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January 04 2012

11:03

2011: the UK hyper-local year in review

In this guest post, Damian Radcliffe highlights some topline developments in the hyper-local space during 2011. He also asks for your suggestions of great hyper-local content from 2011. His more detailed slides looking at the previous year are cross-posted at the bottom of this article.

2011 was a busy year across the hyper-local sphere, with a flurry of activity online as well as more traditional platforms such as TV, Radio and newspapers.

The Government’s plans for Local TV have been considerably developed, following the Shott Review just over a year ago. We now have a clearer indication of the areas which will be first on the list for these new services and how Ofcom might award these licences. What we don’t know is who will apply for these licences, or what their business models will be. But, this should become clear in the second half of the year.

Whilst the Leveson Inquiry hasn’t directly been looking at local media, it has been a part of the debate. Claire Enders outlined some of the challenges facing the regional and local press in a presentation showing declining revenue, jobs and advertising over the past five years. Her research suggests that the impact of “the move to digital” has been greater at a local level than at the nationals.

Across the board, funding remains a challenge for many. But new models are emerging, with Daily Deals starting to form part of the revenue mix alongside money from foundations and franchising.

And on the content front, we saw Jeremy Hunt cite a number of hyper-local examples at the Oxford Media Convention, as well as record coverage for regional press and many hyper-local outlets as a result of the summer riots.

I’ve included more on all of these stories in my personal retrospective for the past year.

One area where I’d really welcome feedback is examples of hyper-local content you produced – or read – in 2011. I’m conscious that a lot of great material may not necessarily reach a wider audience, so do post your suggestions below and hopefully we can begin to redress that.


November 18 2010

02:33

Building a successful technology venture for the bottom of the pyramid

This is a long overdue update from our end! We were awarded a grant in the 2008 News Challenge for developing low-cost technologies for community radio stations in India. We have come a long way since then. Our systems are now in use in 9 stations in India, and growing steadily. But we have also realized that there is a lot more that needs to be done to push the community radio movement in India. Thankfully the Knight Foundation has given us considerable flexibility to tackle various problems as and when they arise. Let me first give you a context, and then tell you more about what exactly we are doing, the challenges of operating in this space, and our future plans.

The context

In late 2006, the Government of India announced a revised policy on community radio wherein non-profit organizations were allowed to set up radio stations. This was expected to kick off community radio in India in a big way. The growth has been steady since then, though arguably somewhat slow. There are now some 20 NGO-led community radio stations, and a handful of stations set up by educational institutions which also do a lot of community service.

Setting up and operating a community radio station can be quite complex though. The licensing process is twisted -- it can take almost a year to get a license! Many organizations have in fact given up the idea of setting up a radio station because of the long drawn out and painful bureaucratic process. Cost of setup is another issue. A basic radio station can be set up in less than $10,000, including the cost of transmitter, a few computers, a simple studio, and an initial training of content acquisition and production. But so far in India it has mostly been large NGOs that have set up stations, and have typically spent upwards $25,000 in studio setup. Most of these costs are covered through project grants for which the NGOs apply.

After the station is setup, the operations are complicated too. Cost is surely an issue, more so because one-time grants run out and the stations are expected to become financially sustainable over time. But this is hard, given that advertising in remote rural locations does not have many buyers. Some stations do get contributions from the community, but this is again rare because the stations have to first prove their worth to the community. Staying engaged with the community is the goal of a community radio station anyway, but it takes time and a lot of learning. The station staff need training on how to produce programs, ideas on community engagement, etc, all of which have steep learning curves.

GRINS

Where do we fit in? We stated three challenges in our Knight proposal, and all three of them still stand out:

**1. Technology: **Radio stations need to be improved in low-cost ways to make community engagement seamless. With the wide proliferation of mobile phones, this means that the broadcast medium of radio needs to be enhanced with bi-directional communication through mobile phones. This is exactly what our system does -- it enables a seamless integration between radio and telephony, so that through a single console the radio station operator can make and receive phone calls, conference among multiple callers, put calls on air, archive them, send and receive SMS messages, and run polls, question and answer sessions, announcements, etc. In addition, our system also enables content management and scheduling to handle day-to-day operations of typical community radio stations.

**2. Financial sustainability: **A single radio station has too small a catchment area to be attractive for any advertisers. But a network of radio stations can still be potentially marketed to companies interested in rural areas, or even to different government departments that want to disseminate timely information on vaccination camps or employment opportunities in the area. We have therefore worked on a connectivity module in our system that periodically syncs up with a central server on the Internet to collect messages for broadcast, or report feedback. Feedback is a crucial part of any advertising or information dissemination campaign. How many people called in response to the information? Were there any grievance reports on government projects? How often was the advertisement broadcast? Such statistics are also automatically collected and shipped back.

**3. Content training: **A few organizations in India are training community radio stations on content production and community engagement techniques. But there is lots of variation. Some stations are trained in producing informational programs through narratives and interviews of experts, while some others produce very interesting and engaging content in enacting stories in drama formats. Both these stations can learn from each other by listening to content, asking questions, and giving feedback. We are building such a social networking platform for the community radio staff. This will not be a web-based system though, because many staff are not comfortable with the Internet or with typing out messages. We will build this as a voice based feedback system instead.

The technology is ready and we call it GRINS, standing for the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System. We are now talking to a few large brands and to media buying agencies to get advertising for our network of radio stations. And we are beginning to build the content sharing and social networking platform as an add-on to GRINS.

The challenges

There are many challenges we are facing though. We have been talked about sustainability problems that the community radio stations are facing, but we face sustainability issues ourselves! How can we make money to cover further development and support costs? There are a number of revenue streams we have had in mind.

**1. Commissions on advertising: **The numbers look attractive in theory, but advertisers seem to be interested only once we have a substantial footprint. Furthermore, the footprint is highly fragmented, with a few stations in the north, a few in the south, with no contiguity. This is not easily tackled because the total number of community radio stations is itself quite small, and GRINS can be installed only when a new community radio stations come up.

**2. Installation and training charges: **Four of our installations so far were pilot installations, while the rest were paid. And most of these were done through a reseller partnership we have with an FM transmitter manufacturer. We have also been trying to make direct sales but have not been very successful so far. There is an interesting reason for this. The way NGOs work is through projects -- they put up a project proposal consisting of a capital expenditure and a recurring operational expenditure. This means that for existing stations that have been running since a while, the cost for a GRINS box is to be borne out of their operational budget. This is clearly hard. It is much easier to sell through resellers so that the cost can be absorbed in the initial setup package itself. Having realized this, we are now actively trying to form reseller partnerships. We are also participating in commuinty radio awareness workshops that are being organized in a number of places in India, so that more and more NGOs come to know about GRINS and contact us when they are ready to set up their station.

**3. Commercial radio stations: **India is about to announce commercial radio licenses for small towns. GRINS is perfect for this segment. It is not high-end such as Synergy, RCS, and other radio automation systems that want to do syndicated broadcasts across a network of stations. The set of features which GRINS provides are exactly suitable for standalone stations that want to form closer ties with their listeners. Even in the higher-end segment, the features are somewhat complementary to that of other radio automation systems, telephony and SMS integration being the key here. We are therefore actively forming partnerships in the commercial segment as well.

There are clearly challenges in all these avenues, but the good thing is that we are discovering the problems, and working around them accordingly.

The future

This brings us to the present, where we are working fervently on supporting the community radio movement in India. We will continue to do that, but we are realizing that given the complexities in setting up and running community radio stations, large scale impact will only come after a while. We are all an impatient bunch of people though! There is so much that local media can fix -- corruption in public services, awareness on health and sanitation, a new means of livelihood... And community radio is not the only medium.

We are running an interesting experiment in a slum colony in East Delhi, using voice and photographs to improve the delivery of public services. The idea here is again to technologically enable a local media service for the people, through which they can put pressure on elected officials to improve public services such as sanitation, road conditions, fairness in water and electricity billing, etc. In these slum colonies for example, we have seen playgrounds that have been converted into garbage dumps, community toilets without any water taps, overflowing drains, broken pavements, and even worse. We have set up a toll-free number which community members can call to leave complaints. We also collect photos and videos in the same manner. Our plan then is to play these recordings over a loudspeaker rolled through the slum colony, to enthuse more and more people to participate and pay attention to the messages. We will also build a simple tool to generate wall newspapers that can be printed and put up all around the colony. If this runs successfully, we will begin to invest a lot more time in popularizing the set of tools to other organizations so that they can set up their own local media hubs at practically zero cost.

October 07 2010

14:34

Mixing Citizen Journalism and Live Radio in South Africa

In developing countries, and particularly in Africa, radio can be the key media channel in the local public sphere -- that is, of course, in public spheres are allowed to be local and public!

Iindaba Ziyafika, our Knight News Challenge project in South Africa, has focused a great deal on training citizen journalists for print and digital media. The project is now branching out even more into community radio. We formalized a partnership with Radio Grahamstown, the local community radio station, to create about five hours of programming each week and to help the station stabilize itself. In South Africa, community media is poorly supported by government (if at all), and are often survivalist and marginal enterprises run by dedicated but stretched volunteers.

Our youth program, Y4Y, is going strong after eight months. It's produced by and for young people from Grahamstown's 13 high schools. The show builds bridges across the huge gulfs of race and class that permeate life in South Africa -- and it's developing a loyal listenership.

What is particularly exciting about the show is the way young people are able to use low cost instant messaging to interact with the show, rather than the more expensive SMS method used at commercial stations. An SMS in South Africa can cost the equivalent of 10 U.S. cents -- a lot of money where 40 percent of citizens live on less than U.S. $2 a day. By contrast, an IM costs 1/80th the cost of an SMS.

Reaching Adults

More recently, Iindaba Ziyafika has moved towards building a more adult audience, but with similar ambitions and strategies to build bridges and cross barriers. We created a new news-focused show called Lunchtime Live. Initially on twice a week for an hour, the idea is to one day go live every weekday for an hour.

Lunchtime Live is a wonderful hybrid of citizen journalism, live interviews, call-in talk radio (and sent-in SMSs and IMs from cell phones) combined with professional interviewing and radio production.

Building on the Izwi Labahlali (The Voice Of The Citizens) pilots of 2009, citizen journalists prepare stories, come on air to read their copy, and the stories are then discussed with well prepared hosts. Often, pre-production have arranged to call the people mentioned in the in the stories, especially when a contentious issue is raised.

The citizen journalist then gets to take part in a moderated discussion with the people about whom he/she has written, or who might have something valuable to contribute

Sometimes the show is a bit similar to Sourcing Through Texting, which was recently written about on Idea Lab. That show sees listeners text in a story tip, but more often the stories are sourced by citizen journalists. Our citizen journalists have 20 hours of training to guide them, and a lot of mentoring from a citizen journalism editor. Some of them have become community "super stringers," or what we might have, in a different age, called "freelance journalists." It helps that we pay -- or should we rather say cover costs! -- for good journalism!

Strikes and Human Interest

Topics for coverage vary. We've had a lot of strikes in South Africa recently, some nationwide, and some very local. Our citizen journalists broke the news of strikes starting locally, one at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a teachers strike. During the strike, radio turned out to be the best way to follow the fast moving strikes, marches, and sit-ins. The citizen journalists (and the production crew) worked hard to let different voices, such as parents and pupils whose schools were closed by the strike, striking workers, and management have their say. The KFC strike was a big deal in our home town, but not as big as the national public sector strike that shut down courts, schools, hospitals and the like across South Africa.

On other levels, human interest stories also generate a lot of discussion, calls, IMs and SMS. A poor family called to say their daughter had died in Johannesburg, but they could not afford the exorbitant cost of transporting her body back to Grahamtown (a journey of about 1000 kilometers). After the story appeared on Lunchtime Life (and later as an article in print and online), money and offers to help came pouring in, and the grieving family was able to bury their loved one this past weekend.

Radio really does have power to connect people to each other, helping rebuild social capital and social solidarity in the process.

Our print-based citizen journalism is going from strength to strength, with over a dozen articles appearing each month; but the articles are written to conform with the fairly traditional norms of the newspaper -- and they are only in English. On Lunchtime Live, isiXhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa, and English can mix freely. This frees people to phone in and speak in the language they prefer.

Indeed, when we talk about "public spheres" there is a lot tied into "'formal" ways of engaging. Amidst the hustle and bustle of South Africa, a country still struggling to overcome a past of exclusion based on race, gender and language, community radio has a critical role to play in deepening democracy. Lunchtime Live is finding out, in big and small ways, how that role might be played.

July 17 2010

14:04

We invite you to provide technical Assistance on Community Radio initiative in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication considers community radio as a special area for intervention. We have been promoting advocacy with the government in relation to community radio with other organizations since its emergence from 2000.
 
The objective of BNNRC 's Community Radio intervention is to address crucial social issues at community level, such as poverty and social exclusion, empower marginalized rural groups and catalyze democratic processes and on going development efforts.

read more

June 07 2010

17:09

Freedom Fone Adopted by Bulawayo's Pioneering Voices

I had visions of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe being a sleepy little hollow, and perhaps in some ways it is. But last week, after arriving at Radio Dialogue offices in Pioneer House in Bulawayo's central business district, I was very pleasantly surprised. We were in the City of Skies to run a practical two-day workshop with six local organizations on using Freedom Fone. Pioneer House seemed to me to be pioneering the way!

workshop_participants_100527.jpgRadio Dialogue is a community radio station that opened nine years ago and resides on the ninth floor of Pioneer House. Like all community radio stations in Zimbabwe, it has yet to gain a government license to broadcast. Despite this challenge, it manages to successfully give communities in and around Bulawayo a voice on local issues.

The Radio Dialogue office was bustling! The reception area felt like grand central station, with inspired communicators heading off in all directions. One young journalist stopped me outside the elevator to ask for an audio vox pop: "Now that winter is coming, what home remedies do you personally use to ward off flu?" After describing my potent garlic ginger juice concoction, my colleague and I continued on to one of the well-equipped computer labs to prepare for the Freedom Fone workshop the following day.

We were greeted by excited youths between 13 and 19 years old. They were working together in groups to write and read poetry about Mother Africa. This is one of the many regular activities organized by the Youth Press Bureau, headed by the youth coordinator, Rosie Chauke. She was one of the participants in our Freedom Fone workshop.

truth telling_exhibition_100527.jpgChauke later told me about an art exhibition and competition organized by Radio Dialogue, which we later visited at The Bulawayo Club. It was titled TRUTH telling: The TRUTH will set you free and is about the importance of speaking out against the violent atrocities in Zimbabwe, particularly around the Matabeleland massacres, locally known as Gukurahundi, which took place during the 1980s.

Bulawayo Agenda

In the same building as Radio Dialogue and the Youth Press Bureau, is Bulawayo Agenda. It provides a platform for community views through a free printed news bulletin called Weekly Agenda. Bulawayo Agenda recently organized a Transitional Justice Interface meeting to find resolutions to ensure national healing in Zimbabwe, such as including information on Gukurahundi in the education syllabus and identifying the causes of political violence.

Workshop participants from other pioneering organizations included Habakkuk, Zimbabwe Development Democracy Trust and KG6: King George VI School for the Disabled, where the Oscar winning documentary Music by Prudence was set.

freedomfone_workshop_100527.jpgOverall the workshop was not without its technical frustrations, but I left Bulawayo feeling inspired by the dynamism of the participants. Their thoughtfulness during the brainstorming sessions, their determination and resilience during the technical sessions, and their overall eagerness made me hopeful that Freedom Fone would be taken up as a valuable information tool to assist many of these organizations in reaching their noteworthy communication and community-oriented goals.

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March 06 2010

06:36

Agriculture and us

I attended an Ashoka conference in New Delhi yesterday on rural innovation and farming. There were so many new things I realized about agriculture's deep rooted connections with our culture and society and economy that I decided to immediately write about it before the memories weaken. Plus I watched Avatar later in the evening, which gave a perfect icing on the cake!

Agriculture and women

Agriculture can be looked upon from many perspectives. Food as a commodity, where farmers are considered merely as factory workers and we talk about increasing their productivity though machines, technology, etc. Agriculture as an economic activity with linkages into the global market, so that it becomes important to streamline supply chains, improve irrigation, and prevent price fluctuations. From an ecological perspective, in terms of organic farming, local supply chains, and keeping a small footprint. Or it can be looked upon from a cultural and humanist perspective by putting a face to the farmer, and this face is often that of a woman. As you read on, try to keep this context in mind by linking back the people in agriculture with the bigger landscape of the economic and ecological settings in which all of us are living.

It is well known that women in India and elsewhere have always played a huge role in post-harvest processing of food grains. What is probably less well known about India is that because of poorer economic rates of return in agriculture, men are moving into the cities for various unskilled jobs leaving their wives to manage the farms. At times many villages are only left with women, kids, and old people, while the men have gone off to work in factories in the cities or to pull a rickshaw. This is even more common during the off-season of farming because the lack of proper irrigation prevents any farming from happening at all during those few months. So you can see how policies for proper irrigation, increasing incomes in agriculture, market linkages, and other economic and political factors can influence the culture of farming communities.

A second arena where women again come into prominence in agriculture is because of development activities. Microfinance institutions and various not-for-profit organizations often like to work more closely with the women than with men. And in Satara near Pune, over 3500 loans have been taken by women to buy mobile phone based remote starters for tube wells and water pumps in their farms! Similarly, when a community radio station was set up in the area, one of the first advertisements go out on air was from a woman calling others to aggregate their little amounts of farm produce, and now they have rented a truck which goes back and forth each week to the city markets!

A third example came from Karnataka, where a not-for-profit organization helped set up a network of retail and produce collection points, again run by women. And here the women requested their local self-help-group organization to train them on selling mobile SIM cards through the same retail points! Cellphones, as many would know, are gaining tremendous outreach in rural areas. Companies therefore need a distribution network in rural areas to sell value added services, prepaid recharges, and such. And women are again the preferred ones to do it, what could be better than to leverage the existing agriculture distribution networks which are already in place.

Agriculture and productivity

If we think about argiculture as a food producing activity, many issues arise related to operational scale and efficiency. There is a question of proper education and training in disease control for example. Over 98% of a potato crop under contract with PepsiCo was once completely wiped out because of blight. And here we are talking about small farmers for whom one crop can make a difference between sustainance and falling into deep poverty. PepsiCo has since engaged a large army of extension workers who make sure that farmers know about the correct methods to control pests and crop diseases, and also provide weather insurance to their contract farmers. Similarly, the correctness of methods is very important. Paddy seeds can either be sown in a flooded field, or first sown and then flooded with water. It turns out that in the former approach over half the water is lost in puddling. There is no new technology here, no new seeds, only a different method of cultivation. And if we add that over 80% of water in India is consumed for agriculture, you can imagine the impact that good methods can have here! There are many similar examples where using the right methods can alone improve productivity, and these have even been tested in small pilots here and there, but very few practices have managed to make their way to farmers in a big way.

GM seeds are seen as another method to increase agricultural productivity. I will not go into the details of this hotly contested topic, and assuming that biotechnology is the way to go to grow more food for more people, the one probematic issue is the tradeoff between price and innovation. Companies such as Monsanto are innovating and developing new seed lines -- pest resistant, drought resistant -- and want to earn back the investments they have made. Exercising IP rights by putting in a stopper gene for re-planting seeds is one way, higher prices is another way, but effectively these methods do increase costs for the farmers at least in the short term. Can new methods be developed for companies to capitalize on their investments made for innovation, instead of simply a higher price? Governments can provide subsidies, for one. Alternately, the government of India chose to instead invent their own seed lines which could be sold at lower prices. To add a footnote here, the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow actually successfully did this for cotton seeds. But these genes have not seen the light of day as yet because government run institutes are completely lost in getting regulatory approval and passing food safety tests!

Society and agriculture

But productivity should not be the only goal. It is inextricably linked with society and ecology. Here is an example. Contract farming normally comes with strict regulations about crop rotation patterns, seed varieties, etc. But this has often resulted in farmers losing touch with their lands and passing the age-old wisdom to their next generation. In Uttaranchal, there is a concept of 12 anaja (seeds) which are supposed to be sown in rotation to preserve the soil health and the water table. The water table by the way is in most rapid decline in the Gangetic plains of north India than anywhere else in the world. Highly optimized contract farming however often neglects these principles because even if the soil deteriorates in one part, companies can always relocate their operations to other areas. The losers are actually the communities in these areas because they are losing the wealth of their lands, and likely at a price which does not take the soil and water table decline into account, and to make matters worse, they are losing agricultural wisdom over the generations.

Another interesting example, again from the hills of Uttaranchal, was the destruction of local supply chains because of increasing capitalization of agriculture. A village on one side of a hill could be producing rice while the other side could be barren. However, rather than sustain local supply chains, pricing and infrastructure are rigged in such a way that food first travels all the way to Delhi and then back. Not only is this ecologically nonsensical, but it also damages the cultural fabric that may have united the two villages together in the past.

Us

Those were quite some eye-opening issues for me, and underscored the importance of seeing agriculture in a more holistic setting. Economics, policies, technology, ecology, and culture all come together. To drive the point deeper, I coincidentally happened to watch Avatar the same evening, and realized the important link we have with nature. We cannot think in terms of us and nature, it is all one, we are a part of nature, and so are the technologies we develop and the policies we follow to live.

Can Gram Vaani help here? I definitely think so, because we are building a vehicle to spread this message and help everybody realize how rural areas are fundamentally interconnected to our lives, something that the mainstream media completely neglects. Stay tuned in for a formal announcement about the release of our GRINS box for community radio stations. We are almost there, I personally cannot wait for this having waited for it since almost three years now! We are also in conversation with Video Volunteers, a fellow Knight awardee, of how we can extend our radio based setup to video as well, and together build what we call a YouTube for the Next Billions.

Credits: All these examples and insights come from the panelists and attendees of the Ashoka conference. In particular, Kalyani Menon-Sen, Anita Paul (Community Initiatives), Chetna Gala Sinha (Mann Deshi), Uma Swaminathan (RUDI-SEWA), Prema Gopalan (Swayam Shiksha Prayog), Bharat Ramaswamy (ISI), and Vivek Bharati (PepsiCo).

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January 31 2010

09:00

Steady Driving for Community Radio

It has been quite a while since we wrote updates, but a lot has been going on. For one, we were winners in the Indian national Manthan Awards for 2009 for technological innovation for development! Then we did a second release of our broadcast system for community radio integrated with telephony, and deployed it at our pilot location. We are set for two more pilots in the next two weeks, and we will start professional deployments very soon! The community radio movement in India has also been picking up pace steadily, there are now almost fifty community radio stations, and we are getting requests from a lot of them to use our system. Here's more details:

Manthan award and scalability

We actually won in a special category, getting the Juror's Distinction Award, which makes us even better than the best! The award was for GRINS (Gramin Radio Inter Networking System), the community radio broadcast system we have developed. There is no equivalent open-source or even commercial radio automation system which supports the extensive features that we do.

manthan-small.jpg

This is a very timely award for us. Manthan is focused on community media in South Asia in a big way. There were many organizations from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Thailand that attended the awards and conference. It has helped put us in touch with all these groups from around the world, and they are all very keen to use our system and publicize it in their networks.

We are evolving an interesting model to help us scale our outreach. In terms of installation, we have kept our system absolutely plug-n-play so that we just have to ship out a GRINS box and radio stations can be up and running after hooking on the right cables and transmitter. But the challenge lies in how rapidly can we churn out boxes given our limited resources, and how can we provide support and maintenance around the world. So, what we plan is to identify resellers in different countries. Resellers may include small companies or individuals that do IT installations in offices. Such resellers will have the technical knowhow to install GRINS like systems, and also have a clear commercial incentive to convince radio stations to use our technology. At the same time, we will also make efforts to tie up with non-profits in different countries and do pilot projects with them to convince more organizations about the validity of our techniques.

Second release

The second release was a huge increment. We now support telephony, so that the radio station operator can make and receive phone calls through the GRINS user interface. This simplifies the task so much for them, because otherwise they would have to change mixer settings to archive conversations, or do something different to put the callers on air. Commercial radio stations also find this very despite more expensive equipment that they use, and most stations only play out pre-recorded phone conversations. The GRINS telephony interface looks as follows:

The radio station operator can specify whether they want to start accepting phone calls. Then, when a call comes, the operator can accept it and talk to the caller, and optionally even put the person on air. If multiple phone lines are available at the station, then a conferencing can even be set up among multiple callers. So, for example, a doctor can be asked to stay online over phone, and women or children from the villages can be invited to call and discuss their problems with the doctor. The entire conversation can be archived or played out instantaneously.

We are now working on what we call offline voice applications. Here, people can call and record questions or comments, and others can give answers to these questions. All the various audio snippets will get archived, and can be later played out on air. So, we can have voice applications for agricultural consultancy where farmers can call and ask questions, or for capacity building of healthcare workers where nurses and mid-wives working in villages can share knowledge with each other.

Here are a few interesting photos from our last trip to Orchha, our pilot location. The radio station has a wireless phone service, and we see here our man sitting in the sun on a grassy patch waiting for a call! The same phone actually also plugs into GRINS when the radio station wants to open itself to accept phone calls.

IMG_4992.JPG

And this below is the coolest radio/transistor set I have ever seen! It can tune into FM and AM broadcasts, play out cassette tapes and mp3 from a USB stick, and even has a remote! Unbelievable! Somebody has retrofitted components from all sorts of junk and made this, talk about ingenuity!

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Here are so many people from the radio station, reading the morning newspaper. Disconnected from the city and not having a television set in office, this is the only source of daily news for the people, which they use to make interesting radio programs.

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More pilots

Our plan is to set up two more pilots of GRINS. One will be in the beautiful mountain city of Dharamshala, the Dalai Lama's residence, where the Tibetan's Children Village is running the radio station. The other pilot will be close to Delhi, in the suburbs of Gurgaon near an automobile factory. Both pilots present a very different demographic from Orchha. The Dharamshala radio station is actually run by kids! They sing poems, make educational programs for themselves and their families, and have singing competitions. The Gurgaon radio station on the other hand is an urban community radio station meant for the factory township, for workers and their families. Our first pilot at Orchha is so much different, here the radio serves about thirty remote villages with people working primarily around agriculture. We hope to have quite a few interesting stories to report very soon!

We are also getting requests for a lot of community radio stations in India to use the GRINS box. So, we will start making shipments of the box in about a month, and expect to have the box installed in more than twenty radio stations in 2010 itself.

Community radio and co-casting

I had earlier written about many challenges that the community radio movement in India was facing. Much needs to be done to pick up pace, but licenses are being given out steadily and now there are almost fifty community radio stations. Not all of them are entirely community-centric, many of them actually being campus radio stations run by educational institutions, but even these stations do serve a community of students afterall! We keep getting inquiries from a lot of places on how to set up a radio station, and so we put together a brief manual, a 101 on community radio, to outline the different things that an organization needs to do before it can set up a radio station.

All along while we were developing our system, we also realized that the system is more widely applicable than just for radio stations. So we developed a new concept, which we call co-casting! It is short for community casting or contextual casting or cooperative casting -- a new paradigm for communication in rural areas which is centered around specific communities that share a common informational interest. Co-casting is different from community radio broadcasting in the way it defines a community. Communities are geographically defined in a radio broadcast, but co-casting communities are information specific. Our rationale for having co-casting communities is that a centralized radio station becomes unscalable to be able to deal with the information needs of multiple communities present around its geographical footprint. Second, it is impractical to expect the radio station staff to have expertise in different types of information, which is not the case with co-casting.

To illustrate with an example, a local co-casting community for health would include nurses and midwives in the village, doctors, and local women folk. To set the community moving, an NGO will be required to set up a GRINS box in the community they cater to, and community members can then call into the box and leave questions, or conference to interact with experts and other members. Educational videos made locally are also offloaded on to the box and can be played out to listener groups during scheduled sittings together with an expert or local mediator. These local mediators can be recruited from among more skilled community members who know the topic in detail.

cocasting.png

But note that co-casting is not just technology. The people and process are more important. Co-casting advocates that experts and mediators should interact with their communities not only over phone or by sharing videos, but even in person, to be able to attach themselves more closely to the local context and help members internalize the information effectively.

We have put together a detailed manual about co-casting which describes the technology and processes in more detail.

The next steps

With so much going on, we need to be very clear on what we want to prioritize next! Our agenda for the next couple of months is going to be around increasing our footprint. We are productizing the GRINS box, so that any community radio station or co-casting adventurer can just buy the box from us, or buy the hardware and install our software on it, plug it in and get started. At the same time, we will start looking out for resellers in different countries who can spawn off an installation activity at their end. All our software is open-source, so the resellers just have to find clients, buy the hardware, and download and install our software. At the same time, we are also looking at how to help make the community radio stations financially sustainable. Our current thinking is around tying up with content providers in education, consultancy, advertisements, etc and use the radio stations as a rural outreach arm for these content providers. The revenue will get passed on to the radio stations and help them cover their operating costs of staff salaries, utility bills, etc.

Stay tuned!

December 18 2009

15:52

GRINS v0.2 is released

We are very pleased to announce the second release of GRINS, Gram Vaani's Knight funded project of low-cost systems for community radio stations in rural areas. This builds upon the v0.1 release we did in June by adding support for telephony, backup, and log-shipping, plus smoothing out many user interface issues. Having a single console to schedule broadcast, make and receive phone calls, archive live speech and manage content sets GRINS apart from any other commercial or open-source radio broadcast software available so far.

**Telephony: **The current support for live telephony allows the radio jockey to receive phone calls, converse with the caller, and optionally put them on air. Conferencing can also be set up across multiple callers if more than one phone line is available at the radio station. This means that the radio stations can do interesting applications, for example, have a doctor stay on line and invite community members to call and ask questions, or have agricultural experts and mediators stay on line and answer questions, etc. This also means that syndicated broadcast can be enabled across multiple GRINS stations by having them call each other! Here is a screenshot of what the telephony screen looks like.

**Log shipping: **Even if your radio station does not have Internet connectivity, you can still report back problems to us. All you need is a USB stick. As shown in the figure below, you then insert the key into any of the various machines you may be using. GRINS will copy its logs on to the key. Then walk over to an Internet cafe or any other Internet enabled PC and insert the key into this PC. Scripts will automatically fire off and upload the logs to our server. We can then take a look at these logs and figure out any problems in your setup.

logshipping.png

To read more about GRINS v0.2, and for download/installation instructions, please take a look at our website.

In our next release, we will provide the ability to send/receive SMS messages, and to share content across different CR stations.

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