When the cyclone Mahasen churned up coastal Bangladesh and several districts blacked out in mid-May, six community radios across the southern coast took great care in alerting people of the cyclone's whereabouts. For five days, these radios went on air for 514 hours in total, telling people the dos and don'ts, to seek shelter and reduce damage.
During the cyclone, several organisations including weather departments provided these radio stations with area-specific information that largely contributed to minimising damage in the cyclone affected areas. Abu Sufian Shojol of Radio Nalta in Satkhira says that before the cyclone approached, his station prepared a list of shelters and aired it. “We timely aired bulletins related to weather alerts and safety of children provided by the BBC and Unicef respectively.”
Amazingly, all 14 community radio stations in the country, dedicated to serve people of their respective localities, are supported by almost 500 volunteers along with its regular paid staff.
Monir Hossain Kamal, the station manager of Barguna-based Lokobetar, informs that their live radio broadcasts remained uninterrupted when Barguna blacked out the day before Mahasen struck on May 11. “We aired cautionary messages such as advising farmers to immediately harvest crops that were around 80 percent mature and directing ways to strengthen fences of vegetable plantations to minimise damage.” Kamal says with confidence that despite eight deaths in Barguna due to the cyclone, no one died in the 23 unions that their radio frequency covers, implying that they had been able to guide everyone to safety.
Community radios can immensely help people, particularly farmers living in distant and isolated areas. “We regularly listen to community radio programmes and my father, a farmer, greatly benefits from these,” says Foisal Sikder, a student from Pochakoralia under Amtali upazila in Barguna. Sikder thinks if all radio frequencies could reach all across the Bay of Bengal, fishermen could take advantage of this resource as well.
People in some remote areas also reaped the benefit of community radio programmes and alerts during the cyclone, says Shah Sultan Shamim of Radio Sagar Giri at Sitakunda in Chittagong. “From the very south-east, we aired public service announcements and bulletins provided by the disaster management committee and the local weather department every 15 minutes, for 84 hours continuously. We reach out to around 10 unions including the indigenous Tripura people and as far as Swandip Island,” says Shamim.
Community radios broadcast all forms of programmes including entertainment and talk shows. Shamim also informs that apart from supporting the disaster-prone people, most of the usual programmes aired by the stations are dedicated to the local people, especially farmers. “We invite the government officers from the local agriculture office and host talk shows with successful farmers so that others find this useful.” Teknaf-based Radio Naf mainly hosts programmes on the fishermen's lives. Station manager Aminul Islam says that his station invites fishermen in the studio for live casting, “Our main challenge is load shedding, we run mostly on our own electricity generator,” he adds.
Funding is a major issue for the radios as they are essentially not-for-profit ventures, powered by foreign agencies, non-government and development organisations. Commercial advertisement is currently prohibited for community radios by the community radio policy of the government. But there are operational costs and expenditure towards training up the volunteers and staff. In this regard, Tarikul Islam, an assistant director at Broadcasting Asia Bangladesh (Bab) that funds Radio Sundarban in Khulna, thinks the radios could run more functionally if the government had allowed commercial advertisements.
Amin Al Rasheed, a senior reporter and news presenter at ABC Radio FM 89.2, works for community radios as a trainer of basic journalism, radio reporting and presentation. He observes a setback, “The 14 radios can only transmit non-political news and development news. Except one radio, the rest operate under NGOs, more precisely by using foreign money. These radios may stop operating with the completion of the projects.” He proposes an alternative that people from the community should take charge of the radios, “Keeping these alive doesn't require major funding. With community ownerships, the radios can circulate development advertisement and survive even if the NGOs stop funding them,” he suggests.
The procedure to initiate a community radio has to go through a ministerial process, informs AHM Bazlur Rahman, the CEO of Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communications (BNNRC). “Around 200 organisations applied for establishing community radios following the information ministry's circular. Three committees, namely national regulatory committee, technical sub-committee and central monitoring committee sorted out 116 and sent those to the home ministry for security clearance. The 14 radios running across the country now were approved and there are more in the pipeline.” Rahman adds that two more radios have been approved recently at Bhola and Hatia islands.
Krishi Radio is administered by the Agriculture Information Services (AIS) under the ministry of agriculture. It is easier for government ministries to take the initiative to establish a radio station unlike the regular process for other non-government organisations, says Dr Zahangir Alam, the farm broadcasting officer at AIS. He says that the radio is trying to address the needs of the grassroots-level people, including those who have livestock, non-agro farms etc.
“We have seen our programmes and advice making spectacular changes in farming,” says Alam, also the former national project director of the radio. “We are preparing proposals to apply for setting up more radio stations in vulnerable areas and places with special needs, such as the hill tracts, famine-prone and waterlogged areas, the islands in the Bay of Bengal. We are preparing the proposals soon to be submitted to the ministry,” he adds.
Agriculture development activist Shykh Seraj thinks it is long due that the government allocate funds and initiate more community radios, even community TV channels to support local communities, particularly regarding agriculture. “One government-owned radio channel doesn't suffice the needs of all farmers across the country. It cannot inform the farmers about area-specific knowledge considering climatic differences in the north and the south. More community radios should play an important role here. For instance, the adverse effects of Mahasen could be averted and minimised for the vigilance of these community media,” he reminds.
In a similar note, Seraj also addresses the need for a TV channel devoted to agriculture and the government's apathy towards making it a success. “The government has lately given approval to many entertainment-centric commercial media channels. If one programme, Mati o Manush, could stir the country, a round-the-clock TV channel can bring revolutionary changes in agriculture,” he recommends.
The 14 community radios reportedly reach out to almost 47 lakh people. As Seraj suggests, the government can mull over establishing more of these radios, keeping in mind the radios' useful roles in development, agriculture and support during the recent cyclone. If the prohibition on commercial advertisement is retained, development advertisement can fund these radios while creating a room for employment for the local people. As the activist suggests, the government is mainly liable to establish these using state funds so that these non-commercial and not-for-profit media continues to remain as the true voice of the people living in the fringes.