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Will a thousand community radio stations bloom in India?

MUMBAI: Want to set up a community radio (CR) station? There is good news as Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has announced Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) aid for the development of CR in the country. In Jaitley’s own words from his maiden Budget speech: “To encourage growth in the sector[the community radio], a new scheme is being taken up with an allocation of Rs 100 crore. This scheme would support about 600 new and existing community radio stations.”

Given that 400 CR licences are awaiting government approval and only 170 stations are currently in operation, the allocation of Rs 100 crore to boost the struggling CR sector is good news, albeit with a catch.

Last year, then Finance Minister P Chidambaram had also allocated Rs 100 crore for the CR sector, but as per sources, the funds were used only for research and training purposes instead of actual development.

So what kind of growth is expected?

Mostly catering for communities like students, farmers and other rural populations, the CR stations have been burdened with financial issues that threaten their survival.

A majority of the 170 stations in operation serve the private and government education sector. Then there are those operated by NGOs as well as other stations for the farming community.

Total no of CR stations as of July 2014: 170
Major CR stations: Education (Pvt and Govt) – 85

Stations operated by NGOs: 61
Stations run by Universities: 12
State Agriculture stations: 6
Krishi Vigyan Kendra stations: 6
Highest CRs: Tamil Nadu – 27
Uttar Pradesh – 19
Maharashtra – 16

Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra boast the highest number of CR stations. But there are also states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, etc. which do not have even one CR station.

Going by the Centre’s promise to help community radio, a spurt of growth is expected. Several stations might launch within the next two to three months. This will also provide an opportunity for stations to open in the North East while a number of education-focused CR stations could come up to serve the large student population in various universities.

As Community Radio Association vice president NA Shah Ansari tells TelevisionPost.com, “As of now, we are seeing an equal number of applications of educational institutions and NGOs pending to start stations. Last year also the same amount was allocated. But the big thing to be seen is how this money is used this time around.”

 

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But looking at the scheme of things, it appears that the going will not be that easy for the CR folks. From the Rs 100 crore allocated, 90 per cent will be spent on new stations and their development, while the rest has been reserved for the existing stations for upgrade of equipment. But the problem here is that the operating stations will first have to apply for the aid, which will then be approved by the government after an audit!

About Rs 1.5 million is needed for setting up a new station, for which the government will pay only Rs 750,000 while the rest of the funding will have to be borne by the licensee.

The issues at stake

Numerous issues have been threatening the existence of CR stations in India, which include, among other things, revenue and advertising. Many stations have shut down over the years (a recent big one being Jaago Mumbai). Despite the continuing blame game between the CR operators and the government, the deeper issues still remain hidden.

As already mentioned, one of the problems is that the government is mainly bent on launching a horde of new stations but is reluctant to do anything to help the existing ones. The money allocated for growth is mainly spent on research and there is a lack of proper planning.

Mumbai’s MUST Radio founder Pankaj Athavale says, “Community radio should be planned as a social business. You can get projects from various educational institutions or social agencies as per the requirements of your station. But today, the whole movement is getting very philosophical and there is no growth.”

In fact, records show that in the past three years no new licence has been given for a community radio station.

Nonetheless, another operator stated on the condition of anonymity that the CR model is supposed to be self-sustaining, but some existing stations do not want to make money and look for relief in government funding.

“NGOs use it as an opportunity to push forward their agenda and get money from the government. They don’t use the station or its technology for its real purpose. It is a very hypocritical situation in the market,” he said.

The cost of setting up a station is Rs 1.2–1.5 million, and to sustain it one needs revenues of around Rs 1.2 million per annum. However, some stations operated by NGOs are earning as much as Rs 1.8 million owing to funding from organisations like UNICEF. But the sad truth is this money is not being distributed among the poor for whom special programmes are organised.

Yet, it is easy for such organisations to get licences, as most activists are well connected and often know the members of the screening committee (which interviews CR licence applicants in Delhi).

While these are the larger issues simmering at the fore, another issue concerns the Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity (DAVP) ads. Any CR station registered with the DAVP is entitled to 30-second advertisements from the government at Rs 4 per second.

Operators also allege that while Rs 200,000 is allocated per annum to a station, the payment is not regular and is very difficult to attain.

The existing CR stations in the country are having a hard time mobilising revenues after meeting minimum operating costs. While the government is at fault by not providing substantial financial relief or DAVP ads as promised, somewhere a few operators are also largely responsible for not developing sustainable models.