The incredible 20 years of Community Radio


On a freezy-breezy February afternoon in Gopalganj, a small district of Bihar, a 58-year-old host named Kripa Shankar sat straight-backed before a console mic at the station of Radio Rimjhim, the first community radio station in North Bihar. He welcomed his listeners with—”Namashkar! Radio Rimjhim Nabbe-Dashamalav-Chaar” (translates to Hello! Welcome to Radio Rimjhim 90.4). Gopalganj, […]

On a freezy-breezy February afternoon in Gopalganj, a small district of Bihar, a 58-year-old host named Kripa Shankar sat straight-backed before a console mic at the station of Radio Rimjhim, the first community radio station in North Bihar. He welcomed his listeners with—”Namashkar! Radio Rimjhim Nabbe-Dashamalav-Chaar” (translates to Hello! Welcome to Radio Rimjhim 90.4).

Gopalganj, nestled in the heart of Bihar, mirrors the state’s juxtaposition of tradition and progress amidst its serene landscapes and rustic charm. Despite its bucolic beauty, the district contends economic hardship and limited access to healthcare and education. Here, the community radio, which often gets overshadowed by private FM channels and government run AIR, serves as a friend to the farmer tilling the land, the artisan making his art, and the youth dreaming of tomorrow. “In Gopalganj, radio is more than a technology; it’s a thread binding the community, a voice for the voiceless, echoing through the lush sugarcane fields and bustling marketplaces. It keeps the old and the new together, fostering change, preserving culture.”, says Kripa Shankar, Founder & Managing Director, Radio Rimjhim.

“But what’s a community radio”, you ask?

Dr. Sreedhar Ramamurthy, a promoter of community radio in India says, “Community radio is a radio of the people, by the people and to the people”.

Community radios have been around since the Supreme Court declared airwaves to be public property back in 1995. The idea behind community radio is to bring programs specially designed for a particular area or a local community. It’s typically non-commercial in nature and focuses on providing content that is relevant, informative, and engaging to its local audience.

Often operating from humble spaces with just the basic infrastructure and a small team handling multiple roles, these radio stations broadcast locally nuanced content in local dialects. Their very basic workstations also turn into centers driving social change, bringing health awareness, and gender empowerment  and resonating deeply within the community’s heart. The scarcity of literacy amplifies the radio’s role, bridging the gap where newspapers falter and the luxury of television remains elusive for the itinerant majority.

Dr. Ramamurthy who established the first community radio station at Anna University in TamilNadu says, “My journey into community radio began with becoming a science reporter for All India Radio. My initial challenge was to translate the visual and tangible aspects of science into audio formats that could resonate with rural communities. This endeavor led me to bring scientists directly to the villages, making science accessible and relevant to the daily lives of farmers and rural inhabitants. As my focus shifted from purely science communication to broader radio production and involvement with the Ministry of Science and Technology, the mission became clear: to popularize science across India’s diverse linguistic landscape using radio as the primary medium”. These efforts culminated in the launch of a national radio series, aiming to bring scientific knowledge to every corner of the country.

The Inception of Community Radio Stations

Ashish Sen, Founder President of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters Asia Pacific says, “The pivotal moment came with the privatization of radio in India following a Supreme Court judgment in 1995, which opened doors for entertainment but also emphasized the importance of education and information”.

The concept of community radio, inspired by global examples from Sri Lanka to Brazil, appealed to the Indian context as a means to further localize radio content, making it more accessible and relevant to the immediate community. The Indian government recognized this potential, initially allocating frequencies for educational institutions to explore community radio.

However, Sen highlights, “There’s a considerable gap between demand and supply. Back in 2007, it was suggested that India could accommodate at least 4,000 Community Radio stations. The current number falls significantly short of that mark, raising questions about why there aren’t more stations to meet the potential demand”.

Community Radio plays a vital role as the third tier in India’s radio setup, particularly in addressing the literacy challenges across diverse languages and dialects. It serves as a crucial platform for providing access to information, especially in remote areas with infrastructural divides. Moreover, Community Radio, being community-driven, ensures that local voices and hyper-local news are represented accurately. During the pandemic, these stations have played a pivotal role in dispelling misinformation, addressing gender equity, and catering to the needs of marginalized communities.

During the spring of 2020, when India entered its first Covid-19 lockdown, numerous children in rural areas encountered a lack of access to basic education. However, in the parched district of Satara, situated in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, young children gathered around their radios twice a day, morning and evening. They tuned in to programs tailored to their school syllabi, featuring their own teachers. This educational initiative was part of the manifold community service projects undertaken by Mann Deshi Tarang Vahini, a community radio station operational in the region since November 2008.

The Indian Institute of Mass Communication’s (IIMC) Apna Radio is one of the oldest community radio stations of New Delhi. The Radio has been running as a Community Radio of IIMC, New Delhi for the last 11 years now.

They have executed several impactful campaigns focusing on health awareness, including ‘Teen Talk’, ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’, ‘Yoga and Ayush’, and community-centric programs like ‘Apni Chaupal’ and ‘Apni Basti’, among others.

Mandeep Yadav, an alumnus of IIMC, reflected on his experience, stating, “Involving students in such initiatives is very important. Faculty members engaged us in weekly programs aimed at a specific audience, primarily students from JNU, IIT Delhi, and IIMC. This involvement was key to disseminating information mostly around health campaigns and fostering community engagement. The station offered us a hands-on opportunity to be directly involved in creating, producing, and broadcasting content, ensuring it resonated with the actual needs and interests of our local community.”

Sen explains that community radio in India emerged to address what he describes as “voice poverty” or lack of representation for marginalized populations, including both the urban and rural impoverished, as well as Adivasi and Dalit individuals, who belong to tribal groups and have historically been marginalized as “untouchables,” respectively.

Empowering voices: Celebrating the journey of community radio

Twenty years on, the country now hosts over 475 stations, covering diverse regions from the flood-affected areas of Koraput in Odisha to the drought-prone zones of Banswara in Rajasthan. These stations uniquely broadcast in local dialects like Bundeli, Kutchi, and Marwari, offering a voice to languages often overlooked by mainstream media. In a nation with 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects, that vary widely even within short distances, this focus on regional vernaculars plays a crucial role in preserving and celebrating India’s rich linguistic diversity.

For 14 hours a day, seven days a week, Radio Mewat promotes women’s empowerment and entertainment at the grassroots level in around 300 villages in the region. Founded in September 2010 by social activist and filmmaker Archana Kapoor, and operating under the purview of her Delhi-based NGO Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART), the radio station aims to bring about social change in a region beset with humanitarian issues.

In this region — which has some of the country’s lowest female literacy rates, where early marriages are common and where violence against women is the norm — the station is the voice of change. “In regions where merely 10% of households own a television and traditional values dominate, addressing essential needs remains a hurdle, from securing basic facilities like ration cards to PMJAY cards to ensuring access to vital information, the radio plays a crucial role. Our station was conceived to bridge these gaps, providing a platform tailored to the community’s specific needs,” says Kapoor.

From looking at the radio suspiciously to it now becoming a part of their daily life,  the tide has turned significantly. “Women now actively participate and engage with the station, showcasing the shifting dynamics and acceptance within the community. Community Radios have a responsibility to the community they serve, they cannot just echo government rhetoric. We have strived to remain a community-centric outlet, where the content is driven by the needs and voices of the people we serve,” she added.

A significant portion of community radio programming consists of making engaging and creative content like dramatized stories, short dramas, and locally popular music.

Furthermore, these stations frequently organize live or recorded sessions with specialists in various fields such as agriculture, finance, healthcare, women’s rights, and government initiatives. Nearly all of these stations operate with a minimal local workforce, where staff members acquire skills directly through their work, such as engaging with community members, conducting interviews, producing and editing content, and frequently, conducting surveys to assess their impact.

Young volunteers from the community frequently assist in fieldwork, which helps to build trust and credibility. Sen highlights that despite community radio’s commendable service, there’s a need for policy reforms to address challenges such as restrictive licensing procedures and the prohibition of broadcasting news. Financial sustainability remains a significant hurdle, with NGOs struggling to sustain operations due to lengthy licensing processes and limited funds.

Additionally, technological advancements present both opportunities and challenges, necessitating a blended model to adapt to the digital age while preserving core values. Addressing funding challenges requires exploring initiatives like an independent Community Radio fund, supported by contributions from various stakeholders without compromising the sector’s integrity. Moreover, a cross-subsidized model, similar to the one implemented in parts of Europe, could provide financial support for setting up and strengthening Community Radio stations.

Undoubtedly, the challenges of operating a Community Radio are manifold, exacerbated by meager funds. It’s often the sheer determination and zeal of these grassroots workers and visionary community broadcasters that drive the endeavor forward— their toil and dedication serving as the lifeblood of the operation. The seventh edition of The Radio Festival in Delhi celebrates this incredible journey and unwavering commitment, but also contemplates on lost opportunities and potentialities.

“As Community Radios complete 20 years of operations in India, it’s a poignant moment to assess our accomplishments and ponder the road ahead. Why do we still only have 475 community radio stations nationwide?” questions Kapoor, the longtime organizer of this festival held at Delhi’s India International Centre.

Supported by the UN and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, this festival stands as the sole celebration of its kind in the country. What’s noteworthy is that Community Radio took the initiative to envision a celebration of audio— the oldest form of communication. Kapoor expresses that her intention with the festival was to challenge the perception that community radio must always exist amidst struggles and hardship, devoid of any fun. “With government-owned AIR stations and commercially driven FM channels dominating, community radio often finds itself relegated to the sidelines as the overlooked third tier.  Community Radio became those who had to change the world without much support. So, we were the poorest cousins with the largest non-profit mandate. ” she remarks.

Hence, the concept of fostering synergy and mutual learning emerged in the form of The Radio Festival, an annual event held on February 13th— World Radio Day. “We’ve extended invitations to podcasters, radio enthusiasts, and professionals from related fields such as theater and music. Our ultimate aim remains creating a platform where all facets of the audio realm—artists, RJs, scriptwriters, programmers, or audio technicians—converge.”

Today, The Radio Festival has become a cherished tradition for Community Radio Stations, offering a rare opportunity for validation and celebration. “In the grind of daily life, doubts may arise about whether we’re on the right path. Yet, attending this festival provides a shot of confidence. It leaves you feeling invigorated, reassured that you’re in the right place, doing the right thing,” remarks Kapoor, brimming with optimism and conviction about the expanding significance and impact of Community Radio.