A Garhwali community radio station was a long-cherished dream in the region, kept alive and nurtured by a dedicated group of community members for over a decade. This dream was finally realised when Mandakini ki Awaaz began broadcasting on September 21, 2014.
Manvendra Negi and Devilal Bharati are part of the original team that founded Mandakini ki Awaaz. Currently, Negi is the station manager and Bharati is the field team leader, managing the radio station’s field outreach programmes. In this interview, Negi and Bharati discuss their nearly decade-long journey in setting up the community radio station and its significance to their community.
Following is an edited and translated transcript of the interview conducted via telephone in Hindi on December 24, 2019.
Shweta Radhakrishnan (SR): What sparked your interest in community radio?
Devilal Bharati (DB): In 2004, there was barely any cell phone network and most of us listened to the radio. When Negi ji and I met, we discussed the possibility of building our own radio station like the All India Radio station in Najibabad. We spoke to community members and people endorsed the idea of a community radio channel in Garhwali, which would give them a platform they did not have at the time to showcase their talent. So, we wondered, why not work towards this—a community station in our local language, one which showcases our traditions, and works towards the preservation of our culture.
Manvendra Negi (MN): To add to what Devilal ji said in the beginning, the concept of community radio itself was new to us and we tried to understand both its transformative potential in terms of what its impact could be as well as the practical aspects of the medium, in terms of how to run a station, how to record pieces, etc. In 1999, after the earthquake in Uttarakhand, we met a few people while working on the ground. A friend of the station, Devendra Bahuguna, informed us about a community radio workshop and gave us four forms for the workshop. At the time, we didn’t really know what the workshop would be about and thought it was probably about radio repair. Four of us attended the workshop from Rudraprayag. At the workshop, we met people from other districts of Uttarakhand as well. It was during this training that we met Mr Mahesh Acharya, who shared his experiences of working with community radio stations. He also trained us on how to use an analogue recorder and helped us understand various technical aspects associated with community radio. During this training, we also discussed what community radio is with examples of community radio stations from across the globe. We had to do technical exercises such as conducting interviews, making public service announcements, recording plays and skits for the radio, etc. We had a representative from All India Radio, who explained how the Garhwali programmes were produced at the All India Radio Station in Najibabad. As part of the workshop, we visited the All India Radio station in Najibabad and saw first-hand how a radio station is run, how transmission works, and how they record and produce shows. Later, at a workshop organised by Himalaya Trust, it was decided that those who had been trained in community radio from various districts, would share equipment with each other. So, we shared our equipment with the group from Chamba that went on to set up the Henvalvani community radio and with other communities. During this period, we made our first radio programmes as well. We made a magazine programme on the culture of the Mandakini river valley which focussed on the traditions, rituals, and pilgrimage spots in the valley, and this was aired on the All India Radio channel from Najibabad. At this time, four of us—Narendra Kandari, Archana Bahuguna, Sateshwari Negi, and I—were working on these shows.
S.R: Given that the three others, who were part of the training programmes with you, moved on to focus on other projects, how did you [Manvendra Negi] meet Devilal Bharati and other community members who became part of the group that founded Mandakini ki Awaaz?
M.N: For the first four months after the initial training workshops, it was just the four of us I mentioned previously, working on programmes and trying to understand the medium. Somewhere in 2002, there was an event where we met others working on community radio in different parts of Uttarakhand. We were developing a series of shows on local business success stories and we began discussing how we would take this forward in our areas. The Henvalvani team decided to set up in Chamba. I also wanted to set up something in the Agastyamuni block in Rudraprayag. This discussion then moved forward with community members from Rudraprayag district in 2004. We had discussions which involved local interest groups in our community such as the grampanchayat [local government at the village level] and mahila mangal dal [women’s welfare group]. Through signature campaigns, we tried to gauge how many people were interested in having a local community radio. Everybody seemed to agree on the idea. Several families even donated small amounts to help set up and run the radio station. It is at this time that Devilal ji and others came on board.
SR: Can you describe what the initial years were like? As you previously shared, the first community radio workshop that you attended was in 2001 and the organisation was formally registered in 2006, the year that the Indian government allowed community radios to be owned and run by non-governmental organisations— what was the work that went into preparing for this medium in the years between 2001 and 2007? What are the challenges you encountered in this period?
MN: We first started working out of a small room in the Bhanaj market area. In 2005, we partnered with Equal Access [International] to broadcast via satellite radio. At the same time, we were also cablecasting through a cable network in Gopeshwar. Around 2008, we began working with Ideosync Media Combine on programmes like Jab Chale Shehar ki Ore [Towards the City] on issues such as migration and HIV AIDS. We also worked on programmes like Humara Gaon [Our Village] and Yuva Manch [Youth Platform], which were aired on another satellite channel that operated out of Delhi. We would send CDs with our programmes to Delhi and they would be uploaded to the channel from there. Around this time, we set up the radio station as well and people started visiting the station. People would come and play various instruments like harmonium and dholak [a local percussion instrument]; people would sing bhajans and keertans [devotional songs] and we would record their music. At this time, Ideosync also helped us with equipment that enabled us to move on to digital recording. We also started editing on computers at this point. We set up radio receivers in 15 villages in our community and there would be one person from the community trained to operate it, so that community members could gather and listen to the programmes being broadcast.
DB: When we started broadcasting on satellite radio for the first time, community members were quite excited. They heard their voices for the first time. Earlier, we used to record and play it back on the recorder itself, which people didn’t enjoy as much. However, for the first broadcast, we had a small programme organised in Bhanaj and once they heard their voices through a satellite broadcast, they were quite excited.
MN: In terms of challenges, one of the first concerns about starting the radio station was where would we build the station? Land was a huge concern for us at that point. At first, one of the village panchayats offered us a school which was no longer being used. We worked towards securing that space for the community radio station, making sure community members were okay with the idea as well. However, we learnt that the panchayat only wanted to lease that space out for two to three years, which was not viable for us. Later, the Akhori gram panchayat offered us the land on which the radio station now stands. Even after we got the land, the question of raising funds for the building still loomed over us. So, we approached our local MLA, Asha Nautiyal and in her second term, she allocated funds to help us build the radio station. Slowly, we started working towards getting other utilities set up, such as electricity and water. In 2013, when we partnered with People’s Power Collective [PPC], we were able to address other concerns through the partnership, including infrastructural ones such as electricity, setting up of the transmitter, tower, etc.
DB: We registered the organisation in 2006 and then as per the rules, we had to wait for three years before we could be considered eligible to apply for the broadcast license. People suggested that we apply for the license through a mahila mangal dal or yuvakmangal dal [youth welfare group], but we wanted to make sure that the radio station was insulated from personal issues and decided to apply through a registered organisation set up for this express purpose. In about 2011–2012, we met Saritha ji from PPC, who decided to partner with us and helped us in setting up Mandakini ki Awaaz.
SR: The community radio station officially launched in 2014, seven years after the organisation had been formally registered. What was the process that went into procuring the license and setting up the station?
MN: In 2006, we registered Mandakini ki Awaaz under the Societies Act. In 2007, we applied for the license, but we were not eligible then because the license is granted only to those organisations who have worked for about three years. In 2010, we reapplied, but the spectrum fee was hiked from INR 19,700 to INR 91,000. Along with several other radio stations, we opposed this hike and because we couldn’t pay this amount, our application didn’t move forward that year. The fee was then reduced to INR 19,700 and we paid it then. Saritha ji and PPC helped move this process ahead. The 2013 floods in the Mandakini River Valley helped us build pressure on the government to grant us the license, because it highlighted the need for a medium that could provide information in the valley. Such a medium would have been extremely helpful during the floods. Our District Magistrate, Raghav Langer wrote us a letter emphasising the need for a community radio station in the region, and that recommendation also helped our application.
SR: What are the ways in which you generate content from the community? Before the station started broadcasting, how were you able to generate interest for the medium in the community?
DB: We used to interact with people and keep talking to community members about what this community radio station would be. We would tell them this is like All India Radio, but unlike All India Radio, where content is graded and then broadcast, here there would be no gradation and everybody would get a chance to be on air. We would explain that we would come to them and record their songs. We told them that we would work together to preserve traditions which were dying out, such as jhumela and chaukhla [performance traditions that usually feature songs about nature/spring accompanied by dance]. These points helped build interest and confidence in the medium. We worked to ensure that we were always in touch with community members, talking to them about what a community radio would mean for the region.
SR: What are the ways in which you think the community radio station has affected the community? What has changed in terms of opportunities for musicians from the region?
DB: I think it has provided a platform for those who did not have it before. For example, a lot of women sing bhajans as part of the mahila mangal dal, but their reach was limited to their domestic spaces or at best, their own villages. Now, their songs are playing on the radio station and reaching bigger numbers than before. People also build a relationship with the radio because the voices they are hearing on the radio are those of their friends and family members. This usually makes listeners excited and happy. Additionally, we also have recorded pieces by those who have now passed away. So, while they are no more, their voice is still alive, and we often get requests from community members who would like to listen to those voices on air.
MN: I think people had begun to feel ashamed of their language and their culture in this region and felt that their language and culture was backward. With the community radio station, I think people are beginning to regain a sense of confidence and a sense of pride about their language and culture. Some people have been inspired enough to quit drinking after listening to our shows on dealing with addiction. Those who have put out announcements on our Khoya-Paya [Lost and Found] show, have had their things returned to them. We have highlighted the extraordinary work done by community members in our Local Hero segment. It has also helped people with keeping time because people are aware of the time of each programme, so they try to wake up in time for the morning show, tune in in time for the other shows, etc. Over the last five years of our broadcast, community members have also become more comfortable speaking on air and have developed an ease with which they are able to speak and present their points. So, I think there has been a discernible impact on people’s lives.
SR: What are some of the ways in which the community radio station has impacted language in the region? Since Garhwali is an endangered language, have you seen any difference in the way people use language after the community radio station started broadcasting?
MN: I think Garhwali language has definitely been positively impacted by the community radio station. As I mentioned previously, the sense of shame around the language has gone. Earlier, at events and public gatherings, people would try and speak only in Hindi, and that is slowly changing. For example, we ask about Garhwali idioms and sayings on the radio, and people take the effort to ask around and search for these idioms and their meanings to be able to answer on the radio. In this way, Garhwali is slowly being spoken more regularly as well. I think this, combined with the government’s efforts to include Garhwali under the scheduled languages list, will help preserve and promote Garhwali.