New Delhi: Right now, nothing is going on. We are critical,” whispers Zahir Karodia.
He stands behind fellow engineer Balachandran Chandrasekharan in the dark control room of the radio station Gurgaon Ki Awaaz, or 107.8 FM, a community radio station that serves Gurgaon’s drivers, construction workers and migrants.
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Both men stare at the screen of the radio station’s main computer, which has frozen while running their software and now refuses to respond.
In the studio next to the control room, two anchors nervously flip through pages. An operator hums to himself. The station’s live traffic programme was supposed to start two minutes ago. Tens of thousands of listeners are hearing static, or dead air.
At last, Chandrasekharan reboots the software. The operators slide back into their seats. Looking relieved, the anchors launch into an update on rain flooding in Hero Honda Chowk.
In the break room right off the control room, station manager Arti Jaiman shrugs her shoulders. “We’ve never had that problem before,” she says.
In April, Gurgaon Ki Awaaz installed the Grameen Radio Inter Networking System (GRINS) software as part of a pilot programme run by the software’s inventors: Chandrasekharan, Karodia and their friend Aaditeshwar Seth, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Karodia is Seth’s PhD student, and Seth and Chandrasekharan met at a university in Canada. At 29, Seth is the oldest of them.
The station, which is run by US-funded educational non-profit the Restoring Force, installed the programme to help manage the transition from pre-recorded programmes to occasional live broadcasting. All of the station’s employees, several of whom never passed high school, use GRINS.
For the engineers, GRINS represents the beginning of a new way of looking at community radio—and a possible business model in a struggling social sector.
The engineers want to create affordable software that can bridge the gap between the urban and rural markets, creating an information marketplace accessible to all.
In early 2009, the three engineers partnered with two businessmen, Parminder Singh—who had worked in rural markets before—and Mayank Shivam, to start Gram Vaani, a company that would develop and sell their programmes.
They came out with GRINS that same year, and it now runs at six stations scattered across Orchha (Madhya Pradesh), Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), Gurgaon, Mumbai, Erode (Tamil Nadu) and Supi (Uttarakhand).
Seth says they will add a station in Pune in the next six months. He recently hired a technical support officer and a sales representative, bringing the company’s full-time staff to four.
“The next couple of months are going to be pretty active,” says Seth. His official title is chief technical officer, but he adds, “We’re so small that everyone does everything.”
In the world of radio software, GRINS is a jack of all trades. The software serves as disc jockey, archivist and secretary. It automatically records radio broadcasts, which can then be organized using descriptive labels known as tags.
Agricultural broadcasts can be tagged by crop—wheat, corn—or with a catch-all tag like agriculture. GRINS groups items with the same tag together, making the files accessible later on. The software also contains a playlist manager that organizes multiple inputs, including music and pre-recorded programmes.
Another application that runs on the GRINS platform can receive, tag and archive telephone calls for later use in broadcasts. In a way, it’s like a massive digital file folder into which inputs can be dumped and then, via tags, retrieved.
The programme’s only competitor is a high-end American software that retails for around $5,000 (Rs2.33 lakh). No Indian station uses it.
“I’m personally familiar with the (GRINS) software, and maybe soon we’ll tie up with them to get it,” said Shashwati Goswami, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.
Goswami manages the day-to-day operations of the college’s community radio station. “The (GRINS) software is very user-friendly and easy to grasp.”
But the simple user interface hides a complex back-end; a snarl of software and hardware engineering that took the three-member team a year to work out. At the time, several organizations were trying to design software for community radio, but technical challenges held up progress.
“The workflow domain for community radio is unknown,” says Chandrasekharan, whose previous job, at the Indian Space Research Organisation in Thiruvananthapuram, was to map the flight patterns of spaceships.
The GRINS software comes pre-programmed on a black box that hooks up to a computer terminal. Seth, Karodia and Chandrasekharan began buying and experimenting with readymade hardware components to come up with the design for the black box.
They started with a playlist manager, running songs all night in their south Delhi office until they had a system that wouldn’t break down.
At first, Karodia says, they struggled to integrate the different requirements of the programmes they wanted to run, while creating a platform that would be robust enough to work non-stop in rural areas.
When they had a successful playlist manager, they started working on an inbuilt application for GRINS, one that would allow for incoming phone calls to go directly into the computer. Most community radio stations, including Gurgaon Ki Awaaz, have a separate bank where a worker answers the phone and records phone calls onto a tape. The tape is then input into the system.
“GRINS has made it easier,” says Amrit, a former construction worker who now produces an entrepreneurship programme on Gurgaon Ki Awaaz. He doesn’t use a second name. “Now we can edit programmes and just put them into the system.”
Before they went live, the station used iTunes to manage its most popular offerings, a vast library of Bhojpuri and Haryanvi folk songs.
Following the money
Seth says the company’s goal is to transform the way people in underserved communities—both urban and rural—receive media. But Gram Vaani’s financial future depends on charting a course through an industry that has struggled to find viable business models.
Three years ago, the ministry of information and broadcasting opened up the community radio spectrum to allow nonprofits to establish stations, a right previously restricted to colleges.
The goal was to eventually have 4,000 stations. So far, there are 68, and most of them are university stations, funded by colleges and staffed by students.
“Most community radio stations can’t even cover their capital costs,” says R. Sreedher, director of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia. “There is no viable model.”
“With community radio, there is always a risk that even if a station has a use for the software, they won’t be able to afford it,” says Seth. GRINS is open source, which means it’s free. Gram Vaani charges Rs55,000 for the black boxes, which includes a markup, although stations have the option of buying hardware on their own and installing GRINS.
The company recently tied up with Nomad India Network, a Mumbai-based firm that installs low-priced transmitters in community radio stations. Now, Nomad installs GRINS with its transmitters. Gram Vaani engineers perform training, but they charge for it.
But even with these streams of income, revenue has to be expanded. The eventual plan is to move beyond community radio to create voice, SMS and other media applications that become local platforms for sharing information, even outside the context of community radio. “Radio is a one-way model,” says Seth. “You receive it and listen to it. We want interaction.”
In a few months, they plan to introduce a voice-SMS application, one that runs both on GRINS and independently. A caller dials a number and leaves a message, and other callers can dial the number and listen to the message, as well as leave their own messages, creating a question-answer forum.
“Radio stations can use the app to conduct polls,” says Seth. They’re also talking about a tie-up with an American researcher who’s trying to create similar technology for farmers in rural areas.
In order to make a profit, the company will have to convince potential buyers. “We want big companies to come to us. Let’s say Reliance has a programme that they want to advertise to farmers. They could do it through us,” says Seth. “We would bridge the last mile.”
YES WE CAN
Started: January 2009
Made in India: GRINS, a software platform for community radio management.