The radio may be largely diminished as a medium for conveying information in modern urban life, but community radios in rural areas of Bangladesh are actually helping save lives during natural disasters. Throughout the course of the recent Cyclone Mora, community radio stations were sometimes the only link to the outside world when the storm confined families indoors.
Since May 29 (the day before the cyclone), seven community radio stations in coastal regions of Bangladesh continuously broadcast programmes focused on cyclone preparedness. These included weather bulletin updates every 15 minutes, public service announcements, and interviews of disaster response authorities to help communities prepare for Cyclone Mora.
Community radio stations, active in this regard since 2011, have been operational through Cyclones Mahasen (2013), Roanu (2016) and Mora (2017). Before, during, and after a cyclone makes landfall, community radio stations forego regular programming to run almost continuous programmes on cyclone preparedness.
Siddiqur Hossain, station manager of Community Radio Naf, gathered representatives of the 29 listener clubs in Teknaf the day before the cyclone hit to raise awareness about cyclone preparedness. These members in turn went back to their communities to urge members of their listener clubs and locals to stay tuned to Radio Naf for crucial updates on the cyclone. “It was all hands on deck,” says Hossain. Four young broadcasters (two boys and two girls) and several other staff and volunteers shared the duties of broadcasting for 24 hours straight. A large segment of listeners of Radio Naf are fishermen around Teknaf who depend on this vital service for important information related to their livelihoods—timely weather forecasts and market prices—but especially so when natural disasters strike.
Community radio engaging in disaster preparedness
A report by BBC Media Action titled Climate Asia which studied people's everyday experience of climate change in the region in 2012, revealed that 49 percent of the 3,578 households surveyed in Bangladesh felt informed about how to respond to climate change. It found that information helped people to respond— 67 percent of those informed then felt prepared to face extreme weather events. These people would subsequently take action such as making home adjustments and setting up early warning alerts. Though radio figured below television and mobile phones in terms of media used most frequently, 21 percent of people who used their phones also listened to the radio on it.
Currently, 17 community radio stations are on air around the country. Regular programmes range from English language programmes to phone-in sessions to special features which address social issues such as child marriage and eve teasing. The total number of listeners is around 6.18 million, roughly 25 percent of the population in the broadcasting areas.
The Community Radio Policy of 2008 was an effort to create radio stations exclusively dedicated to marginalised grassroots communities, broadcast in their own dialects. Community radio stations fill the gap left by mainstream media, largely urban radio channels focused on entertainment. Instead, they focus on bringing forth the voices of rural people by regularly featuring them on programmes and by training local journalists, especially young women, in these very communities.
Since 2000, Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication (BNNRC) has worked to improve recognition for the community electronic media sector. Though this sector encompasses community television and community film as well, it is community radio that has been successfully adopted by rural communities at present.
As per the government's Standing Orders on Disaster, when a signal number four is issued, a control room is set up by BNNRC as a bridge between the community radio stations and disaster response authorities such as the Bangladesh Meteorological Department (BMD).
Pre-disaster, early warning messages issued by the BMD and interviews of local government representatives (such as the ceputy commissioner and the upazila nirbahi officer) and of cyclone preparedness programme officials are broadcast. According to AHM Bazlur Rahman, CEO of BNNRC, these interviews are important because local people respect the views of such authority figures. This way, important updates are imparted in the local dialect and technical information is simplified for listeners' convenience.
A cyclone signal number 5-7 means television is not an option anymore as the power grid is down by then. “At this time, community radio is the only hope,” says Rahman. On radio, only Bangladesh Betar (the national radio) and community radios are available for affected communities. The latter's focus on disaster preparedness makes it crucial in helping people in affected areas prepare for the cyclone. In distant Teknaf, for example, Bangladesh Betar is often disrupted and Radio Naf is thus the main medium of information on the cyclone.
At cyclone signal number 8-10, disaster management programmes run almost continuously, with the community radio stations depending on generators for uninterrupted electricity supply. “As long as their phones are charged, people have a channel of information open to them,” says Rahman. Post-cyclone programmes give updates on damages incurred, points at which aid can be collected, and measures such as how to effectively treat water before drinking.
“We do disaster preparedness programmes for other types of natural disasters too, but community radios are particularly relevant during cyclones when electricity is disrupted. Cyclones are harrowing and require a round-the-clock connection to the affected rural communities,” says Md. Kamaruzzaman, in-charge of the Disaster Control Room at BNNRC. During other disasters such as flooding, frequent updates are all that is needed, he concludes.
Each community radio station has around 20 to 30 youth volunteers. In 2013, BNNRC launched a three-month fellowship programme to induct young women into community media and journalism, focusing on their own communities. These rural women journalists, including young Dalit women, go on to write scripts, broadcast news, and host special programmes.
Joya, a bright young broadcaster at Radio Naf, was actively involved in cyclone awareness efforts on May 29 and 30. The first day, she was hosting programmes advising people to stay safe, take refuge in a cyclone shelter, and keep food stores handy. The next morning, she could not make it to the radio station in the morning due to the cyclone's strong winds, but still came later that day.
Joya's dedication is evident—the 21-year-old works at the radio station alongside being a second-year student at Teknaf Degree College. She has worked at Radio Naf since December 2013. “I have learned a lot during my time here. We broadcast news, host programmes, and do editing, all by ourselves,” says Joya excitedly. Though she does not get remuneration for her work, Joya does it anyway, taking pride in working in a radio for her community.
In Teknaf, and other broadcasting areas, locals are taking ownership of their community radio stations. Their participation is crucial to the functioning of community radios as programmes are designed with their opinions and in their interests. “For rural populations, their community radio station is like a friend,” explains Rahman. During cyclones and other natural disasters, it proves to be a friend indeed as it helps people in need with vital information on preventive measures to protect their assets, and most importantly, their lives.