How a fisherman-run radio station in south India is changing lives

How a fisherman-run radio station in south India is changing lives

Hanan Zaffar & Majid Alam

Community-run Kadal Osai FM has helped inform inhabitants of Pamban, a small island in Tamil Nadu, and raise social and environmental awareness in the process.
On Pamban, a small island inhabited by over 100,000 people in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Kadal Osai 90.4 FM is not merely a radio station. It is a life line. Run by a dozen odd fishermen to empower their community – one which makes up 80 percent of the island’s population – the radio station is the first community-driven media initiative in India exclusively for fisherfolk by fisherfolk.
Started by a fisherman, Armstrong Fernando, around five years ago, Radio Kadal Osai (Sound of the Sea) is now a team of 12 members, researching, presenting and disseminating news to the people of the island. On Pamban, people rely heavily on the sea. They either indulge in fishing or cater to the tourism sector by running small hotels and driving taxis.
The 24/7 channel provides timely weather updates for those braving deep waters to fish in the sea, cautions them about harsh weather and also helps them identify potential fishing zones. The community radio station has also helped create alternate livelihoods and raise awareness about societal issues and marine conservation.
“Our work is to protect the sea for the people,” says Lenin, who works as the station’s programming coordinator. “People here are very simple and hardworking. Initially when we started the radio, there was a lot of resistance to the idea. People were apprehensive of us. But now as they have started reaping benefits of a community-driven media, they themselves come to our radio station and want to share their experiences,” he told TRT World.
Before the inception of Kadal Osai, people in Pamban could only listen to the weak frequencies of Sri Lankan-based Ceylon radio, due to its proximity. India’s national public broadcaster All India Radio didn’t have proper reach either. Sabeer, 40, who has been working as a fisherman for the last two decades, feels the introduction of Kadal Osai has transformed the lives of the people on the island.
“They share the latest information relevant to us (fishermen). We used to be oblivious of such things earlier. Important government schemes and vacancies are shared, along with other information like location of local vaccination camps,” Sabeer told TRT World. Initially the radio station used to broadcast for a few hours a day, but as its popularity rose, programmes had to be aired round the clock.
Lenin believes people experience a sense of authenticity when information is aired through the airwaves.
“The radio has a great influence in the lives of the people who listen to it [compared to] TV, social media or word of mouth. People acknowledge that there is little possibility of being misinformed on this medium.”
Helping marine conservation
Apart from announcements related to fisherman welfare and playing traditional music, the community radio also shares useful information to protect and conserve the ocean’s resources, pointing out endangered species like sea turtles and asking fishermen to save them if they are caught in their nets.
When fishermen in Pamban put out their nets, turtles would often get entangled along with the fish. Turtle meat was commonly consumed, thus endangering the rare species. In a special initiative, Radio Kadal Osai started to award fishermen INR 1,000 ($13.35) if they released trapped turtles to the ocean while capturing the moment on their phones.
“This became a huge success. A lot of fishermen sent us videos of them releasing turtles to the sea. We give them cash rewards and also announce their names on the radio. This also helped to create awareness about the conservation of sea turtles,” says Gayathri Usman, the station head of Kadal Osai.
The station and its awareness campaigns have also helped curb open defecation on the island, provided sustainable fish-catching practises, and educated fishermen about environmental pollution. “People now don’t take plastic bags to the sea. They are cautious and aware that polluting the sea would directly affect their livelihood,” adds Usman.
Programmes on climate change, women’s empowerment and about loans and subsidies available to fishermen have also been quite popular. During the current coronavirus pandemic, the radio is also working hard to educate people about pressing issues like vaccine hesitancy, testing and physical distancing.
“Earlier people used to discriminate if anyone got infected with the virus. It was like a taboo. A lot of fake news had crept into the minds of people and we had to work a lot on fact-checking for them. Ultimately we succeeded in providing people a correct perspective,” says Usman.
The struggle for a sustainable model
While a host of such community-driven media initiatives have been undertaken in the country, a very few have matched the success of Kadal Osai. It’s largely because of a sustainable economic model adopted by the radio station. “Our trust has a building which has around 12 shops. We [are sustained by] rent income and donations by our trust members and various fishermen men associations,” says Usman.
“We also get projects from various international organisations like UNICEF and the Ministry of Culture and Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA) that help us to continuously grow in a bid to continue work,” she adds.
This unfortunately hasn’t been the case with many such local radio stations in the country. Experts say that licence fraud has hampered the prospects of a thriving community radio ecosystem in India.
“Ideally speaking a community radio should be owned by a community,” says Danish Iqbal, a radio expert and professor at the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) in Delhi. “Unfortunately in India most community radios are sanctioned to educational institutions which are government-owned. A lot of licences have also been brought by private educational institutions in the name of educational NGOs.”

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