Bangalore: In early 2012, two communications researchers from the India research arm of French telecom firm Alcatel- Lucent decided to work on a project that would provide news and information relevant to the many communities across the country.
The duo—Akhil Mathur and Sharad Jaiswal of Bell Labs India—decided the best way to distribute community-specific knowledge would be through a radio network. Mathur and Jaiswal’s core focus at Bell Labs is to leverage technology to solve problems in emerging markets such as India.
“From our perspective, we started reading up more on community media initiatives in the country, and it didn’t take long to find out that one of the most vibrant sources of information is the community radio system in the country,” says Jaiswal.
Mathur and Jaiswal met Pinky Chandran, head of RadioActive, Bangalore’s first community radio station, and discussed ways to kick-start their initiative.
“In general, access or usage of Web has stayed limited to the urban elite, maybe 10-15% of all the other users,” says Jaiswal, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “If you’re a vernacular speaking person, even in a tier-1 city like Bangalore, you would get the news or any relevant news for your city or your region either through people you know or through vernacular newspapers. They would not think of the Internet as a natural place to go to.”
Soon after, they came up with a multilingual community radio application that can be downloaded easily on any low-end cellphone. The app, called CommunityWeb or SamudaayVaani, is now being used by a large number of local communities in Bangalore.
What is unique about this project, which was financed by Bell Labs, is users can listen to any radio broadcast from the community station at any time of the day by downloading the app on their phones.
“We have done our best to keep the app as simple as possible and it’s in the local language. All you have to do is click on the app, it starts up, you see a section wide division by the RJs, click on that and the programme starts playing,” says Jaiswal.
There are nearly 150 community radio stations across the country, but only a fraction of them eventually reach the audience they target due to a variety of reasons including “shadow areas” or lack of network transmission. For the founders of CommunityWeb, that was a major pain point that needed to be addressed.
“Assuming that the person is travelling from Koramangala to Malleswaram, there might be certain places on the road where you might not get transmission,” says Chandran. “Or you might get transmission but that will probably clash or you won’t be able to hear it clearly. So, then there are requests from people to repeat the programme as they couldn’t hear it properly. Or sometimes people would be like, ‘we listened to it and really liked it, but would like someone else to listen to it.’”
Another problem listeners often faced was trying to work around their daily schedules to listen to the broadcasts. More often than not, listeners would get busy with their daily work routines and not be able to tune in—another issue the project addressed.
But most importantly for the co-founders it was the content that was being distributed that took precedence over everything else. Their objective was to make the information relevant for the local communities listening in.
“The individuals who curate these programmes have very interestingly emerged from these communities,” said Jaiswal. “This is important for us because as I mentioned even if content was available on the Web, people didn’t know what to trust and what was relevant for them. So here the person curating the content was someone they knew within the community or knew of within the community and what they were saying had a certain relevance and trustworthiness, which is very important for us.” Issues discussed on the programmes touch upon a variety of topics, including problems faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and civic problems. The content is determined by the community being addressed.
“If I want a movie song, I can get it from any free music website. But this content is, in some sense, almost exclusive because it’s locally relevant stuff and it’s not produced on a mass scale,” says Jaiwal. “Also it’s hard to get using means such as traditional piracy, so there’s some interest in paying for it.”
Currently, Mathur, Jaiswal and Chandran, who have invested nearly Rs.2 lakh togetherin the project, are exploring ways to make it self-sustaining, without the requirement of additional funding. Advertising is one of the routes the founders could tap into, given the rising number of mobile Internet users in the country.
“We have to keep the cost as low as possible, maybe even free for the end-users for this to work and yet sustain it. One possibility is to get the content sponsored through advertising,” says Jaiswal.
Jaiswal, however, concedes that the project would initially get traction through more ambitious users of cellphones, with a majority of the population still not very tech-savvy.
“Yes, I think the people who will initially come are the more adventurous folks. And we are counting on social learning,” says Jaiswal, adding that the local community radio jockeys would also play a key role in creating awareness about the project.
“Because the RJs are playing a critical role here of anchoring the content and recommending the content, their voice carries weight. So, if the RJ says, ‘Try out this app, and I would like you to hear my programme if you miss it on the radio,’ there is an extra degree of motivation that plays a role and sort of takes away from the impersonal nature of the Web otherwise,” says Jaiswal.
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