Moving from ideas to execution is an ultra cool feeling. Gram Vaani is finally on the go and we are all extremely excited to see our dreams taking shape.

The garage startup mode

I always used to wonder what a Silicon Valley garage startup would feel like. Well, here’s what it looks like — a social entrepreneurial garage startup in India. This is Bala in his pyjamas, with dozens of audio cables and connectors strewn out on his desk in a manner that only he understands. Bala spends part of his day reading Kafka, and the rest of his day and night drinking coffee and coding. Sometimes he also listens to Pink Floyd and drinks beer, and believe me, Java programs written under the intoxicating influence of Floydian melodies most often produce results that can at best be described only as “interesting”.

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Well, here’s the rest of the story. I wrapped up my PhD in computer science from the University of Waterloo in October 2008, and moved back to India in November. My first month was pretty much spent in settling down in New Delhi. Although I have lived in India all my life except for the last five years in Canada, the rate of change here has been tremendous and it took me quite a while to feel that I was back at home. I finally found a good place to stay, and we set up the Gram Vaani office in one of the rooms in my house. A couple of tables, a couple of chairs, a couple of computers, and loads of audio equipment all over the place! It is indeed no different from operating a garage startup, except that this startup is not here to make big money but to pursue a big vision for community media.

And we are not alone in this vision. Bala, a very close friend, was with me at Waterloo. He did his Masters in computer science from Waterloo and was working for a while in India before joining Gram Vaani earlier in January 2009. The third member of our technical team, Zahir, will also be joining us in another week or so. Zahir is doing his PhD in computer science from IIT Bombay in the area of ICTD (Information and Communication Technologies for Development). His thesis is already centered around wireless networks for rural areas, and so Gram Vaani will pretty much form a part of his thesis.

But we will be getting out of this garage mode quite soon. Our proposal for incubation at IIT Delhi, one of the premier engineering universities of India, was recently accepted. We will move to our new office in a few weeks. The IIT incubation is extremely useful because it will avoid significant bother for us on the infrastructure setup, give us a lot of credibility, and also provide access for collaboration with the students and faculty at IIT.

The technology

We now have a good handle on the technical design and tools that we will be using. Our first step is to build a radio automation system that goes beyond much of what is already available on open-source. This automation system will provide the following kinds of features:

  • Playout and scheduling of audio programs
  • Archiving of live broadcasts
  • Semantically searchable media library for storing audio, video, image, and text content
  • Telephony support to allow audience to dial into the radio station and share their viewpoints, both online and offline
  • SMS support to allow audience to send SMSes to the radio station

And all this hosted on off-the-shelf hardware components, at a cost less than $1000 per community radio station.

The second step will be to connect radio stations situated in remote geographical areas to the Internet. We will do this using long distance WiFi links because broadband of other infrastructure based forms of Internet access are not available in rural areas. This will allow us to provide the following additional features:

  • Content sharing platform to let radio stations to exchange content with each other
  • Conduct simultaneous syndicated broadcasts across a series of radio stations
  • Service hosting platform to push advertisements, agricultural advice, news updates, NGO feedback, etc to the CR stations

The third step will be to use FM PCI cards for radio broadcast, instead of the standard FM transmitters that are big and clunky and expensive. Our goal is to keep the hardware and setup cost for the entire system, including Internet connectivity, below $2500 per community radio station. But this is in no way going to be easy. Reduction in hardware cost implies that we will be doing more and more processing in software by eliminating external components such as mixers and audio switchers. This means that our implementation has to be extremely efficient to ensure that audio latency is minimal, despite the increased computation. Plus, our choice of computation platform is governed by its power consumption, so that it can run on solar power since the electricity situation in Indian villages is extremely erratic; this potentially leaves us with platforms like Soekris or Via boxes which have only 533MHz to 1.6GHz computational capability. Other than tackling such performance issues, we will have to ensure that our system is robust and can be locally repaired through simple troubleshooting guides or telephone calls because it will not be easy for technicians to travel to remote villages for repair services, the travel time some times being up to 3 days one way.

The bottomline — we are having a lot of fun building this system because it is so real and challenging!

The business model

Our technology is going to reduce the setup cost for anybody putting up a community radio station. They will only have to purchase off-the-shelf hardware, download our software, and follow instructions to set it up. But how are the radio stations going to sustain themselves over time? The policies in India do allow for five minutes of advertising per hour, but getting advertisers to actually pay can be quite difficult. How can a small non-profit operator in a remote village convince some big company to pay them a minuscule percentage of their advertising budget? The lack of accountability, reachability, and business skills are significant problems here. Gram Vaani’s model is to search for advertisers on behalf of the radio stations, and then distribute the revenues to the radio stations that broadcast these advertisements. As is said, it may be easy for a big fish to talk to a big fish, but not easy for many small fish to talk to a big fish. Gram Vaani may not be a big fish itself, but we are confident that over time we will be able to create visibility for community radio among corporate groups looking for rural outreach.

Internally, we prefer to consider advertisements as a kind of service. Gram Vaani will also help provide other services by connecting community radio stations with various information providers. For example, health agencies can be considered as information providers that want to push health related educational information to rural areas. Similarly, agricultural institutes, microfinance agencies, health insurance agencies, etc are all interested in reaching out to rural areas — we will help connect them with the radio stations, and build an integrated billing and revenue sharing infrastructure so that the community radio stations can acquire sufficient content for programming and sufficient financial revenues to sustain themselves.

Two other founding members of our team, Mayank and Parminder, are actively talking to various groups and radio stations to formulate the business model in greater detail. Mayank is an MBA from IIM Lucknow with a great deal of strategy experience for various businesses. And Parminder has already been working on information services in rural areas — his sister company, eGovServices, helps put up Internet kiosks in villages to provide e-governance services. The technical and business teams wonderfully complement each other and it is an exciting exercise during our common meetings to understand each other’s terminologies and language and thinking methodologies.

The way forward

Other than figuring out the technology and the business model, there are many more issues. How do we get community radio to scale in India? Do we leave the movement to pick up on its own pace, or can be do better? Maybe talk to governments and convince them to give funds for statewide networks of radio stations, or convince corporate groups such as vernacular newspapers to do the same, or maybe banks… We continuously think and debate about these issues to figure out the best way forward. But scaling a bottom-up community initiates in a top-down planned manner has a different challenge to it. How do the communities get a feeling of ownership of the radio stations if it was created without their involvement? Maybe we need to evolve a system of joint ownership of the radio stations, part of it being owned by the government or some company, and part of it by the community; financial ownership is probably the first step towards inculcating operational ownership. Unfortunately, the current community radio policy in India does not permit this kind of a organizational setup. But maybe there are other ways and only time will tell. We are prepared to learn as we go along, and adapt our methods based on what we learn. Please do stay tuned on more updates.