| 20 Jul 2024
Unesco Advisor Jocelyn Josiah - Community radio allows common people to be heard by the powerful

This is a hot seat," sighs Jocelyn Josiah, as we settle down for the interview. The lady is neck deep in her work as Advisor to Unesco, for Communication and Information, Asia. Under Josiah's purview are India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Her main work relates to freedom of expression and rights, but that takes Jocelyn to her most passionate area of specialisation: community radio, which she says has completely transformed communities, empowered them and made callous, unresponsive politicians and officials respond and often act for developmental work.

Josiah, who comes from the Caribbean Isles and has worked on this project across the world, speaks of the Unesco mandate, the powers of community radio, costs and ethics and the great liberating, empowering force of the community radio to's Sujit Chakraborty.


What exactly are the responsibilities of this office?

Our work deals with the rights of the media and includes a wide gamut of activities. A lot of that is capacity building, where we train journalists, and media and information professionals. In fact, we just had a conclave on the subject in Maldives.

We do a lot of work related to democracy, governance, development, and a lot also on community radio, using ICT and media for development. And to use a common phrase, our work is to demystify the media in the eyes of the common people.

What is your assessment of the countries you work in, in terms of press freedom? What kind of activities do you do with journalists? And what are the myths around media and community radio which you seek to demystify?

Unesco has been working in Nepal, where the fight continues for the recognition of a free press. In terms of freedom, India has the most free press, despite the fact that there are huge problems, especially in the north east, Kashmir and some other places.

In India, the (developments like) community radio, the broadcast bill and the Right to Information Act have set the country far ahead of other countries. Compare this to countries like Sri Lanka, where the whole issue of press freedom is getting exacerbated because of the conflict. That makes things like conversion of public broadcasters for development, or capacity building for community radio, difficult.

What about places like Maldives?

A year ago, people in the Maldives had not even heard of press freedom. Since 2005, when I first went there, there have been quite a few changes in the way in which the journalists are beginning to take the media into their own hands. There has been independent print media for some time, but now journalists are talking with the government about independent broadcasting. They have set up the Maldives Media Association. There is also a website called Hyphen set up by the ministry of information, which is at the hub of generating more dialogue with the journalists.

How does the work done by Unesco differ from that of Amnesty, which also works for the same issues of rights and media freedom?

I cannot claim to know much about how Amnesty works, but Unesco has certain priorities, like science, education, communication, etc, and what concerns us more is development. So when we try to broker a deal, it is not necessarily in an antagonistic or forceful way, because we firmly believe in dialogue and capacity building in that area, and work both with the government as well as the media institutions.

What are the preconceptions or misconceptions that people have about community radio?

First of all, poor people all over the world do not know the word 'rights'. Everybody tells them what to do and they have grown up for generations believing that have no rights. With the Right to Information Act getting passed in India, people are saying it is their right to know, but earlier, they could not have believed that what they hear on the air waves is about them.

Introducing the people to the technology, showing them the acceptability in terms of costs, in terms of information… showing them how to use the computer and get onto the Net and find a voice, that is important. I call this a demystifying process.We use technology enabled small recorders and tell people how they can carry this and tape people's voices, come back to the studio, edit it and then broadcast their own words. They realise how they can be in charge of how they tell their stories. This is not only demystifying the technology, but also demystifying themselves and their status in society.

What is most interesting is that when the common people tell their stories, the powerful stop and listen. In many cases, they go further, and set the process for change.

Could you give some concrete examples?

Yes, there is a story from Kodikote in Karnataka. Women from a drought prone village complained about the lack of water, and their stories were carried in the local cable station, and before you know, the water was running from taps.

The government wants to hear what is going on in the constituencies. And there is a system of how they monitor broadcasting on the local radio station.

But does it always happen? In strife situations… can community radio help? Could you give a correct definition of what community radio is?

It is informed radio. It is based on research, so that people can speak with knowledge and authority. I would hazard a guess that governments behave in the way they do because people and journalists are not aware of their rights. If they were, they would collectively stand up, and that is exactly what community radio does.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are lawyers, who do a lot of pro bono work in the interest of freedom of expression. You need to know who those lawyers are and where they are; and once you have access to that sort of information, you can broadcast it over community radio. The whole thing about people feeling helpless is because of the quantity and quality of information coming to them. When you withhold information, it is because you want to exercise a certain kind of power, but community radio is a very powerful tool to challenge that.

As for the definition, Unesco's vision for community radio is something owned and run by people of a community… not just one person necessarily, but a group of people from the community. The management structure involves a board which is representative of all the stakeholders… organisations, civil society… even governments. So everybody's interest could be represented in the community radio.

Programming is done in a participatory manner, not by one journalist who goes out, gets reports and broadcasts. That could be done, provided that journalist is from the community, but by the same token, anybody can be taught to go out and collect information. Unesco wants that each and every person from the community can tell his or her own story.

There are community multi-media centres with Internet, radio, video that involve training community members in doing digital stories that could be broadcast on community TV channels.

Can you play music on community radio?

You can play music, of course, but that is to draw the audience in the beginning. You can use music to help local people develop their artistic skills, and for all you know, the national radio picks up the talent. Look at some of the famous singers… many of them have come from local community radio centres. It can develop local talent and also bring in some kind of revenue. And if people can package their own music, they can sell them, through the Internet and other platforms.

So, if my people from the urban village I live in South Delhi come and tell you we want to start a community radio, so what will you do for us by way of….

No, you do not do that, because that is not what you should ask us. If you want to start a community radio, you ask Unesco how to go about it, but don't ask us to… err… help you.

I do not mean money. I mean, what the know how, the technology, and so forth.

You have the permission to go on air. You have to go through the whole process, which I know is very challenging, that of getting a license from the government. Unesco will not get involved in that. But once you get that out of the way, you need to know the technology, you need to plan programming, and there are costs involved, you need the tape recorder, microphones, transmitter, power meter…

Where does one get the transmitters from?

Well, you can buy them here… what we have been trying to do is get manufacturers to make smaller transmitters, but otherwise, you can get the transmitter from China, where they make very small transmitters. But what we need to do is look for suppliers who could bring them from China, and they are not expensive at all.

How expensive is not expensive, say the smallest one, and how far could we send the signal from such a small transmitter?

Well, the least costly and smallest could come for say $200, and it would be able to send signals on flat land up to seven kilometres. But in situations like Delhi, although it's flat land, there are a lot of very powerful transmitters, and you would have to tackle that. In general, however, the higher you go, the more the distance covered and clarity achieved within the range.

But what is Unesco's role in all this… just spread awareness? Training?

Yes, that's right. We do a lot of advocacy. We work with the government on this issue and are also engaged in capacity building. Technology, management, we give you a lot of creative ideas.

For a community radio station to sustain itself, what would be a revenue model that would allow this?

There are many revenue models possible, but one of the things I want to stress is that community radio is the people's radio. So if the community feels they own the radio, they start to help make things happen. There are lots of creative ways to devise a way to survive. I remember in one case, people did not have money, but they had rice. So they brought the rice to the station, the station sold it and raised the money.

There is another way I can think of in another part of the world, where there were no roads, only rivers and people used canoes. So when the radio came up, they stopped calling them canoes and started calling them �water taxies'. They advertised on the radio and the radio benefited from the water taxies. I think there are many ways of how to capitalise from what the community has and survive.

Also, if in an Indian northeast kind of situation, where a free radio can be run by independent journalists, is it possible to raise enough money to pay journalists run the radio and earn their wages so that….

Can I stop you?


You are talking about journalists. In my mind, community radio workers are not journalists, they are community radio workers. We are not here to give employment. But if you have to pay the community radio workers, there is another way the radio can make money. They get a commission for every story they bring in. That becomes an incentive for people to go out there and bring in as much content as they can.

How costly would setting up such a station be?

You could have the entire equipment for as low as $2,000 right up to $10,000, and they would have to come for training, and there are other costs.

Would the training be given by Unesco?

Yes, we are working with our partners, like the Broadcast Engineers Society here in India. There are also costs like royalty for running popular music, because the problem with community music is that there is not too much of depth or variation, but then, it is not necessary to run the channel 24 X 7. You could go on air for shorter durations.

One other thing is that we do not encourage community radio being used for political purposes, and there are some codes of ethics and codes of conduct involved for that radio centre. You have to ensure balanced reporting. We can give you model codes and you can develop your own code. There is also the organisation, which you could look up. They would be able to give a whole lot of advice.

What gives you the most satisfaction?

What turns me on about community radio is the change people feel and the way they react to having their own community radio. There was this community project which we were helping with some equipment, notably a transmitter. And the one we sent was just six inches by four inches, very small, really. So the people called me up and said, We asked for a transmitter."

I told them that that is a transmitter, but they said: Our engineer is saying this is not a transmitter." I said: Ask your engineer to hook it on." And then they hooked it on, and started broadcasting, and they saw the results of that broadcasting. Because they were reaching about five miles, they saw people coming to the station and wanting to have a say in the broadcasting.

They saw the swell of enthusiasm from the community. Then people from the neighbouring villages also wanted the radio and wanted the coverage area to be extended, and that is when the community came to me and said, We see now what you were talking about."