Though unrecognised, community radio is playing a key role in spreading awareness about Covid-19
With Covid-19 raising its ugly head in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on March 27, interacted with radio jockeys across the country through a video conference, thanking them for the awareness campaigns they were conducting.
But one section of broadcasters was conspicuous by its absence — the 289 community radio stations in the country. Many of these are located in far-flung districts and remote corners of various States and have been silently and tirelessly doing their job of disseminating information to the illiterate, the neo-literate, the elderly, children, women and the youth, to make them understand the nature of the coronavirus crisis and how they can stay safe.
“It is at the time of such disasters that we realise what a community radio can do. We used a proactive approach from February itself. In our first broadcasts, we got the district magistrate, the chief medical officer and senior medical officer of the nearest hospital to speak directly to the people. Some were live and interactive sessions, with listeners asking questions. Officials cannot possibly go to every village, but through this medium they can communicate to the maximum number of people,” says Pooja O Murada from SM Sehgal Foundation. She is the Founder Director of the community radio Alfaz-e-Mewat that caters to 225 villages and two lakh people in the Mewat region of Haryana.
‘Ekies batein, Ekies din’
To spread awareness among listeners, the radio station started putting out regular announcements, along with new programmes, on the importance of hygiene and the necessity of washing hands. When the 21-day lockdown was announced, Alfaz-e-Mewat started a series, ‘Ekies batein, Ekies din’ (21 dialogues, 21 days) and had experts from every walk of life speak directly to listeners.
Says Murada: “There were talks on subjects such as mental health, positive thinking, hygiene, distancing, immunity and what a silent carrier is. One other programme we started was ‘Aaj ka hero’ (Today’s hero). which addressed the reluctant population, some of them elderly. Every day, the programme chose one person who would narrate the story about how he or she is staying indoors to protect the family and themselves.”
Through this, the radio station highlighted that it was okay to be afraid of falling ill, it was okay to stay indoors during prayers. “Basically, we conveyed that it is not cool to go out,” adds Murada. In keeping with the recommended use of minimal staff during the pandemic, the radio station ensures that only one person runs the show each day on a rotational basis, with equipment properly sanitised.
To counter false information on WhatsApp and social media, Alfaz-e-Mewat started ‘Savdhan’ (Alert!). This is a service that many other community radio stations are also providing. Says NA Ansari, who currently heads the Community Radio Association and is founder of Radio Namaskar, which caters to 104 villages in Konark, Odisha: “Community radio is very important to dispel false news. Here in Konark, we have an interactive new programme where listeners ask about news they have seen or heard. Fake news is countered and dismissed.”
In Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district, community radio Kamalvani, which has around 25,000 listeners, also became an important vehicle of vigilance. It was in the early days after Kerala discovered positive patients that Navalgarh block found a tourist who had visited to see the famous frescoes of Shekhawati. Later, a family that came in from Italy also had to be quarantined.
Says DP Singh, who runs the radio station, “We concentrated on our catchment area and, through Kamalvani, broadcast information and conducted ‘phone in programmes’ to dispel rumours and fake notions. Some of our citizens who live in Italy have spoken out on air about the seriousness of the viral infection. Kamalvani also aided in forming youth co-ordination groups who are currently enforcing distancing and convincing people who fall out of line. We have sealed some villages now so that there is no community spread here.”
Shamantha DS from rural Bengaluru also started awareness programmes in February itself on community radio Sarathi Jhalak 90.4, which covers around 250 villages. With a 60,000-strong listenership, the station went one step further in disseminating information. It put together a panel of experts to dwell on the coronavirus from five different perspectives. “We had a doctor, a historian, a health activist, a philosopher and a police officer. We are now touching on varied issues — anxiety, depression, pregnant women, domestic violence… “While these are just a few examples of the spirited intervention that community radio has undertaken on its own due to sheer commitment, the fact is that these tiny radio stations are struggling to survive.
For almost two years, community radio seems to have been cast aside and virtually strangulated. In fact, since the last few years, the stations have not received Central government advertising (read DAVP). This was the main source of revenue that sustained them in the past. “Many of the radio stations are now on the brink of closure,” rues Ansari, while others are struggling to keep afloat on the air waves.