Missed calls, especially in India, are a useful tool. You pass on your number to an acquaintance through a missed call, you “miss call” to let someone know you’ve reached a particular destination, or you get a missed call because the other person wants you to call them back. But last week, these calls got a new twist with Pratham Books’ “ Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno ” campaign. For two days, emails, WhatsApp messages, and social media posts flew across cyberspace, urging people to give a missed call to a Bangalore number. Pratham Books would then call back and children and adults could listen to a story in five languages: English, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, or Telugu. The not-for-profit children’s books publisher partnered with Radio Mirchi and Exotel, a cloud telephony company, for the campaign.
“Most of us were fortunate to grow up in world full of stories,” said Purvi Shah, Head Digital Projects, Pratham Books. “But for millions of children the culture of books and reading for joy in their home environment does not exist. From our varied experiences on the field we constantly heard the need for audio stories. To us, this was a great insight to reach where a culture of reading at home was missing for the child. We felt we could address this need gap because we already had lovely stories in many Indian languages.”
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), India has over a billion mobile phone users, of which 42.39 per cent are rural subscribers. Businesses have long wised-up to this statistic, as have political parties. We have been bombarded with marketing calls and SMSes, electoral campaign texts, and sales alerts and urged to send text messages or call toll free numbers on television shows. The Pratham Books campaign puts phones to better use: getting stories to remote parts of the country.
“The mobile phone as we know already exists in most Indian households today,” said Shah, “and that became an easy, scalable distribution medium, What we needed to ensure was that the parent did not have to pay for hearing the story. This was crucial considering the focus of Pratham Books’ target audience: the underserved child. That’s how we thought of exploring the ‘missed call’ route, which already existed as an idea.”
As part of their CSR initiative, Mirchi Cares, Radio Mirchi recorded the Pratham Books’ stories and then Exotel created the framework to deliver the audio stories. The Delhi pilot saw over 35,000 missed calls from 3,500 phones. For Exotel’s CEO, Shivakumar Ganesan, the campaign’s phenomenal response was “yet another testimony to the power of a simple phone call.”
“When the campaign went live, we received a great response online,” said Maya Hemant Krishna, Community Manager, Pratham Books. “Over the years, we’ve built a community of reading evangelists who are passionate about helping us in our mission of getting ‘a book in every child’s hand’. Many of them pitched in to spread the word about the campaign, actively tell people about how it works and more, ask for an extension because their children didn’t get to hear it, spread it through WhatsApp.”
As a campaign, “ Missed Call Do, Kahaani Suno ” dialled a lot of right numbers: a zero-cost operation that spreads the wonder of stories to children with little or no access to stories, or with limited literacy; and in multiple languages. “Listening to stories is a joyful way to create an interest in reading among children,” said Himanshu Giri, CEO, Pratham Books. “Our aim was to take the magic of storytelling into the homes of children by empowering parents to bring the joy of stories to their children.” Shah further said, “Many studies on language development have documented that children from low income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their affluent peers before the age of four. A simple technique like reading aloud can bridge this gap. The idea of ‘ Missed call do, Kahaani suno ’ is to create a culture of listening to stories within the home environment. This will eventually lead to an interest in reading as well.”
To encourage reading, for instance, after you heard the narrator growling away in Pehelwaan ji in Hindi on the phone, you also got a SMS with a link to the e-book on StoryWeaver, an open source repository of multilingual stories for children. Maya Krishna said that the content is available for now on StoryWeaver and on Pratham Books’ SoundCloud account for free download.
Chennai-based Kuppulakshmi Krishnamoorthy was one of the callers. “I have this special connection with this girl whose parents do a bunch of chores in our apartment,” she told Pratham. “I couldn’t wait to sit next to her and make her hear the story. When she and my daughter heard the Mouse in the House story, their eyes gleamed in delight. We learned a bunch of words from the story. Later, I enacted the story for them, playing the grandma, the pa, ma, the baby, and the mouse. They all giggled and clapped. The best part of the campaign was your insisting on sharing this with those kids who didn’t have access to stories.”
The author writes about education for sustainable development, conservation, and food security. She’s the former editor of Time Out Bengaluru