Community radio is an alternative radio broadcasting method to commercial and public broadcasting. Community stations serve the interests of communities at grassroots level. They broadcast content that is popular and relevant to a local, specific audience but that commercial or mass media broadcasters often overlook.
Community radio stations are often operated and owned by people from the community they serve. The owners may also be students, universities, municipalities, churches or trade unions. Community radios are generally non-profit and function under a do-it-yourself mechanism to enable people to tell their own stories and professionally create their own content. They are usually financed through donations or fundraising.
In many parts of the world, community radio acts as a vehicle for the community and voluntary sector, civil society, agencies, non-governmental organisations and citizens to work together for integrated community development. Community radio is synonymous with rural radio, cooperative radio, participatory radio, free radio and alternative, popular, educational radio. These usually fall under the umbrella of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters.
Community radio stations can be found in isolated rural villages and in the heart of the largest cities in the world. They comprise a distinct broadcasting sector in many countries, particularly in France, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and Ireland. They are legally defined using phrases such as ‘social benefit,’ ‘social objectives’ and ‘social gain.’ Community radio has developed differently in different countries, depending on freedom of speech laws and de facto cultural realities.
Community radio in South Asia
A look at community radio in South Asia reveals a starkly paradoxical picture. Community radio is seemingly caught in the crossfire between ‘development’ and ‘rights.’ Restrictive legislation and cumbersome application procedures handicap the sector’s growth. Strictures such as the ban on news broadcasting in India and in Bangladesh (where there is an exception for development-related news), as well as the absence of a policy to distinguish between mainstream and community radio in Nepal, have prevented the emergence of an enabling environment for the sector in the region.
…South Asian policy-makers have increasingly acknowledged the social impact of community radio.
On the other side of the coin, South Asian policy-makers have increasingly acknowledged the social impact of community radio. They see it as a critical vehicle for poverty eradication. This is not surprising. Despite a non-level playing field, community radio’s credentials in impacting the lives of less-privileged and marginalised populations is undeniable.
Community radio has helped address a range of formidable challenges, such as those relating to gender equity, food insecurity and disaster management. These are significant achievements in regions like South Asia, where the Human Development Index reveals stark contrasts between rich and poor and between literate and non-literate, and daunting gaps in infrastructure, health, education and access to information and media.
Community radio in Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s experience with community radio provides some telling insights in this context. Community radio has demonstrated significant social impact over the past decade. Community radio is largely a rural phenomenon in the country. Its contribution to addressing social iniquities like child marriages and natural disasters like cyclones and floods, which are annual hazards in Bangladesh, is well known and has been acknowledged by policy-makers and development practitioners alike.
Moreover, in a country that is still fighting poverty, a growing divide between urban and rural infrastructure and gaps in access to information and media, the relevance of a low-cost, accessible and rugged medium like community radio hardly needs stressing. The viability of radio, especially community-based radio, becomes a transformative instrument against literacy challenges.
Insights into the community radio sector
As early as 2005, an AC Nielson survey observed that radio was one of the two mass media ‘that penetrates the poorest sections of society.’ A 2009 Bangladesh Institute of Social Research survey entitled Community Radio Readiness in Bangladesh reinforced Its popularity and credibility as a medium for social change, indicating that 94% of respondents ‘believed that radio can solve any community problem.’
While this may be an oversimplification, a 2021 survey conducted by the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) suggests similar insights in terms of both listenership and trust. The survey observes a dramatic increase in listenership during the covid-19 pandemic. It points out that the increase during the first year of the covid-19 era was substantial because of the sector’s effectiveness in quelling misinformation and fake news during the pandemic.
The survey reveals another interesting point. Drawing on another survey, from 2017, the new data shows that community radio listenership jumped from 6.8 million to 10 million in less than 3 years – surely because of the pandemic. This means that nearly 10% of the rural population in Bangladesh listens to community radio. Listeners emphasised that the pandemic had created ‘panic, especially during its early stage when there was no vaccine and there was a paucity of appropriate healthcare. Miscreants had also been spreading misinformation on social media.’
It was during this stage that community radio stations across Bangladesh began a concerted campaign comprising community service announcements, interviews with government officials and experts, radio jingles and spots, interactive phone-in programmes with doctors and health experts, etc. ‘Consequently, people started to tune into the programs in order to get reliable local news and advice.’
Bangladesh community radio’s efforts to combat covid-19 have been internationally recognised at the UN World Summit on the Information Society 2021 at the International Telecommunication Union Headquarters in Geneva.
Bangladesh’s largest political party, which is currently in power, the Awami League, picked up community radio’s silent impacts and incorporated community media support mechanisms in its consecutive election promises in 2009 and 2014. The promise was to drastically expand the community radio network into remote rural communities. These promises have only been partially incorporated into government policies.
A tool for good governance
Community radio essentially acts as an extension to those left out of the information net in Bangladesh. Yet, it is little known by many policy stakeholders and development practitioners. The role of community radio in the development agenda of the country can be summarised with the following points:
Community radio essentially acts as an extension to those left out of the information net in Bangladesh.
- Community radio has created scope for the poor and marginalised community to raise their own voice; it is a voice for the voiceless. In Bangladesh, community radio is still relatively new. This neo-media outlet has introduced a new rights-based informed discourse at the grassroots level.
- Community radio has become a new platform for local elected representatives, local law enforcers, the private sector and civil society to facilitate good governance.
- Community radio has taken a lead in fostering the targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Bangladesh government’s five-year plans among rural communities.
- Community radio plays a crucial role in creating an inclusive and plural society. It adopts an affirmative action approach and incorporates the most marginalised communities in its workstream.
- Community radio is now able to play an active role in disaster risk reduction through the establishment of effective linkages between government agencies and rural communities.
Participation is key
Listenership alone cannot determine levels of community engagement. It needs to be substantiated by participation – a crucial and universal characteristic of community radio across the world. As its name suggests, community radio’s unique selling proposition is that it is of, for and by the community.
As well-known South African community radio practitioner, the late Zane Ibrahim, observed, ‘Community radio is 90 percent community and 10 percent radio.’ Across the world, the sector’s success has depended on the community’s involvement in its functionalities.
Participation is not a homogeneous process. In determining if community radio has made a substantial difference, it is important to disaggregate and track levels of participation by the community.
Community communications scholar based at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nick Couldry, observes in his seminal work, Why Voice Matters, that the value of voice lies in understanding who speaks and who listens.
Inspiring results out of Bangladesh
A distinctive contribution of community radio lies in its ability to give voice to the excluded, and to bring peripheral voices from the margins to the centre. Bangladesh’s recent track record in this regard would also indicate ground for measured optimism.
In 2015, Free Press Unlimited, a Dutch independent information advocacy group, and the Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) conducted an intense study, titled Pioneering Connecting and Empowering Voice for Change, to evaluate the participatory nature of community radio for the marginalised in Bangladesh. The study encompassed 18 operational community radio stations across the country.
This highlighted that community broadcasting had had a constructive impact on the participation of women, along with marginalised sections such as the Dalit community, transgender actors and persons with disability. The study also underlined the importance of policy reform to sustain the momentum generated.
BNNRC conducted a similar follow-up study, tracking the participation of women, in 2017. This indicated that the gap in participation between average youth-men and youth-women had narrowed substantially over the years, with women comprising 45% and men comprising 55% of all regular and volunteer broadcasters.
The gap continued to close when the data was further disaggregated. Out of all regular broadcasters, 63% were youth and 47% were youth-women. The study also observed that many community radio stations were led by women, while one of the stations, Radio Meghna, located in the southern coastal belt of Bhola Island, is entirely run by women.
Fast-forward to 2021, the findings of the study remain relevant. The trends suggest a substantial deepening of the sector in terms of both community engagement and social impact.
Strategy to include the marginalised
Apart from addressing gender inequity, efforts to involve the participation of marginalised groups, especially the resource-poor, have also deepened. Towards this end, community radio advocates in Bangladesh have embarked on an innovative strategy of using fellowship programmes to incentivise participation from disadvantaged groups. The emphasis on working with marginalised groups, such as Dalits, transgenders and persons with disability, has added a dimension.
…community radio advocates in Bangladesh have embarked on an innovative strategy of using fellowship programmes to incentivise participation from disadvantaged groups.
The fellowship programme incorporates training on community media journalism, fact-checking, research and new media marketing. A 2018 survey, published as Voices for Change, of the alumni of the community media fellowship programme revealed that they had gone into careers with social impact, such as social welfare organisations, corporate institutions, education centres and mainstream media outlets. A few have also opened up their own community media outlet.
In crisis, beyond the call of duty
In Bangladesh, the community radio sector has also played a valuable role in addressing disaster mitigation. Bangladesh’s vulnerability to floods and cyclones makes disaster preparedness critically important. The government’s flagship disaster management initiative, the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme, links several community radio broadcast programmes to disaster prevention and risk reduction.
The programme focuses on issues like what to do and where to go during times of crisis. Often, community radio stations have gone beyond the call of duty and initiated action-based programmes for service delivery agencies at grassroots level.
Remodelling as podcasts
A distinct community media method in Bangladesh has been the use of mixed media in promoting community broadcasting and listenership. Community radio listeners are used to listening through low-cost radio sets. However, there has been a seismic shift; in 2021, most listeners tune into radio programmes through their mobile phones. Community radio stations have thereby started internet broadcasting, essentially going into the podcast model.
A BNNRC survey in 2018 indicated that audiences increasingly favoured podcasts – visual programmes with a ‘watching’ option as they ‘listen.’ Podcasts provide the opportunity to integrate visual content through streaming on social media platforms. BNNRC reports that community radio listenership increases by up to 20% after integrating visual content.
Clearly, these trends indicate that community radio broadcasting in Bangladesh has moved firmly from the initial phase of legitimisation and awareness-building into the consolidation growth phase. So far, so good.
Policy reform from a rights perspective
The sector’s consolidation growth phase is also where the challenge lies. If the process of consolidation is to be sustained, it will be necessary to address the agenda of policy reform. The ‘developmental’ component of community radio cannot be viewed in isolation from the ‘rights’ component. Community radio in Bangladesh has reached a point where it is empowering the people at the margins with the right to the information that has an impact on their lives.
The ‘developmental’ component of community radio cannot be viewed in isolation from the ‘rights’ component.
For community radio stations to be widespread, the regulatory authorities need to provide more licences and reduce the red tape in the application process. Potential community radio licence applicants are often not very well resourced, and encounter cumbersome processes. Bangladesh’s Ministry of Information can take the lead in this regard by widening the eligibility criteria for licence applicants.
Currently, community media are permitted to broadcast only development news. The broadcasting of mainstream news is not permitted. The regulatory authorities can revoke this ban by setting strict parameters so that community radio does not become an extension arm of mainstream or regional media. A regulatory framework can be formulated in consultation with different stakeholders.
Bangladeshi policy-makers may also consider supporting a sustainable finance strategy for community radio. A collaborative independent community radio support fund can be developed to accelerate the growth of the sector in the country. Otherwise, community radio in Bangladesh could run the risk of manifesting a culture that is more for the community than of the community.
Rather than viewing themselves as being at opposing ends of a spectrum, policy-makers and community radio stakeholders, including international partners, need to work together for a prolific community radio culture.
 From a total survey sample of 196 regular community radio broadcasters.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu