Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The latest cause celebre: Community Radio

The latest cause celebre
'Media Matters', Apr 09, 2006

FOR more than a decade some of us have been pleading the cause of
community radio, lobbying for a policy that gives licences to local groups
to run their own radio stations. All these years neither the media at
large nor bloggers nor civil society have shown the slightest interest in
the subject. It simply never caught on as an idea. Without any public
demand, the government has dragged its feet, coming up with a policy
only designed to hamstring the whole effort.

But six weeks ago somebody discovered that a little guy in Bihar has
been running a radio station out of a village in Vaishali district and
poof! You had an instant cause celebre. It was illegal but so what? The
poor fellow did not even know it was illegal. Such enterprise in rural
Bihar! The blogosphere was ecstatic. "Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1 rocks."
Everybody copied the story off the BBC site, photographs and all. CNN-IBN
picked it up. The Times of India wrote about it. A blogger in Canada
celebrated the idea. Google sprouted many pages on the subject as all
kinds of bloggers got into the act. Widespread ignorance on the policy in
this matter only served to whip up a huge romanticisation of Radio
Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1. The story acquired a life of its own.


Admittedly it was a wonderful story. The creator of this FM station,
Raghav Mahato, was a mechanic in a village repair shop which didn't even
have a pucca roof. In 2003 he created a radio transmitter out of
locally made battery-powered tape recorders, some wires and a cordless
microphone. He hooked the transmitter to an antenna atop a bamboo pole on the
third floor of a hospital. His buddy Sambhu was the radio jockey.
"Namaskaar, main apka dost Sambhu. Aap sun rahe hain, FM Mansoorpur 1"
(Namaskar I am your friend Sambhu. You are listening to FM Mansoorpur 1).
They played Bhojpuri, Bollywood and devotional songs over this FM
transmission and delivered messages on AIDS. That made Mahato an instant good
guy for the media.

The first story said he earned Rs. 2,000 a month from his venture.
Since the BBC reporter had been there and taken pictures, his story was
possibly the most accurate. He said Mahato earned Rs. 2,000 as a
electronic repair mechanic and ran the radio for free. There was no mention
initially about his schooling but as the story got romanticised he became
"an illiterate mechanic". Then he became "an electronic whiz". The most
saleable detail was the station's cost: Rs. 50. It instantly became
known as the one-dollar radio station. And thereafter, as "the world's
cheapest radio".

The very first story, on bhojpuria.com, had drawn, amidst a lot of
gush, a single dry comment from a Prasar Bharati executive pointing out
that the station was illegal and punishable with imprisonment. It did not
dampen anyone's ardour. As the story flew around cyberspace, more
journalists discovered Radio Raghav, and the story grew bigger. What was the
range of his transmitter? The first story said 15 km. The BBC website
said 20 km. Then it was "hundreds of villages" and "thousands of
people". Hundreds of villages in a 15 km radius? Raghav's fame, you were told,
had spread to neighbouring districts. Strange then that the District
Magistrate of Vaishali only heard of this three-year-old radio station
when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in Delhi informed him that
there was an illegal radio station running in his district.


Five weeks after the story broke, nemesis dawned. Government officials
swooped down upon FM Mansoorpur 1, seized its equipment and lodged an
FIR against its owner for violating the Telegraph Act. Talk of
unintended media power! That triggered another torrent of headlines. In Delhi
Sagarika Ghose railed against the closure on CNN-IBN. The channel's
reporter said, "CNN-IBN was the first to report when the station was set up
with an investment of just Rs. 50 rupees." That's a bit rich
considering that the radio station is three years old, and CNN-IBN just over
three months old.

Media audiences have discovered activism, and they are not going to let
go so easily. So what if India does not allow unlicensed private radio?
The Hindustan reported that NRIs from England now want to fork out the
money needed to pay for a license for Mahato. Who says he is eligible
for a licence? Who cares if he isn't? Don't let the facts get in the way
of a cause. We are told that Reporters Without Borders has said that FM
Mansoorpur1 should be granted a temporary licence to allow it to
broadcast. Really? On what grounds?

The community radio movement has been lobbying for at least three years
to change current government policy which only allows educational
institutions to run community radio. It has had no success, but who knows
Raghav Mahato may do the trick.