Has the Radio Been a Catalyst for Social Change?

This reading list examines if the radio has been successfully democratised. 


Post independence, in the early days, the radio served as a low-cost medium of communication through which the government could address the Indian populace. 

Using the radio to communicate with the masses, however, meant that the government maintained a monopoly over broadcasting networks and as such, controlled the information disseminated.  Thus, to make this discourse multidimensional, “community radio”—a radio controlled by civil society—was imagined.

On World Radio Day, through the EPW archives, we look at the arguments for establishing a community radio in India.

1) Locating the ‘Community’

Who constitutes the “community” in community radio and how exactly does community participation occur? Through a case study of a community radio (anonymised here as “Avaaz”), Savita Bailur writes that the community is neither a discrete nor a homogeneous entity, and that divisions within, based on caste, religion and gender often play a role in broadcasting material.  

There is an insufficient deconstruction of the complexities of community in community radio literature and discussion in India. Too often we see a binary distinction in community radio between an oppressive government or mass media and wholesome community radio (Pasha 1997; Mitchell and Baxter 2006). Instead, it should be understood that the processes of community participation in community radio are no different to any other participatory and democratic processes, in illustrating the cleavages, power struggles and temporary alliances which come together, but also disintegrate. 

Further, Bailur argues that while setting up such a radio is often seen as a panacea for communities deprived of a “voice”, whether or not these voices are heard is another matter.  

The idea that participation in Avaaz was influenced by actors’ membership of other networks was made by Guru, the centre manager: “poorer people do not want to get involved. Because supposing they complain about the richer people, and later the richer people offer work, they will not support them if they have complained before”. Even though, according to Ramesh, the Maatu project manager, attempts were made to preserve anonymity such as polls and vox pops, people were reluctant to participate in such programmes for fear of repercussions. 

2) A Radio for the People

There is a need, writes Vinod Pavarala, to not only address poverty, but to “voice poverty”. However, the author argues that government interference has stymied the growth of radio stations in India, with less than a tenth of the projected number of radio stations operational, and only around a third of these licensed to civil society organisations. Rather than providing a voice to the marginalised, Pavarala contends that government actions have resulted in a shrinking space for civil society.

Communication rights, including access to information and freedom of expression, should be at the heart of democratic societies (Coyer and Hintz 2010). A critical part of these rights is the right to report freely on one’s own environment, independent of state or commercial controls. News and current affairs are still on the prohibited list of content on community radio in India, perhaps the only instance of this kind of policy outside of the subcontinent. 

3) Democratising Radio

In 1995, the Supreme Court held that broadcasting was a “medium of communication”, and therefore a medium of speech and expression. Thus, the ability to acquire and disseminate information fell within the ambit of fundamental rights. Frederick Noronha’s article argues in favour of a tiered system of broadcasting to include community radios—nonprofit radios which are people–owned and managed. Taking cues from similar radios set up in Nepal and Sri Lanka, Noronha stresses their essentiality to allow the “information poor” to understand issues critical to their lives. 

Media advocacy groups have been pressing for licences to be given to universities (particularly agricultural universities, medical institutions, adult and legal literacy organisations), registered cooperatives, women’s cooperatives and suitable public bodies. “Our problem has been a Delhi-centric approach to broadcasting that we in this country has taken. One fear is that (community broadcasting and grass roots radio) could become inconvenient for the existing power-structure,” prominent media critic K E Eapen of Bangalore argued recently… Officials argue that AIR’s low- powered stations in semi-rural areas – some 89 already exist – could offer one-hour time slots to panchayats or ‘bona fide’ representatives of the communities. Official quarters then entangle the entire debate in the question of how should they ascertain which non-profit or voluntary organisation is a “true representative of the community”.

4) Developing Community Radio

To develop community radios in India, Jo Tacchi suggests taking cues from South Africa and Australia to form an effective regulatory framework for these radios. Australia, Tacchi writes, has a mature “third tier” of broadcasting—the community radio—which is constituted specifically to serve community interests. As such, these radios are barred from operating as a profit–making enterprise, and encourage people from within a community to participate in the operation of the radio.  

Today around 200 fully licensed community stations exist in Australia, and around 140 temporary stations run by aspirant community broadcasters…   the size and scope of community radio in Australia is due in large part to the fact that the federal government provides financial support to the sector. Australia has an independent funding body for community broadcasting, the Community Broadcasting Foundation (CBF)...  Community radio and local ABC [Australia Broadcasting Corporation] services are likely to be the only ones available in the more remote regions of Australia where commercial radio stations would struggle to make a profit. 

Read More: 

  1. Waiting to be Heard: Bringing Marginalised Voices to the Centre. Ashish Sen, 2003
  2. All India Radio’s Glory Days and Its Search for Autonomy. Coonoor Kripalani, 2018
  3. Community Radio and Empowerment. Bonita Aleaz, 2010
  4. Community Radio in Venezuela. Sujata Fernandes, 2006

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