The latest cause celebre

BY sevanti ninan| IN Community Media | 09/04/2006
Community radio never caught public fancy. Until Raghav Mahato and FM Mansoorpur 1 came along.

Reprinted from the Hindu April 9, 2006

Sevanti Ninan

MEDIA MATTERS

FOR more than a decade some of us have been pleading the cause of community radio, lobbying for a policy that gives licences to local groups to run their own radio stations. All these years neither the media at large nor bloggers nor civil society have shown the slightest interest in the subject. It simply never caught on as an idea. Without any public demand, the government has dragged its feet, coming up with a policy only designed to hamstring the whole effort.

But six weeks ago somebody discovered that a little guy in Bihar has been running a radio station out of a village in Vaishali district and poof! You had an instant cause celebre. It was illegal but so what? The poor fellow did not even know it was illegal. Such enterprise in rural Bihar! The blogosphere was ecstatic. ?Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1 rocks.? Everybody copied the story off the BBC site, photographs and all. CNN-IBN picked it up. The Times of India wrote about it. A blogger in Canada celebrated the idea. Google sprouted many pages on the subject as all kinds of bloggers got into the act. Widespread ignorance on the policy in this matter only served to whip up a huge romanticisation of Radio Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1. The story acquired a life of its own.

Sensational story

Admittedly it was a wonderful story. The creator of this FM station, Raghav Mahato, was a mechanic in a village repair shop which didn`t even have a pucca roof. In 2003 he created a radio transmitter out of locally made battery-powered tape recorders, some wires and a cordless microphone. He hooked the transmitter to an antenna atop a bamboo pole on the third floor of a hospital. His buddy Sambhu was the radio jockey. ?Namaskaar, main apka dost Sambhu. Aap sun rahe hain, FM Mansoorpur 1? (Namaskar I am your friend Sambhu. You are listening to FM Mansoorpur 1). They played Bhojpuri, Bollywood and devotional songs over this FM transmission and delivered messages on AIDS. That made Mahato an instant good guy for the media.

The first story said he earned Rs. 2,000 a month from his venture. Since the BBC reporter had been there and taken pictures, his story was possibly the most accurate. He said Mahato earned Rs. 2,000 as a electronic repair mechanic and ran the radio for free. There was no mention initially about his schooling but as the story got romanticised he became ?an illiterate mechanic?. Then he became ?an electronic whiz?. The most saleable detail was the station`s cost: Rs. 50. It instantly became known as the one-dollar radio station. And thereafter, as ?the world`s cheapest radio?.

The very first story, on bhojpuria.com, had drawn, amidst a lot of gush, a single dry comment from a Prasar Bharati executive pointing out that the station was illegal and punishable with imprisonment. It did not dampen anyone`s ardour. As the story flew around cyberspace, more journalists discovered Radio Raghav, and the story grew bigger. What was the range of his transmitter? The first story said 15 km. The BBC website said 20 km. Then it was ?hundreds of villages? and ?thousands of people?. Hundreds of villages in a 15 km radius? Raghav`s fame, you were told, had spread to neighbouring districts. Strange then that the District Magistrate of Vaishali only heard of this three-year-old radio station when the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in Delhi informed him that there was an illegal radio station running in his district.

The aftermath

Five weeks after the story broke, nemesis dawned. Government officials swooped down upon FM Mansoorpur 1, seized its equipment and lodged an FIR against its owner for violating the Telegraph Act. Talk of unintended media power! That triggered another torrent of headlines. In Delhi Sagarika Ghose railed against the closure on CNN-IBN. The channel`s reporter said, ?CNN-IBN was the first to report when the station was set up with an investment of just Rs. 50 rupees.? That`s a bit rich considering that the radio station is three years old, and CNN-IBN just over three months old.

Media audiences have discovered activism, and they are not going to let go so easily. So what if India does not allow unlicensed private radio? The Hindustan reported that NRIs from England now want to fork out the money needed to pay for a license for Mahato. Who says he is eligible for a licence? Who cares if he isn`t? Don`t let the facts get in the way of a cause. We are told that Reporters Without Borders has said that FM Mansoorpur1 should be granted a temporary licence to allow it to broadcast. Really? On what grounds?

The community radio movement has been lobbying for at least three years to change current government policy which only allows educational institutions to run community radio. It has had no success, but who knows Raghav Mahato may do the trick.

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