Time to welcome Diversity in Radio?

By Shruti Pushkarna

As you read this, commercial and state-owned radio stations all across the world are celebrating this day on air. Yes, it’s World Radio Day today.

Surely a medium that has managed to stay relevant for over 120 years (since the first radio device was invented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1899) calls for celebration.

With new technology and increasing penetration, the content development business is more dynamic than ever. Radio too has been experimenting with various avatars when it comes to programming models or expansion on digital platforms.

But what hasn’t changed is its devoted listenership, which cuts across culture, age, ethnicity, gender, religion, economics and so on. I start my day with tuning in to my favourite station every morning as I drive to work. You can hear the radio blaring in the local chaiwallah’s shop (no reference to our dear PM here!). Cab drivers, hawkers, housewives, college students, senior citizens, all take in their daily diet of radio content.

Another ardent group of listeners are millions of visually impaired citizens living in different nooks of our country. Did you know that 20% of the global blind population resides in India? That’s around 63 million people according to the World Health Organisation.

And this large section of the population depends on radio for not just entertainment but information. Like several persons with disabilities, blind people are often treated as a burden by their families. Confined in the four walls of their homes, they remain isolated from the society. Deprived of education, they have little or no access to information.

They find a friend in the RJ, solace in music and in that moment, the impairment ceases to be. As part of my work, in an interaction with a parent, I learned that his 14-year-old blind boy who was absolutely tucked away from the outside world had no skills of communication or the ability to carry out any activities of daily living. But he could sing and dance because he listened to radio for most part of the day.

In this cricket-loving nation, sighted fans may have moved on to mobile devices for live video streaming, but a visually impaired fan still tunes in to the good old radio commentary.

Radio fascinates visually impaired people, because they can easily relate to it. There is no discrimination there, in terms of lack of access.

The question is: are radio producers aware of this audience and their needs? Are they devising any content that is targeted towards the average visually impaired listener? There are a lot of social campaigns various stations undertake. They align with a cause, person or an organisation and garner support through their wide reach.

I feel radio can contribute a great deal by initiating a campaign to sensitise people about the challenges faced by visually impaired people. Or let’s say how to offer help to a blind person you may encounter on a street, on the metro, in a bus or at an airport.

Radio also has the potential to offer employment to blind people. India’s first visually impaired radio jockey K Srikanth started off his career with All India Radio and later worked with the BBC. There are private and non-profit institutions that offer courses in storytelling and radio jockeying. Among the section of blind people that has access to mainstream education and technology, there are many students who opt for media courses.

Not long ago, I’d engaged with a graduate in mass communication from Bengaluru who wanted to become an RJ. He found no luck because he was blind. This young boy was well verse with technology, had acquired all skills of scripting, editing etc. He needed professional training like all newbies do, that’s all.

This year the theme of World Radio Day is ‘Radio and Diversity’. Perhaps a cue for the radio industry to promote inclusion and educate the society about ‘diverse’ needs of people who are just as equal citizens of India as you and I.