From community radio to Internet radio, mobiles and narrow-casting: New models for enduring needs

Saru Praja Radio production studio

For more images of Saru Praja radio and the training we conducted, click here.

In May this year, a colleague and I went to Nissankamallapura, Pollonnaruwa to strengthen online journalism capacities of a group trained in community radio production and had a decent production studio conveniently adjacent to an ICTA Nenasala. This groups was very interested in using the computers and internet access literally next door to their studio to publish and promote their productions on the web.

They called their station Saru Praja Radio and told us they were the first community in Sri Lanka to ask for a FM radio frequency to air their productions across a footprint of 48 villages in the Pollonnaruwa district.

Engaging as an Ashoka News & Knowledge Entrepreneur, this was a great opportunity to work with a rural community of well trained radio journalists, who had pinned all their hopes on a license to broadcast over a terrestrial radio frequency, on how the web could complement their terrestrial broadcasts and importantly, serve even as the primary dissemination model in the event they did not receive clearance to go on air.

The significant and enduring problems of existing community radio initiatives in Sri Lanka are well known and documented. It was very unlikely that Saru Praja Radio would get a license to broadcast, and even if they did, would be allowed to continue if their productions critically interrogated issues such as service delivery by local government, corruption and the rule of law, which the production team were very interested to cover.

The first thing I did was to set up a website for Saru Praja Radio, that ran WordPress on the backend and register it for 3 years. I chose WordPress because it is scaleable, robust and easy to use. Further, the skill-set learned in maintaining the Saru Praja website could be easily transferred and leveraged to support other individual or collective citizen journalism blogs / initiatives in these 48 villages. There was for example significant interest in covering issues related to the psycho-social spill-over effects of the war by individuals in the production team.

Our first day was spent talking not about technology, but what the production team wanted to achieve through Saru Praja Radio. We asked them how many people had access to the web and internet, how many had mobiles, how many had radios with CD players, what level of participation they had from local government and the Police, what kind of information would be most useful to the peoples in these 48 villages, how their production team was constituted, what equipment they had and how they intended to sustain the radio productions. Our intent was to shape our engagement based on socio-political, economic and technological ground realities.

My colleague and I were pleasantly surprised at the speed with which concepts such as citizen journalism, blogging and the differences between the broadcast model and web based journalists were grasped by the production team. On the final day, several members were even setting up their own WordPress accounts to blog in Sinhala, and all were proficient in the use of WordPress as a platform to upload, manage, share and archive their radio productions.

Based on our conversation with the production team, the model for content production and distribution amongst the 48 villages we came up with was as follows:

Saru Praja Radio model - small
Web and mobile based community radio

Click here for large image or here to download this as a Powerpoint slide. This graphic is based on something we drew up on a sketch board here.

We didn’t focus on the terrestrial broadcast model, which predominated the original thinking be Saru Praja Radio. To their credit, the production team were acutely aware of the difficulties involved in getting clearance to broadcast on  the FM spectrum. Instead, what we did was to suggest a new content dissemination model leveraging the web and Internet, using little more than technologies they already had and used and what the community also already owned or had access to.

Despite real concerns about the sustainability of Nenasalas, given that they were dotted around the 48 villages Saru Praja Radio was anchored to, we proposed that a simple mechanism like a shortcut to its website on every desktop in each of these Nenasala would facilitate dissemination of their content. People could listen to their productions streamed online on-demand, or have Nenasala owners download and store podcasts.

We also spoke about the advantages of using mobile phones to complement the radio productions. 3G was not present in all areas, and in any case, few of the handsets supported audio streaming. That said, the production team said that upwards of 95% of all households owned at least one mobile. Based on this we proposed FrontlineSMS and gave some ideas on how they could use this free and powerful programme to raise awareness about existing programming and more importantly, create interactive radio productions that really responded to community ideas, aspirations and problems.

Narrowcasting and podcasting
We also proposed three ways of narrow-casting Saru Praja Radio content. Akin to the eTukTuk initiative, we suggested the use of bicycles and 3 wheelers equipped with loudspeakers that could playback productions in various parts of the villages, such as near wells, community halls, grocery stores and other public places. They could also function as agents that brought back communal issues to the radio production team.

Our second idea was to disseminate productions through CDs and audio tapes. The production team noted that many homes in the villages had radios equipped with CD players. Using CD-RW’s so as to minimise cost and the environmental impact, we flagged a dissemination model that could send audio CD’s to Nenasala’s for them to copy and distribute, or use again 3 wheelers and bicycles to distribute these CD’s say once a week to households that then redistributed a certain number of copies amongst their neighbours.

Our third idea, looking towards the future and in light of possible funding to buy cheap personal MP3 players, we also suggested podcasts as a way of disseminating content. These podcasts could be easily downloaded from the website at Nenasala’s. It would also allow members of the community to store programmes of particular interest on their devices.

As part of our training, we used a Flip video camera to record two members of the radio production team talk about Saru Praja Radio, suggesting that cameras such as these could be used in the future by them to document issues and events in their communities.

Observations and challenges

  • Nissankamallapura’s Nenasela and radio production studio are in two rooms in a common hall covered by asbestos. The hall gets hot – I mean properly, searing hot. I am not sure electronic equipment functioning in this heat would last that long.
  • Though we always had power, voltage fluctuations were a significant problem, with surges and spikes as common as severe drops. Again, anathema for electronic equipment.
  • The Nenasala adjacent to the radio production studio was paying a private ISP some exhorbitant monthly connection fee. We couldn’t figure out why, or how it was the case that a private ISP was allowed to service what is a government subsidised Nenasala.
  • My colleague had a Dialog HSDPA dongle and I had one from Mobitel, both identical Huawei E220’s. I was able to enjoy a throughput on par with and surprisingly, occasionally better than what I experienced in Colombo. Dialog did not work. Despite showing a signal and connecting, the throughput was so bad that it was not even possible to load up sometimes. With prices from the Government owned Mobitel now extremely affordable, it’s curious as to why Nenasala’s pay comparatively exhorbitant fees to private ISPs for worse connectivity.
  • The website of Saru Praja radio remains unpopulated months after our training because the Gemidiriya project team remain as doggedly convinced that they will eventually get FM 96.1 as they are unconvinced of any other content dissemination model. I make the distinction between the project team and the production team here because the latter are as frustrated as I am at the inability to use the web and Internet to feature some really good content they have produced thus far.
  • There are a lot of pressing social, economic and political concerns in these communities that are not even touched upon by traditional / mainstream media.
  • Communities are very interested in media that helps them address existential problems related to agriculture and farminig, as well as media that provides information on basic interactions with the State, such as ways to register deaths, births and access government information.
  • There is youth in these communities who are extremely web savvy and use mobiles as much as, and in much the same way as, their urban counterparts. They are not ‘backward’ or ‘rural’ in their outlook.

Despite Saru Praja Radio‘s inability and unwillingness to refashion its content development and dissemination strategies, through absolutely no fault of the production team we worked with, the ideas we proposed in Nissankamallapura are those that can feed into and very relevant for other community radio initiatives and especially in Sri Lanka, help in some cases to free content production models from government control.

Teaching WordPress

Importantly, it also allows for individuals citizens or independent citizen collectives to create and disseminate content on their own. Given that pirate radio is often frowned upon and that “community radio” is so tightly controlled by the State in Sri Lanka, innovative internet radio production models can increasingly be as powerful and far-reaching as terrestrial radio and also avoid the pitfalls of relying solely on broadband.

These are some of the challenges I will take up over the next three years as an Ashoka Fellow.

5 thoughts on “From community radio to Internet radio, mobiles and narrow-casting: New models for enduring needs

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