India Special Report Community Radio

India: Community Radio Stations Multiply, but Will They Thrive?

By Sushmita Malaviya

5 May 2010

(Bhopal, India)--From modest beginnings nearly a decade ago in the academic community, India now boasts 70-plus community radio stations (CRs) run by universities as well as NGOs and agricultural agencies. But visits to seven CRs, as part of a study sponsored by the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA), showed that they face common challenges to sustainability and growth: time-consuming licensing processes, weak transmission power, the need for more human resource training, and the perennial search for a viable CR business model.

Technical Issues

All seven of the stations grapple with technical obstacles to successful transmission in their targeted coverage areas (typically, a maximum 10-kilometer radius around the station). CRs in urban areas also compete in the airwaves with much larger stations . For example, in Kolkata, RadioJU operates under the shadow of the tower of government television channel Doordarshan and manages only a 2-kilometer transmission radius. RadioJU's frequency is also often flooded due to urban congestion and high-rise buildings interfering with the signal.

Weak transmission also reflects low-quality transmitters. Dr R. Sreedher, a director at CEMCA, says, “If you want rock bottom prices then the quality suffers. The Bharat Electrical Limited (BEL) transmitter has a range of more than 15 kilometers everywhere but it is expensive.” BEL is a state-owned electronics company. CR station operators complain that they typically resort to using cheaper Chinese transmitters that do not work well.

He also acknowledged that more transmission power may not help much for now, because there are few analog frequencies available and larger players are able to grab the most favorable ones in the current system of allotments. “Only when India becomes digital by 2015, we might get a lot of frequencies and the power could be raised,” he said.

Dr. Sreedher adds that CRs need to pay more attention to positioning of their transmission towers. “Radio stations have not done detailed surveys to assess the real reach of their stations. The FM technology is line of sight. If there is an obstruction, there will be no signal. But signals do travel desired distances" if they are properly oriented, he said. Dr. Sreedher notes, however, that a radio station in a large city such as Kolkata or Chennai can still serve more than 100,000 people even if its reach is limited to a 2 kilometer radius.

Seeking Financial Security

With many stations having moved beyond the initial development stages, when sponsors helped to get them on their feet, those engaged in community radio said current challenges need to be thought out better. Notably, many feel that CEMCA, as a prime mover in the CR space, needs to provide the Common Forum – an association of community radio broadcasters – with the means to effectively lobby the government on CR issues. Most CRs also feel that there is a need for ongoing capacity building support from donors and government.

Some in the CR movement also think that the government is inconsistent in its approach to the sector. While the authorities are keen to grant CR licenses (and in fact there is a dedicated team managing this), government's heavy subsidization of many things for the poor also seems to undercut CR efforts to generate revenues. Dr. Amol Goje, director of Vasundhara Vahini, said information-based products such as radio are not commercially viable in rural areas because people are used to getting things free or heavily subsidized from the government. “Government’s hold on communities through subsidies still continues, and people are not ready to pay for information,” he says.

CRs are allowed to generate revenue from advertising, but not all have been successful at it. Vasundhara Vahini in Baramati is completely self-reliant, while RadioJU has only one advertiser and finds most potential clients only interested in music programming targeted at young people. Professor Nilanajana Gupta, manager of RadioJU, also complained that official CR guidelines bar them from soliciting corporate social responsibility funding from multinationals and big companies, so the station is left to compete for ad dollars with commercial channels. "It is a non-level playing field,” she said.

CRs also claim that the government has discussed but not delivered on the idea of running so-called promos (ads about government programs) on community stations. “At various forums, we have been told the government of India will make these promos available,” says Ravi Limaye of Radio Popcorn in Bhopal, which is run by the RKDF Institute of Science and Technology. He adds, “When we approached government departments, they wanted to know the range of our radio station. Since we do not have an all-Bhopal range the discussion ends right there.”

Dr. Sreedher encouraged CRs to look at at local micro-ads as a revenue-generating alternative-for example, by urging local residents to pay small sums to have birthday greetings mentioned on the air. He also suggested looking at classified on-air ads for such things as bicycles, tractors and farm animals, or for local shops. If a station were to charge Rs 1 per second, it conceivably could collect as much as Rs 90,000 (roughly $2000) a month, more than enough for most CRs to get by, he argued. “We need to concentrate on micro advertising,” Dr Sreedher emphasized. Of the seven CRs visited, so far only Vasundhara Vahini in Baramati has succeeded in tapping this market.

Dr. Sreedher also suggested that CRs look at project funds available from the Department of Science and Technology, which typically allow Rupees 1,000 ($ 20) per day as institutional charges, or a total of Rs 3.65 lakh per year ($ 7,300). Stations also might rent out their studios for the recording of local ads.

To be sure, the 45 CRs run by educational institutions have a different view, as these stations are largely charity operations of universities and generally view advertising as an unwelcome sell-out to special interests. “Once money is introduced, the objective of contributing for society will not be achieved,” said Professor M. Alagar of Anna University, Chennai.

Sushmita Malaviya is a research and writer who lives in Bhopal.

Photo Courtesy of BBC World Service and Flickr.