The National Community Radio Policy Guidelines 2006 are well into the eighth year of their initiation. The 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) envisions the process of inclusive
growth to result in lower incidence of poverty, significant improvements in health care, universal access for children going to school and increased access to higher education including skilled development. To foster these objectives through participatory communication, the Community Radio Guidelines have enabled civil society organizations to set up community radio stations in urban areas and rural hinterlands.
But the number of such community radio stations is just 141. We must aim at setting up atleast 4000 community radio stations during the 12th Plan Period that were in fact anticipated to be set up during the National Consultation on Community Radio held in 2007. This entails a dire need, in the current international context, to take an objective look at the threats to the sustainability of community radio in India.

First, the nature of broadcasting in developing countries is becoming quite fractured. Public service broadcasters, private operators, state and community outlets all vie for positions in the increasingly crowded media markets. This is particularly true in the ever expanding megacities such as Mumbai and Bangalore where scores of FM stations pack the spectrum. This definitely means that the most economically weak will be pushed out of the market by commercial competitors. Without doubt, television, Internet and social media have widened media choices and reduced the radio audiences making it difficult
to find backers particularly for community radio. Thus, unless and until, fair regulatory policies according a special place, as a third tier of broadcasting, are introduced and enforced, the unique voluntarism, energy and voice of community radio will be lost
to market forces.

Second, we need to anticipate the trend towards hybridization. Many commercial radios have recently adopted a social element in their broadcasts to expand their reach to rural hinterlands and thus attracting development funding for carrying agricultural, health and other public interest programming that has been the traditional preserve of community radios. They do this with a fresh, energetic and professional way using modern studios with strong and reliable transmitters. This is true for many primarily urban and private educational institution run community radio stations in India. As aid and donor agencies, both national and international, begin to see that they can reach larger audiences through such hybrids they may reduce their support for community radio in rural hinterlands especially in the programming for behaviour change messages.

The third major challenge for community radio is in areas experiencing terrorist and other types of threats to national unity and security. In fragile areas such as border states where local populations are constantly bombarded with cross border propaganda
and areas afflicted with left wing extremism where accessibility is an issue it will be an uphill task to motivate civil society organizations to set up community radio stations. While there is more need for community radio stations in these areas, fears of ‘take over’ will perhaps suppress the latter’s grassroots extent and coverage. Finally, community radios have to converge with digital media and Internet. New technology, ‘on demand
content’ and citizen media are all developing and becoming increasingly affordable such that broadcasting on the FM band may become old fashioned. For instance, in India and other developing countries too, mobile phone operators can possibly circumvent
government broadcast restrictions by creating and distributing news headlines as well as short bulletins as text messages to mobile phones for a small fee to users.

Abhilaksh Likhi
(The writer is an IAS officer and currently
a Senior Research Fellow at
South Asia Studies Program, SAIS,
Johns Hopkins University, Washington
DC. The views expressed are personal.)