Community Radio: Voice of the Voiceless

Meena Longjam*


“Radio affects most intimately, person-to-person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener,” said Marshall McLuhan, a communication theorist who gave a vivid and profound account of the crucial role of radio. Compared to other new media, radio still dominates in reach, impact, and accessibility in the world. The liberalization of the community radio policy has created both anxiety and interest in civil society. Community radio as the third type of radio, an alternative to the state, and commercial radio is now a reality in India. It has been seen as the voice of the marginalized groups, an instrument of their empowerment, and a non-profit mechanism managed by them. Compared to the limited reach of television, radio’s reach is extensive in rural areas. Radio is also the preferred media for young people who listen to the news, sports commentary, film songs, radio drama, and discussions. The medium offers an opportunity to rural people and youths in urban slums to participate in development programs relevant to them. This medium of grass-root communication is extremely relevant in today’s world dominated by global media conglomerates that seek to impose alien values and cultural norms. This paper will highlight and elucidate the various success stories of community radio in India and how it has impacted the lesser-known groups and serves as a powerful tool of developmental communication.

Community radio

Community radio is a broadcast media that is “independent, civil society based and which operates for social benefit and not for profit” according to Steve Buckley, President of the World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters. Community radio means radio broadcasting intending to serve the cause of the community in the service area by involving members of the community in the broadcast of their programs. Community listeners would mean people living in the coverage zone of the community radio stations i.e. in the broadcasting service of the licensee and having an interest in the content. It affords a unique advantage of receiving transmission through low cost, battery operated portable receiving sets.

Community radio broadcasting has served to create and foster political and social change worldwide, including improving human rights and spreading democracy. “In almost all cases we find a correlation between the emergence of community radio and political change toward greater democracy.” Buckley further notes that community radio broadcasters are activists “who continue to operate in sometimes very dangerous conditions,” facing intimidation, physical violence, and even death. The programs of community radio should be of immediate relevance to the community and focus on issues relating to education, health, environment, agriculture, rural, and community development.

At least 50% of the content shall be generated with the participation of the local community for whom the station has been set up. Transmission of sponsored programs shall not be permitted except those sponsored by central and state governments and some other organizations to broadcast information of public interest.

Community radio in India

Several non-governmental organizations and media-activist groups campaigned for nearly a decade for the right to set up local radio broadcasting facilities to support their community development work. They also networked to further the cause of community radio in the country. This network, soon after the announcement of the community radio policy, came together in January 2007 to constitute the Community Radio Forum (CRF). CRF has espoused the mandate to support and promote the setting up of community radio stations in India and to lobby for policy changes that would amplify the progressive nature of the community radio policy and further simplify and democratize the licensing procedures.

The Bangalore-based communication campaign group, ‘VOICES’ convened a meeting of radio broadcasters, policy planners, media professionals, and not-for-profit associations in September 1996 to study how community radio could be relevant to India, and to deliberate on policies appropriate for such an action. A Declaration calling for the establishment of community broadcasting was signed. A suggestion that AIR’s local stations should allocate regular airtime for community broadcasting was put forward. Requests were also made for the grant of licenses to NGOs and other non-profit making groups for running community radio stations. Subsequently, UNESCO made available a portable production and transmission “briefcase radio station” kit to VOICES to do experimental broadcasts of programs for a hands-on learning experience towards the objective of setting up an independently-run community radio station.

A UNESCO sponsored workshop, hosted by an Andhra Pradesh NGO, Deccan Development Society (DDS) from July 17-20, 2000 in Hyderabad issued the ‘Pastapur Initiative’ on community radio that urged the government to take its intention of freeing broadcasting from state monopoly to its logical conclusion, by making media space available not only to private players but also to communities. This landmark document urged the government to create a three-tier structure of broadcasting in India by adding non-profit community radio to the already existing state-owned public radio and private commercial radio.

The spirited campaigning for communities’ right to access the airwaves and innumerable representations by organizations, academicians, and individuals resulted in the MIB organizing a workshop supported by the UNDP and UNESCO in May 2004 in New Delhi to design an enabling framework for community radio in India. The workshop brought together a large number of community radio enthusiasts, academics, NGOs, and policymakers, who worked out a set of recommendations for a new community radio policy, one that would allow community groups to run their own radio stations. When the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) issued a consultation paper later that year, they arrived at largely the same formulations for community radio.

In July 2004 MIB prepared a draft policy based on the May consultations.  Subsequently, community radio groups in India launched an online petition campaign, urging the inclusion of the right of communities within the community radio policy and thereby ending the discrimination against rural and poor communities. In October 2005, the draft policy was referred to a group of ministers, who took about a year to give its approval after deliberating upon several contentious issues such as advertising, news and information, license fee, and spectrum availability.

These intense advocacy efforts and passionate debates about community radio broadcasting for the social sector finally capitulated into an inclusive community radio policy approved by the union cabinet in November 2006.

According to the ministry of information and broadcasting, the current status (as of 25 April 2013) of community radio in India is as follows:

  • No. of applications received so far, from 2004 to 05 Feb 2013 (including 104 under 2002 CR Guidelines): 1200
  • Letters of Intent (LOI) issued: 428
  • Grant of Permission of Agreement(GOPA) signed: 191
  • Operational community radio stations: 148
  • Number of applications rejected: 545

Functions of community radio

  • To reflect and promote local identity, character, and culture by focusing principally on local content. Culture is how the people of a community talk about their past and their future. It is what they care about. Like life itself, culture is infinitely variable and constantly evolving. Community culture is also an artistic expression through local music, dance, poetry, theatre, and storytelling. Local performers are encouraged to go on air uninhibited by considerations of the ‘professional standards’ they may have acquired from mainstream media. Culture is also language, so programming includes the languages of any minority group in the community.
  • To create a diversity of voices and opinions on the air through its openness to participation from all sectors. Some discord is present in all communities, but the acknowledgment of conflict is necessary for democracy and for democratic communities. Community radio tries to air objectively all sides of a discussion without itself taking sides.
  • To encourage open dialogue and democratic process by providing an independent platform for an interactive discussion about matters and decisions of importance to the community. In essence, the core of the democratic process is the ability of people to hear and make them heard. Community radio provides the forum for that to happen. This is consonant with the decentralization process in many countries that aims to bring democratic decision-making closer to the people concerned. And what is happening at the grassroots level – as portrayed by the community radio programming – can be heard by local government and private institutions, as well as being relayed to policymakers, thus making it possible to design development initiatives that best meet the aspirations and needs of the people.
  • To promote social change and development. In marginalized communities, people have their individual perceptions about their situation, but what is required for change and development is a collective perception of the local reality and of the options for improving it. This collective perception can only be achieved through internal discussions to analyze specific problems, identify possible solutions, and mobilize the appropriate people or groups for action. Community radio provides the perfect platform for this internal discussion.
  • To promote good governance and civil society by playing a community watchdog role that makes local authorities and politicians more conscious of their public responsibilities. The marginalized and the oppressed normally have no way to complain when authorities take advantage of them, but community radio gives them a voice to air their grievances and obtain their due rights. Some other functions of community radio include: sharing of information and innovation; giving a voice to the voiceless, especially to women and young people in some societies.

Community radio programs

The programs of community radio should be of immediate relevance to the community and focus on issues relating to education, health, environment, agriculture, and rural and community development. At least 50% of the content shall be generated with the participation of the local community. Transmission of sponsored programs shall not be permitted except those sponsored by the central and state governments and other organizations to broadcast public interest information. The CR shall not broadcast any programs which relate to news and current affairs and are otherwise political in nature. The details about content regulation may be seen in the policy guidelines.

Success stories of community radio

CRS has also helped communities during calamities and natural disasters like tsunami, floods, earthquakes, etc. Till December 2011, 125 CRS have become operational in the country of which 37 are operated by NGOs, 78 by the educational institutions, and 10 by Krishi Vigyan Kendras.  In the last two years, Letter of Intents (LOIs) increased from 186 to 363 and the number of operational CRS increased from 64 to 125.  Tamil Nadu has the highest number of operational CRS in the country.

Although the success stories of the CRS are available in abundance, a few which just cannot be missed include Radio Mewat, Radio Mattoli, and Jnan Taranga from the North-east.

The biggest success of Radio Mewat has been in the revival of the dying art form of ‘Mirasi’.  Mewat is well known for its Mirasis, the Muslim folk singers who can narrate epics like the Mahabharata. These Mirasis are symbols of religious tolerance.

Radio Mewat, a community radio station, has contributed to promoting this dying art form and has given broadcast space to the Mirasis in several programs.  In fact, they have written lyrics for songs of education, health, hygiene, and sanitation, etc. which indeed is an indication of the success story of the radio.

Radio Mewat was launched on September 1, 2010, in Nuh, Haryana, by an NGO-Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transmission (SMART).  It broadcasts four hours a day and reaches out to over five lakh people within a radius of 25 kilometers.

Mewat is a backward area, faring very low on all social indicators, with the literacy rate at an abysmal low of 24 percent.  Only 5 percent of households have television sets.  Educating people about the very concept of community radio was a Herculean task.  It is a tough job popularising the radio station in a district where elders are suspicious of any new idea and are very protective towards their womenfolk.  Also, there are power outages for days together.  Moreover, being in the interiors, it is difficult to get experienced people to work regularly.

However, Mewat has the highest penetration of mobile phones.  This has served as an advantage for Radio Mewat, as most mobile phones these days have FM Radio.

Radio Mewat, according to the annual report of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has been very active in interacting with the local community.  Field workers regularly visit the villages for stories and also to engage with the communities.  About 40 locals are actively engaged in creating a buzz about the radio station.

The programs on Radio Mewat are need-based.  Besides regular programs on education, health, women empowerment, safe drinking water, and small family norms, Radio Mewat also broadcasts information about various schemes of development viz. MNREGA, microfinance, Public Distribution System (PDS), etc.

An exclusive program called “Gaon Gaon ki Baat”, allows people in every village to talk about their problems, achievements, unique heritage, and their leaders.  Radio Mewat uses all formats including jingles, songs, interviews, anchors, and narrations depending on the subject.

The feedback received through phone calls, visits by the Commissioner, District Collector, and several others including the locals who come from distant villages to know about the radio and opportunities, is a pointer to the influence of the radio station and its reach. Maximum calls are received from women during the afternoon transmission.  Based on feedback received, the programming is modified.  The station is now working on programs that educate the people about their rights etc.

Jnan Taranga, the first community radio of the North-East has been launched by Krishna Kanta Handique State Open University, Guwahati.  Though it is run by the University, it has been actively engaged with the community to draw talent, design content, and reach out to the audiences.  Jnan Taranga broadcasts 20 hours a day. The studio has been set up at a cost of Rs.60 lakh.  Expenditure includes cost on various equipment for the studio, transmission, training (including in-house and on the community), human resource, production, and contingency. An amount of Rs.40,000 per month is being spent on running the CRS presently.  Though the University is committed to bear the expenditure, generation of revenue in the form of advertisement is necessary to sustain the expenditure.

Programs are based on community development on issues like health and hygiene, women empowerment, rights of the children, environment, and bio-diversity, career counseling, governance, agriculture, and entrepreneurship, etc.  Community-based programs constitute over 70 percent of the total broadcast of the ‘Jnan Taranga’.  Educational programs including awareness on the RTE Act and RTI Act are broadcast most regularly in between the community programs.  Over 500 programs of various durations have been recorded and around 1000 CDs of songs and feature programs have been collected with the right to broadcast the same from the respective authorities.

Hence, dissemination of knowledge, preserving culture, its diversity, is a key role radio station can play to ensure that this is truly a community radio serving people.  Archiving and documenting the people’s knowledge will build a valuable repository for academic learning.


  • The huge network of Self Help Groups (SHGs) in various Indian communities should be encouraged to set up community radio and use this medium for development.
  • The possibilities of making linkages between Common Service Centre (CSC) and community radio may be explored.
  • Large and capable NGOs should be identified and sensitized to set up CRS.


Radio, the most affordable and accessible medium of mass communication, is no doubt a viable weapon of public opinion in any democracy, especially in a developing country like India. Between 2002 and 2006, community radio in India had been equated with campus radio, run mainly by the educational institutions as an extension of the curriculum. But with the introduction of a new community radio policy in 2006, which embodied the Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as initiators of community radio; the reach and dimension of this platform have broadened immensely. The need of the hour is, therefore, to create awareness among people about the immense potential of community radio. Community radio is an extraordinary and invisible medium to give voice to the voiceless.  It provides an opportunity for the community to speak about issues concerning their lives.  The community radio stations (CRS) are run by the community for the community. Community radio stations are considered to be essential for a diverse country like India.  It can be an effective tool in bringing awareness to the door-step of people about various flagship programs of the government.  Hence, there is a need to provide a greater push to the CRS movement ensuring its reach in every nook and corner of the country touching the lives of millions of people.


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  8. Handbook on Radio and Television, BBC World Service Training Trust, UNICEF
* Assistant Professor, Manipur University of Culture, 
Palace Compound, Imphal, Manipur

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