Trust deficit persists on news on Community Radio

But TRAI recommendations make some headway on licencing and advertising on community radio
RAM BHAT and VINOD PAVARALA decode the recommendations

The last time TRAI recommended something on Community Radio (CR), the year was 2004. Both activists and government have leveraged those recommendations to open up the policy for community radio in 2006. After a decade, TRAI has now issued recommendations on 29th of August 2014. 

Here are some comments on the implications of what TRAI has recommended: 

1. License Renewals 

The 2006 policy guidelines released by I&B ministry have no procedure or mechanism for operational radio stations to renew or extend their license beyond the initial period of five years. The key issues here are two-fold: A relatively smooth and easy administrative process that can facilitate renewal of license of community radio stations; how to balance interests of incumbents (who want renewal) with interests of new comers (who want entry into market) 

Recommendation 

TRAI has recommended that after the initial license period of five years, community radio stations should be able to get a renewal of five years provided they have basic compliance with terms of license. In order to get a second extension, community radio stations should fill a self-evaluation report that will then be compared to the applications forms filled by prospective newcomers. 

Implications 

TRAI has taken a reasonable and balanced approach to the issue. It has incorporated the interests of the incumbents and virtually guaranteed them a minimum of ten years presence in the market. However, it has also taken care to represent the interests of the newcomers by allowing them to compete with incumbents. 

The only problem, and it can be quite a significant problem, is that of the actual decision maker. TRAI has not explicitly mentioned it, but one can assume that I&B Ministry will decide whether the incumbent will continue or a newcomer will be favoured. 

This is a classic, discretionary mode of decision-making. If the government is not careful, this could lead to favouritism, or worse corruption. Ideally, an independent regulator should make these kinds of decisions but TRAI has stayed away from this contentious issue.  

Further, the self-evaluation that TRAI recommends as a precursor to the second renewal after 10 years raises some apprehension that the ongoing peer review process initiated by MIB for community radio may become the standard measure for renewals in the future. It would be contrary to the spirit of self-assessment, co-learning and continuous improvement, the principles espoused by the Ministry for the peer review. 

2. News and Current Affairs  

The 2006 policy guidelines explicitly prohibit community radio stations from broadcasting news and current affairs. The same goes for commercial FM radio. News and current affairs is not defined. Many community radio stations feel vulnerable since anything they do could be defined as news and invite censure from government. 

 

Recommendation 

TRAI has only repeated what Mr. Javadekar has said across various fora since he assumed office. Community radio stations will be allowed to re-broadcast news from All India Radio without altering the content. However, TRAI has gone a step further and recommended that CR stations be allowed to translate into local language/dialect without distorting the content. 

TRAI has not said anything new, but in fact further damaged the cause by providing some deeply flawed analysis. There are three main threads to TRAI’s arguments. One is that providing permission for news is premature because the Ministry is on the verge of setting up an Internet based monitoring system. Permissions can be reviewed once monitoring system is operational. 

Second, if CR is allowed news, then there is scope for misuse and misleading information may be broadcast in guise of local news. 

Third, since commercial FM is not allowed news, it would be unfair to recommend that CR be allowed news. 

Implications 

It is a mistake to think that monitoring systems will influence the production and broadcast of FM radio in any way, except perhaps psychologically. Most of the community radio stations do not have reliable internet connection to provide upload of audio feed. It is impossible to know whether the feed uploaded on the internet is the same as what is being broadcast on FM. 

Lastly, by the time the audio stream is processed online, it has already been broadcast on FM and thus too late to prevent. Further, community radios broadcast in a wide variety of languages and dialects. How will a team sitting in Delhi understand all these dialects and languages? Thus, monitoring is, at best, a psychological experiment designed to create some fear and hesitation that Big Brother is listening. In reality, it is a waste of public money. 

It is baffling that TRAI thinks that there is scope for misuse or misleading information could be broadcast in guise of local news. After all, these very communities have been broadcasting other programmes for several years. 

Is TRAI thus supporting community radio and trusts communities to make other programmes, but when it comes to news, these communities are seen as untrustworthy? 

The simple truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter what TRAI thinks or anticipates. Such anticipatory logic exceeds the reasonable restrictions under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. Some community radio stations have been on air for seven to eight years and not once have they given reason to believe that any reasonable restriction of Article 19 (2) could be applied to them. 

Lastly, TRAI has invoked the fairness principle in recommending that community radio should not be allowed to broadcast self-generated news. The implication is that while commercial FM is not allowed news, it would be unfair to allow community radio. This is a relative and narrow interpretation of fairness. In reality, this interpretation is unfair to both commercial and community radio. 

The right thing to do is to recommend that both sectors be allowed to broadcast news and current affairs. In any case, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a public interest litigation filed by Common Cause questioning the ban on news on commercial and community radio. One hopes that the Court will uphold the constitutional right in this case, as it has done in many other recent instances. 

3. Advertisements – Duration and Rates 

The current policy guidelines cap the duration of advertisements to five minutes per hour of broadcast. The major advertiser for community radio in practice is the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP). DAVP pays 4 rupees per second for any advertisement that it releases for community radio, but insists that this rate should be the lowest ad rate held by the radio and be exclusively offered to DAVP. 

Recommendation 

On the basis of limited evidence submitted by stakeholders in the consultation period, TRAI has surmised correctly that most community radio stations are unable to even fill the five-minute advertisement limit proscribed by the government. In such a situation, it would be pointless to even consider increasing the duration of time allowed for advertisements. Further, TRAI has also recommended that DAVP should relax the stipulations that their rate (4 rupees/min) be the lowest or that this rate be exclusive to DAVP. 

Implications 

TRAI is right in saying that there is no point in considering increase in duration of advertisements. Firstly, the data indicates that community radio caters to an audience that advertisers are not interested in. Secondly, to increase duration of advertisements would provoke a severe response from commercial broadcasters who would then question the concessions CR stations get on other fronts (nominal spectrum fee, no license fee). Thirdly, it is a wake-up call for the CR sector. 

Even in the best of cases or in top radio markets, it would be unwise for CR Stations to continually depend on the ad market given that objectives of the CR station, the genres of programming, and profiles of the target audience are mostly unfriendly or irrelevant to the market. There is an urgent need to brainstorm around other ways to sustain CR stations – either by changing the ways in which CR Stations spend money, or changing the ways in which CR Stations can earn money.  

4. Single Window Mechanism 

 

The current policy guidelines require applicants to submit applications to I&B, and then to approach MoCIT for frequency, then to go back to I&B to sign a Grant of Permission Agreement and then go back to MoCIT for the Wireless Operating License. The process inevitably takes in excess of 18 months and has discouraged many from applying. 

Recommendation 

TRAI has recommended an e-governance enabled single window mechanism thereby cutting red tape and considerably easing the process of application. 

Implications 

The main problem so far has been the division between the CR cell in the I&B Ministry and the WPC cell in the MoCIT Ministry. Typically, I&B handles radio and TV licenses, while MoCIT handles spectrum allocation for radio, TV, telecom and internet. The latter handles more work as well as more revenue, while the former is focused on broadcast and deals with administrative licenses. 

There is very little incentive for MoCIT to create a special case for Community Radio, given that there are fixed systems of licensing for telecom, television, public radio and so on. The political masters at both ministries have to acknowledge that a minor issue of administrative process has created major damage to the plans that government has for community radio. 

If there is political will in the system, then a separate administrative process can be carved out for the unique situation of community radio. If the Ministers do not take notice, it is unlikely that this recommendation from TRAI will have any major impact on the current process. 

(Ram Bhat is with the Community Radio Forum of India and Vinod Pavarala is the UNESCO Chair on Community Media, University of Hyderabad)

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