as an alternative to or a critique of the mainstream broadcast media (Fraser and Estrada, 2001). Pirate stations proved a catalyst in motivating governments and national broadcasting systems to introduce legitimate local radio (Jayaweera, 2002).

In Asia, the history of community radio began within the parameters of government broadcasting systems as most of the Asian countries were not ready to relinquish their broadcasting monopolies (Jayaweera, 2002). The first community radio was established at Girandurukotte in Sri Lanka in 1986 under the Mahaweli Community Radio project which operated within the government-owned Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. The first truly community-owned and operated Asian community radio station was established in the Philippines with UNESCO supported-the Thambuli community radio project which established a number of community radio stations in less developed rural areas. The Sagarmatha radio station of Nepal was established with financial and technical support provided by UNESCO and catered to diverse ethnic and linguistic groups around Kathmandu valley.

In India, various committees namely, the Chanda Committee, Verghese and P.C.Joshi committees recommended the introduction of local interest programmes with enlarged participatory approach all over the country. However, it was the Supreme Court landmark judgment in 1995 which called for ‘making the airways free and available for public good’ that served as a watershed and laid the foundation for community radio in India. A very strong movement to promote community radio took root in 1996 when a large number of activists and development communicators formulated the Bangalore Declaration stressing the need for community radio in India. Similar other initiatives such as the Pastapur Declaration in 2000 played important roles in the community radio movement in India. Between 1999 and 2001, initiatives like Namma Dhawni (Karnataka), Deccan Development Society (Andhra Pradesh), Sangam Radio (Andhra Pradesh), Chala Ho Gaon Mein (Jharkhand) and Radio Ujjas (Gujarat) used cable radio or bought air time on AIR to broadcast local content.

In December 2002, the government announced a policy for granting licence for radio stations to educational institutions and in 2004 proposed to expand the scope and ownership of radio beyond educational institutions (GoI, 2004). The new policy implemented in 2006 allowed non-government organizations and agricultural universities also to apply for community radio broadcasting licence. According to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, at present there are 184 operational community radio stations, being operated by NGOs, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, educational institutions, universities, state agricultural universities, schools and colleges in the government and private sectors (Table 1.0).

Table: 1.0 Distribution of operational CRS

S.No. Type of Organization No.
1. Educational Institutions 58
2. NGOs 67
3. Educational Institutions-Private 24
4. Universities 14
5. State Agriculture Universities 06
6. Educational Institutions-Government 08
7. Krishi Vigyan Kendra 07
Total 184

*Source: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting website (as on 10.06.2015)

A closer look at the distribution of CRS reveals that the majority of CRS are in the education sector in the government set up. While Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh account for the highest number of CRS, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha have higher number of CRS in the NGO sector (Table 1.1).

Table 1.1: State-wise distribution of CRS in NGO sector

State No. NGO State No. NGO
Andhra Pradesh 5 2 Kerala 8 4
Assam 2 0 Madhya Pradesh 14 8
Bihar 5 3 Maharashtra 17 7
Chandigarh 3 1 Odisha 8 6
Chhattisgarh 3 0 Puducherry 3 0
Delhi 6 1 Punjab 3 1
Gujarat 6 2 Rajasthan 8 3
Haryana 9 5 Tamil Nadu 27 5
Himachal Pradesh 2 0 Telangana 5 3
J&K 1 1 Uttar Pradesh 23 7
Jharkhand 1 1 Uttarakhand 9 4
Karnataka 13 3 West Bengal 3 0

*Source: Ministry of Information & Broadcasting website (as on 10.06.2015)

Since campus radios are placed in educational institutions, whether public or private, they have different aims, objectives and structures. Campus radios are managed by academics and representatives of the student community in which programming is primarily educational in nature hence a distinction needs to be made between the two. Although research input is required for both types of radio, the focus of our discussion will be on community radio ‘for, of and by the community’.

At this point, it would be pertinent to ask – why do we need research for community radio, for what purposes and which research methods, tools and techniques will be more suitable. Let us examine some of these issues.

Research for community radio

Research is a systematic process of analyzing a problem, identifying the factors or variable involved in the phenomenon, collecting and analyzing data on such variables to find answers to certain crucial questions. For community radio, participatory research is more suited as it takes into account the goals and wishes of the people being studied so that the findings have local applicability and improve the practices being followed in the CRS. According to Priest (2010), by involving research participants as collaborators, researchers will also gain cooperation as a participatory community based approach might involve asking community what its members believe are the key problems and how they might best be understood and then inviting the community’s participation in developing solutions.

If we look at various research methods, survey is the most commonly used quantitative method which provides a ‘big picture’ of an issue under study. It aims to gather data from many respondents to describe the frequency of an event and generalize results from a smaller sample to larger population depending upon the nature and objectives of a study. However, survey tends to elicit quantitative data which at times can be superficial in nature; designing questionnaire requires skills and conducting a survey can be time consuming and expensive. Some of the limitations of survey method can be addressed by incorporating open-ended questions in the questionnaire which allows eliciting wider range of opinions in contrast to the closed-ended or multiple-choice questions.

Among the qualitative modes of data collection, case study involves detailed and intensive study of a single case and examines a particular issue or problem in all its complexity. A single case could be anything – a CRS, an event, family, an individual or even a programme. Case study does not follow a specific format but provides a framework within which other methods and tools like observations and interviews are employed for specific purposes. However, it is difficult to select a case which is sufficiently representative of the larger situation and the generalizations drawn from a case may not be considered completely valid.

Observation method with roots in anthropology is the process of detailed, in-depth analysis of everyday life and practice also known as ‘thick description’. It is based on the assumption that one can learn a great deal about the world by just careful observation. The researcher can record the nature and behaviour of the subjects and obtain a greater depth of experience than what is possible through other methods. However, it is often argued that observation method heavily relies on physically observed phenomenon; hence it is less effective in collecting information about personal beliefs, opinions, motivations and expectations and can generate mistaken conclusions based on the interpretation of the situation.

In-depth interview is an ‘open-ended conversational exploration of an individual’s worldview and gives an insider’s perspective’. It does not follow a rigidly set structure – some basic questions are outlined and the discussion is largely free-ranging. In-depth interviews can serve as useful modes of qualitative data collection for CRS especially with the local officials and government functionaries, programmers, managers and technical personnel. However, these can be conducted on limited number of respondents and can be time consuming.

All these methods can provide useful insights for community radio and open various critical areas for enquiry. However, as compared to these methods, focus group offers various advantages – it is neither restrictive like structured interviews nor as free wheeling like in-depth interviews and may occupy a middle ground between observation method and in-depth interviews. Moreover, since CR is participatory in nature its dynamics are different from other media forms and the specific nature of the medium requires specific tools of data collection.

Focus group discussion as a research tool

Focus Group Discussion (FGD) having roots in Ethnographic Research has the inherent strength of collecting qualitative data in quickest possible time in a participatory mode. In recent years, FGDs have been used precisely to find out how people respond in a group, how their feelings and opinions can be shaped by the experience of discussing the subject with others (Bertrand & Hughes, 2005).

FGD has been found useful in assessing people’s reaction to new products, service, messages, problems or ideas. It is considered a user friendly and non-threatening research method which participants find stimulating and enjoyable. The size of the sample may be increased without increasing time and costs; so it is relatively economical. It invites participants to monitor each other, providing checks and balances that do not operate for individual interviews or for surveys (Bertrand and Hughes, 2005). FGDs are also used to help people express themselves openly about sensitive issues as well as to bridge social and cultural differences (Morgan, 1998). Feminist researchers use FGDs to ‘provide women with safe space to talk about their own lives and struggles” (Kamberelis & Dimitriadis in Brennen, 2013).

Focus groups exercise less control over the groups and lead to wide ranging exploratory discussions. The participants respond to the moderator as well as to one another and the conversations and reactions closely approximate normal conditions. It gives freedom to the researcher to respond to any situation which emerges during the course of interview. However, FGD are not group interviews – they are ‘focused efforts at gathering data’. Merely gathering people together does not guarantee that a meaningful discussion will take place and there must be an effort to gather research data through such focused discussions. Some scholars argue that like any other research method, it is useful to conduct FGD in combination with other qualitative or quantitative research methods. Often focus groups are used as an exploratory technique then followed up with surveys for generalizing results for larger populations. Morgan (1998), however, argues that for many purposes the strengths of focus groups will be entirely sufficient.

Application for FGDs

FGDs are used for varied purposes such as problem identification, planning, implementation and assessment (Morgan, 1998); broadly these may be placed under formative and summative research.

Formative research

Formative research refers to the systematic collection and analysis of data to aid in decision making during the planning, design and production stages. FGD can serve as useful mode of data collection at formative stage for setting up a radio station, preparing listeners’ profile and undertaking needs assessment. Once these have been worked out, FGD may be used for content planning and providing inputs for programming.

Listeners’ profile

Research input is required for identifying the site and location of the community radio station- where the radio station will be set up in a particular village/town/city. Research is also conducted to prepare the listeners’ profile and respond to questions such as: Who the community members are; What is their demographic profile (in terms of distribution of age, gender, income levels, occupation, educational levels)? The types of media options available to them – do they have access to newspapers, radio or television? What kind of folk media are being used? What is the climate, type of landholding and the crops produced and so on. Survey method is generally used for preparing listeners profile. However, FGDs add rich qualitative data to the listeners’ profile.

Needs assessment

Needs are broadly classified as felt or expressed needs and latent or dormant needs. Felt needs are those which an individual/community is aware of and articulates; while the latter are required for the growth, progress and development of an individual or community. At the needs assessment stage the research team has limited knowledge about the needs and the emphasis is on exploration, FGDs can be useful tools for assessing both types of needs and identify the ‘real’ needs of the community for effective programming of a CRS (Bansal, 2009). It is often argued that since the objectives of community radio are information and education, there is less scope for entertainment which is generally limited to folk songs and folk music. However, community radio programming need not be dull and boring and if the community expresses the need for entertainment or film music, this should be taken into consideration. At the same time, development needs of the community also need to be kept in view and the feedback should contribute to maintain a judicious balance between information, education and entertainment.

Content planning

To explore the development concerns of the community such as economy, agriculture, rural development, health, education and governance, FGDs have been found useful. Through such discussion, community members themselves offer solutions for problems relating to law and order, irrigation, sanitation, water distribution among others. FGDs also serve as effective tool to focus on the specific concerns of a community, For example, health is an important development indicator which needs adequate reflection in radio programming. However, health being a broad area, the programmer needs to narrow it down to the specific health needs of a community for optimal impact of the programming. A village may be afflicted with gastroenteritis, chicken pox or dengue fever requiring immediate attention. In such a scenario, it makes little sense to discuss health problems in far off places such as encephalitis or swine flue (Bansal, 2009). The participants themselves provide useful suggestions as to how to address a problem or an issue.

Programming

FGD effectively contribute in programming by involving the actual users for generating programming ideas – whether a particular idea will work or not, how it can be made more interesting and useful. Similarly, for deciding a programme format, the producer generally draws upon his/her own experience and understanding, however, the community members may suggest the format in which they would like to listen to a programme to provide depth and fine tuning the original plans. In addition to talks, discussions and interviews, formats like drama, quiz and phone-ins may emerge though such discussion. Thus, the quality of the programmes can be improved while they are at the development stage and the results feed into the production process.

FGDs also serve as good platform for talent search for the CRS as participants who are articulate and well versed in different art forms, dramatics, music, etc, may be identified from the group and involved in programming. Those having skills in singing, story telling, gardening and even cookery can be encouraged to participate in the CRS. Listening to one’s own voice over radio may serve as an enabling experience for the participants and give them a sense of ownership and belonging.

Summative research

Summative research is undertaken to assess the effectiveness of a programme on its completion. FGDs can be organized to ascertain what proportion of the intended audience was exposed to the programme, whether they found the programme useful, relevant and interesting, whether the programme objectives were met, the language was found appropriate. It can throw useful insights on the presentation aspects of the programme – the articulation, pace and speed of delivery. It can obtain feedback on the production aspects and technical quality of a programme. The lessons learnt can guide the future programme delivery and thus make CRS more responsive to community needs.

The process

Like any other mode of data collection, the first and foremost step for FGD is to set the research objectives – what the researcher aims to ascertain. This may range from needs assessment, to content planning or providing inputs to programming, or summative evaluation apart from other areas. The researcher works out a basic checklist of the areas to be covered for thorough exploration – these may be in the form of key issues or complete questions in conversational sentences. The sequence is not strictly adhered to in a linear way as minor digressions are allowed without getting diverted from the original purpose of data collection. At this stage, the recruitment criteria for participants is also determined which could be based on the age, gender, education, experience or engagement with the CRS among others.

FGD may be organized at a place which is easily accessible to the participants. These could be casual settings such as chaupal, community centres or even the CRS. Women members may be met at homes, farms and similar spaces where they can articulate their views freely without inhibitions. In addition to selection of appropriate location, proper seating arrangement is also important while conducting FGD. Since the number of participants ranges from 6-9, it is useful to sit in a circular way joined in by the moderator. Such an arrangement allows a democratic setting in contrast with top-down arrangement in which the moderator sits at a distance on a higher podium thus creating physical and mental barriers. Krueger (1998) argues that it is useful to draw a diagram of the seating arrangements of the participants while the focus group is on as it helps in recalling their names at the analysis stage.

If resources permit, audio or video recording or the session may be considered as it helps other members of the research team to follow the discussion and observe body language, comments, gestures and non-verbal cues etc. The participants should be informed about the need for recording and placing the camera or recorder for the purpose. It has been found that at times, the presence of camera inhibits some participants and may lead to unnatural behaviour among others. Audio recording has been found much easier and cheaper, however, while transcribing the tapes it may become difficult to ascertain who is speaking what. The basic question while recording a session that needs to be asked is how the information is going to be used. If someone from the research team can take down notes, audio-video recording can be avoided as it becomes a tedious exercise to transcribe the tape and make sense out of it at a later stage.

Selection of participants

The role of the participants is important for the success of a FGD. The group is generally kept small so that lively discussion can take place; larger numbers make it difficult for the moderator to keep the discussion on track. The selection of participants is made purposively keeping in view the research objectives and the group is kept homogenous. Participants are usually chosen on the basis of their similar backgrounds, demographics, behaviors and or attitudes and are brought together to discuss their opinions, practices, preferences and behaviors (Brennen, 2013). Bertrand and Hughes (2005) observe that people who know each other will settle into debate easily but will also bring their past history into the discussion while people who do not know each other will have fewer preconceptions but will take longer to talk comfortably with other members of the group.

Participants are generally divided into three broad categories – active, reluctant or shy and dominant. Active participants are articulate and forthcoming with their views and ideas. They take part in the discussion enthusiastically and offer comments whenever they have something worthwhile to say. Shy participants are withdrawn and do not come forward to contribute in the discussion. They need to be drawn into the discussion process by making more eye contact with them, smiling at them and even coaxing them by saying, ‘we would like to have your opinion on this matter’. Dominant participants try to hog the attention, respond to each and every query and make unnecessary interventions. In such situations, efforts need to be made to check them by telling them politely, ‘we have heard you many times and let us hear what others have to say on this issue’. According to Brennen (2013), non-verbal cues such as looking directly at the person but not calling him/her to speak, holding up a hand to indicate that someone else is speaking may also encourage a dominant person not to monopolize the conversation.

Conducting focus groups

The moderator initiates the discussion by introducing him/herself and the team members and explains the purpose of discussion. If the session is being recorded, she/he explains the need for audio/video recording or note taking. The discussion is generally started with a focus question and responses are invited. The focus question flows from the main aim of the study, for example- what do you think is the most pressing problem being faced by our village? Or what are your expectations from the CRS or what kind of programmes would you like to listen on your community radio? If there is no response, it is useful to address someone by name to initiate conversation.

The moderator carefully listens and responds to new ideas and encourages those who have something interesting to say. The role of the moderator is crucial in involving everyone to bring forth wide range of opinions. She/he stays in charge without being obtrusive and keeps the discussion moving. The moderator needs to be flexible if useful debate is happening, but if the discussion goes off track, she/he should interrupt politely but firmly. It is important to involve everyone and ensure that the discussion does not falter. Time needs to be carefully monitored keeping track of what needs to be covered to elicit desired information.

The success of a FGD session depends a great deal on the skills of a moderator who is the pivot in the entire process. According to Fontana & Frey (in Brennen, 2013), the FGD moderator should be personable, persuasive and energetic, have excellent listening skills, be organized and flexible, communicate effectively and have a great short-term memory. She or he should be skilful enough to draw out shy participants and to handle difficult ones while encouraging discussion among all members of the group. This means making sure each individual gets a chance to talk so that a few strong voices do not dominate, without leading the group in a particular direction. She/he should resist from giving her/his own opinions or try to reach to consensus (Bertrand & Hughes, 2005) She/he should remain neutral and not argue with the respondents or reveal too much about her/his own point of view (Priest, 2010). Once all the issues have been covered, the discussion is wrapped up and participants thanked for their time and participation.

The number of FGDs depends upon the nature and objectives of the study, and the obtained data analyzed using appropriate qualitative analysis techniques.

Analysis of data

Focus groups data is in the form of written notes, audio-video tapes and memory. If the session has been recorded, transcription of audio-video tapes has to be carried out which can be very time consuming and rigorous as it involves careful listening of the tape and report preparation. Notes taken during the session help to analyse the data in a systematic manner in which analysis of the issues can be made sequentially. It is useful to analyse data immediately after the focus group while most of the issues are still fresh in memory and in any case before conducting the second session to avoid mixing up in responses. Based on available evidence the researcher prepares a report recording the observations which are expressed repeatedly and in different words by several participants. Krueger (1998) argues that some attention also should be placed on the range and diversity of experiences and perceptions while opinions that are expressed only once should not form the crux of the report.

Limitations

Like any research tool, FGDs also have some inherent limitations which need to be kept in view. For example, recruiting subjects for FGD can be difficult as those who are asked to participate in the discussions may not have time or inclination to participate. While those who agree may be doing so for the incentives involved, or may not contribute substantively. FGDs are not easy to conduct effectively without proper training of the moderator who needs to be skilled at managing group interaction without controlling or directing them. It is difficult for the moderator to take down notes and also to moderate the session, hence the need for assistance during discussion. The internal monitoring can lead to the phenomenon of ‘false consensus’ that is more uniform response than would otherwise be obtained (Bertrand & Hughes, 2005). Too much faith is invested in the conclusions without consideration whether the participants constitute a sample of the general population (Priest, 2010). Focus groups do not provide the richly textured view of life that comes from participant observation (Morgan, 1998). The data obtained is not comparable which needs to be analyzed and interpreted using complex techniques. Despite these limitations, FGD can be effectively used to elicit qualitative data for varied aspects of a CRS.

Conclusions

Community radio is essentially ‘people’s radio’ which reflects the hopes, aspirations and concerns of a community drawing upon their active participation. It empowers the rural population who by articulating the community needs and priorities develop a sense of ownership and self confidence. For designing need-based programmes for CRS, research input is imperative, which can be obtained using FGDs. This technique generates qualitative data with participants’ interaction with researcher as well as with one another in a short period of time. As compared to other modes of data collection, FGDs may be effectively used to assess the developmental needs of different sections of community in a participatory mode. It can help the CRS to truly emerge as ‘a medium that gives voice to the voiceless that serves as the mouthpiece of the marginalized and is at the heart of communication and democratic processes within societies’.

References

  • Bansal K. (2005), Demystifying Community Radio, EduComm Asia, Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, Vol. 11, No. 2, December, 2005.
  • Bansal K. (2009), Content Strategy for Community Radio, dContent, Digital Empowerment Foundation, May-August, 2009, New Delhi
  • Berger Arthur Asa (2000), Media and Communication Research Methods: An Introduction to Qualitative and Quantitative Approach, Sage Publications, London
  • Bertrand Ina & Peter Hughes (2005), Media Research Methods: Audiences, Institutions, Texts, Palgrave MacMillan, New York.
  • Brennen Bonnie S. (2013) Qualitative Research Methods for Media Studies, Routledge, New York
  • Fraser C. and Sonia Restrepo Estrada, (2001), Community Radio Handbook, UNESCO, Paris
  • Government of India (2004), Consultation Paper on Licensing Issues Relating to Community Radio Stations, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, New Delhi
  • Jayaweera W. (2002), An Overview of Community radio Evolution in the Asian Context, Communicator Vol. 37 No. 3 & 4, IIMC, New Delhi
  • Krueger Richard A. (1998), Analyzing and Reporting Focus Group Results, Sage Publications, London
  • Morgan David L. (1998) Planning Focus Groups, Sage Publications, London
  • Priest S. H (2010), Doing Media Research: An Introduction, Sage Publications, New Delhi

Website: List of Operational CRS,

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