The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) sought responses from stakeholders to a Consultation Paper on Community Radio that they released in August this year. The paper, after reviewing the international context of community radio (CR) as well as the state of CR in India, raised a few key questions to which individuals and groups were asked to respond, including whether community radio licenses could be given to Section 8 companies.

Image credit: https://www.trai.gov.in

Licenses for Section 8 companies?

While the body of commercial radio stations, the Association for Radio Operators in India (AROI), was unequivocal in their opposition to expanding the eligibility criteria for community radio licensing, the Community Radio Association of India (CRA) and the UNESCO Chair on Community Media believed the current policy provided room for expanding it to Section 8 companies and that this expansion could aid further growth and development of the sector. However, they suggested that these not-for-profit companies must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny against all the current provisions of the policy guidelines. The UNESCO Chair’s submission, which was the product of a discussion among a group of operational radio stations, community radio advocates, and researchers, also recommended that the screening process for clearing new licenses must be a more democratic, transparent, representative, and multi-stakeholder process.

File photo of 2017 CR National Consultation.

Licensing/Renewal period?

On the question of whether the current license period needs to be changed, AROI felt there was no need to tinker with the five-year duration both for the initial license as well as for subsequent renewal. Both CRA and the Chair were in favour of continuing with the current five-year licensing duration but wanted the renewal period to be for 10 years as stations considered for renewal would have passed the test of sustaining their operation for five years and in line with the principles of CR and the Policy Guidelines. While AROI recommended strict and regular audits of CR stations as a condition for renewal, community radio representatives and the Chair suggested a peer review process that would ascertain the station’s broadcasting record, adherence to policy guidelines, and the non-negotiable principles of CR.

Advertising limits?

On TRAI’s proposal to raise the limit on advertising in community radio stations from 7 minutes per hour of broadcasting to 12 minutes, AROI, expressed its opinion that the current limit is adequate for a non-commercial platform, and suggested a revenue sharing arrangement where private FM radios can help community radios to procure their 7 minutes of advertising by extending coverage to its existing clients. The CRA and the group represented by the UNESCO Chair welcomed the proposed increase in the limit as the removal of any restrictions on the potential for community radio stations to become more financially sustainable is a desirable initiative. Some of the participants in the Chair discussion, while taking note of the MIB data that only a small percentage of stations are utilising even the current limit of 7 minutes, pointed out that community/listener support, parent NGO funding, and deepening state support are the more reliable ways of enabling stations to become financially sustainable.

 

File photo of 2017 CR National Consultation.

Multiple licenses?

On the desirability of permitting multiple CR licenses to organisations that have extended operations in multiple districts, the industry body, AROI opposed the proposal, while CRA expressed itself in favour of the move on the grounds that educational institutions with multiple campuses are already being allowed to set up multiple CR stations. The group represented by the UNESCO Chair overwhelmingly opposed allowing not-for-profit organisations to set up multiple CR stations just because they operate in multiple districts. The creation of media chains and promotion of conglomerates, the group suggested, run counter to the spirit of community radio. In any country, the community radio ecology must reflect the diversity of its population, varied interests and issues, languages, and contribute to bringing about a pluralistic media landscape. A single ‘owner’ establishing multiple stations across different districts or states would promote homogeneous content and stifle local production that could reflect the local context, the UNESCO Chair group added.

Image Credit: https://mib.gov.in

Why slow growth?

Reacting to reasons for the slow growth of the community radio sector in India, the CRA listed the prolonged licensing procedures, inadequate financial support, and overdue payments from DAVP for government advertising as the main factors. The UNESCO Chair, while agreeing with the above, reiterated a long-time proposal of the community radio movement in India for the setting up of an autonomous Community Radio Support Fund that could disburse funds in a more transparent, representative, and multi-stakeholder approach. Further, it also suggested that the Government should consider utilising a minuscule proportion of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) for strengthening the community radio sector and its sustainability.

At the time of publishing this newsletter, TRAI has invited all stakeholders to an Open House on November 11, 2022 to discuss the pros and cons of the comments received. The full text of the Consultation Paper and the comments submitted by all stakeholders can be found here: https://trai.gov.in/consultation-paper-issues-related-community-radio-stations-0 (as on October 21).

 

–Vinod Pavarala