Where No Newspaper Can Go: Community Radio in Odisha Is Bridging the COVID-19 Info Gap

"We broadcast in Kosali to inform the public in their own language for better understanding”, said the station CEO of Radio Swayamshakti.

Bhubaneswar: Tikina Raut is a 28-year-old Self Help Group (SHG) member from Junei village in the Gop block of Puri district in Odisha. Baffled by violations of lockdown orders in her area, she decided to use an innovative way to inform beleaguered villagers about the dangers of the novel coronavirus and the consequences of defying the lockdown.

Raut, who is an ardent listener of a community radio from her area, had kept recordings of the important parts of the broadcasts to inform the less knowledgeable of the consequences of violating the lockdown orders.

“I have been keeping myself updated on government announcements and trying to understand the importance of expert advice, like on social distancing, through community radio. Whenever I see some villagers flouting government directives, I make them listen to the audio recordings of some of the experts and senior government officials,” she told The Wire.

According to Raut, due to the lockdown, access to Odia newspapers in her village has stopped. However, the availability of smartphones and radio sets has enabled villages to get authentic information from community radio stations in the state.

Community radio stations belong to the third tier of radio broadcasting in India, after public broadcaster All India Radio and commercial FM channels. Odisha is home to 17 community radio stations and most of them have proved to be harbingers of change during these testing times. A number of newspapers in the state have stopped printing papers, while the those that are printed fail to reach rural and remote areas during the lockdown.

These hyper-local, low-power, low-cost setups have been mandated to serve the local population and are presumed to be run by the local community.

“This is a time when the mainstream media outreach is either restricted or halted. The rural population, which is filled with varied information and myths, now seek answers about their local areas and issues. They want to know about the curbs in their locality and also the facilities available in their close vicinity,” said NA Shah Ansari, chairman, Radio Namaskar, a Konark-based community radio.

Also read: This Gurugram Community Radio Station Is Playing a Key Role in Times of COVID-19

Also the National President of the Community Radio Association of India, Ansari said that authentic information from government sources was used to provide the local population with the right information at a time when social media rumours were spreading fast.

“We are informing them about day-to-day decisions taken by the district administration and local government. We are interviewing the Tehsildar of the area, Block Development Officers (BDOs), local Public Health Officers and others to give them authentic information, especially talking about the impact of the new orders on their locality,”

Several government officials are now using the service as a means of mass communication. They are making public announcements, talking about recent decisions and curbs, and also allaying fears within the rural community on issues surrounding COVID-19.

The importance of the community radio stations is magnified in some hilly, remote and inaccessible areas, which are barely served by the mainstream media. Radio Swayamshakti is another community radio station based in Khariar in the Nuapada district, so strategically located that it can cover four blocks of Nuapada , two of Balangir and one of Kalahandi district.

Buoyed by the advantage of knowing the hyper-local dialect and languages, this community radio station is serving some remote areas of the districts as well.

“Many hilly areas are not served by the mainstream media. Moreover, many in this district do not speak Odia. Some speak Hindi while the majority are confident in Kosali, a dialect of Odia. We broadcast in Kosali to inform the public in their own language for better understanding”, said Biswajit Padhi, Station CEO, Radio Swayamshakti.

This radio station serves selected areas of the districts that are the hotspots of migration from Odisha. This has worked to inform migrants too about how to manage COVID-19.

“Information was shared with inputs from government officials to inform the migrants about how to manage COVID, information about availing quarantine facilities, testing and others. A number of confusions and queries of migrants were solved through us by linking them to the concerned officials,” Padhi added.

Some of the community radio stations are now also using multi-platforms to cater to more listeners and provide them with more information. Radio Bulbul is a community radio station from Bhadrak in Odisha. It has now made its presence felt through a mobile app available for android smartphones and is also present on all forms of social media to magnify its impact.

Also read: The Fight Against COVID-19 Needs Local Solutions That Are Aided by the Centre

“We broadcast in Odia as well as Hindi as there are a chunk of Hindi speakers in the area too. We have been doing several theme-based shows regularly to discuss each topic in detail like homelessness, TB and others, with the help of experts on the issues,” said Sk Md Niyaz, Director, Radio Bulbul, 91.2 FM.

The radio station is conducting theme-based discussions as a part the show Kar Bhala Toh Ho Bhala. The presenter, Md Imran Ali. Niyaz claimed that the show helped spread information amongst many citizens about each topic in detail.

Several of these community radio stations, however, indicated that they did not get sufficient support from the government to conduct their business smoothly. While the state government is giving them some revenues through jingles especially crafted for COVID-19 awareness, there is almost no support from the Union government. This at a time when most community radio stations are struggling to survive.

The state government, however, has said that it has been using the services of community radio to create awareness on COVID-19 in addition to roping in the services of all other forms of media.

“There are seven empanelled community radio stations with the health department from the state. We are working to empanel more such stations. We are supporting them through intellectual materials and public awareness ads through jingles,” Sanjay Singh, Secretary, Odisha Information and Public Relations Department told The Wire.

He also said that the government had even considered using popular local cartoon characters to boost awareness. “We recently collaborated with the makers of a popular Odia cartoon character – Natia. This cartoon has reached close to 5 million views on Youtube and is watched widely across the state. We roped in their services to spread the message of social distancing, hygiene and others,” he added.

Manish Kumar is an Odisha-based journalist.