Social entrepreneur Saritha Thomas tells Subha J Rao why community radio is vital to help people find their voice

Saritha Thomas grew up listening to radio. Her family, die-hard radio fans, would play recordings from Radio Ceylon to her. Naturally, she dreamt of working for nothing less than the BBC. That dream came true when she was 28 — she joined BBC World Service and Radio 4 London as a freelancer. But, she wanted to do something more, and the idea of Community Radio (CR) appealed to her.

Socio-economic impact

“As a child, I loved the fact that radio allowed you to imagine, allowed you to interpret something differently. Then, as I grew as a broadcaster, I realised there’s so much more power to the medium. It can be used as a development tool. There’s more to it than just creativity and excitement,” says Saritha, 34, who went on to set up People’s P.ow.e.r Collective (PPC), based in the U.K. and India, after a stint in the School For Social Entrepreneurs, London in 2009-2010.

The organisation works to help isolated communities in India set up and run CR stations that bring about socio-economic change. Saritha, director and managing trustee, PPC, is working on a CR, Mandakini Ki Awaaz, in Bhanaj in Rudraprayag district in Uttarakhand. This is in partnership with Mandakini Ki Awaaz Kalyan Seva Samiti. “They have applied for a licence and we are helping them. There is an opportunity and scope to make an impact,” she says.

“My background has always been about radio. It was the fulfilment of a childhood dream,” says Saritha, who was in town recently. She has made field visits and has travelled across the country to study the use of community radio. She has visited Namma Dhwani in Kolar, Sangam radio in Pastapur in Andhra Pradesh, Radio Bundelkhand in Orchha, Mandakini Ki Awaaz, the radio station in Barefoot College, Tilonia, Mumbai University’s Radio MUST and Gurgaon Ki Awaaz. “I studied what they did, and tried to learn from their successes and failings. We are so far removed from their reality. So, we have to go there to know what’s happening at the grassroots,” says Saritha.

What drives community radio? “The fact that it is in the local language and is accessible. The proliferation of mobile phones has made things really easy,” she says, adding: “The immediacy of the moment, the joy of holding a mic and the fact that every single person can have a voice is very empowering.”

And CR is handy when disaster strikes and when local issues such as education and maternal health have to be tackled. It becomes a participatory mechanism, she says.

Local culture is celebrated too. For instance, Radio Bundelkhand has a contest, ‘Bundeli Idol’. “All the local folk musicians vie to take part in it,” says Saritha. Radio, she believes, must also be fun. “It is an interactive medium and has to thrive. We must create an environment that encourages participation.”

Future plans

The project, which costs Rs. 75 lakh, has received some funding from the Sir Ratan Tata Trust and is looking for more funds. Once it is launched, Saritha will spend 18 months in the village, “functioning in that eco system, understanding their challenges, nurturing them in the initial period and providing support.” They are going to construct a building from scratch, buy a jeep for the station, conduct workshops... Once advertising comes in (they are allowed five minutes of paid advertising for every one hour of programming), they can become self-sufficient too. “So, the more programmes they create, the better.”

This stint also means spending time away from family, but Saritha says her family has been understanding. “My parents, my sister and my husband Dhayalan Paul, a chef in London, wanted me to go all out and give it a proper shot.”

How does her vast experience in commercial radio (she’s worked with Radio City in India and City 1016 in the UAE) help? “The two are so totally different. Here, we try to become one with the community and understand what they are comfortable with. And the joy you get in being a voice, an information lifeline in a media-dark area is unparalleled.”

Saritha narrates an incident in Rajasthan. “Once, I was speaking to a lady in a ghoonghat (veil) about radio. ‘All that is for big people like Amitabh,’ she said, little realising I was recording her. I played it for her. The ghoonghat came off. ‘Is that my voice? It sounds so good. Can I be on radio? Will my in-laws listen to me?’ That’s the power of one single line!”

(Visit them at http://www.peoplespower-co.org)

South plans

Uttarakhand is our pilot project. Once the model is tested and works well, we plan to fan out to the South too. We need to create a structure that can be replicated easily. But, we have to make allowances for unique culture, identity and language concerns.

Coimbatore Connect

I studied Class XI and XII in Stanes HSS. I met my husband in school, and the city is a part of my life forever.