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Gram Vaani successfully launched its first pilot a few days back with Radio Bundelkhand! Radio Bundelkhand is a community radio station operating in the small town of Orchha in Madhya Pradesh (India), and was the first community driven CR station to start broadcasting after the new policy. It is being run by Development Alternatives, one of the largest NGOs in India. This pilot has been an excellent experience for us. We saw the folks at the radio station produce Bundeli Idol, a strong competitor to the American and Indian Idol (!!), and a program on the recent solar eclipse, and got lots of feedback about our system. Bala and Zahir spent a week there setting up GRINS, our platform for community radio stations, and training the radio station staff and volunteers to use the system.

Up and running in a day!

Myself and Zahir reached Orchha on the 13th morning. We had a short meeting with Ms Anujaa (Station Manager – who handles bulk of the administrative work and also finds time to guide the reporters in their content creation), Mr Ashok Shukla (he is the top technical guy here and a jack of all trades!), and Mr Amit (who works closely with the reporters on content production). We took a few hours to set up our box, and figure out the cabling in such a way that the computer used for running the front end of our system could also be used for their usual production work. It seems they do have access to audio and computer related equipments of decent quality, through the city of Jhansi (Jhansi is about 16kms from Orchha). We could get some of the reporters to work on the system from time to time. We used the feedback from them to fix some usability bugs and improve the general stability of the system. These activities of testing, feedback and updating the system went on in parallel for the better part of the week we spent there.

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Zahir fixing up some cables

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Bala giving a tutorial on GRINS

The young reporters

One has to experience the infectious enthusiam and high motivation levels of these young reporters in person. They are mostly in the late teens to early twenties age group. They are a friendly, confident and talented bunch of people. Belonging to the villages near Orchha, they are able to connect with the local population and draw them out. Writing scripts for their own programmes is well within their comfort zone, and so is working on the computer to create audio content. They are quite proficient in using Audacity for their editing needs, and before GRINS was installed, relied on winamp for playing out their content on-air. The old system will be used as a backup for a few weeks before they come to rely solely on GRINS. Even though they are interested and motivated to learn new things, they face some barriers in knowledge acquisition. On the production side, their toolset is mostly limited to Audacity and some audio format convertion tools and the like. Content management is a tough nut with files stored in difficult to navigate folders. GRINS should be able to help them with this bit. I suspect that even a short training session on the variety of production tools available should do them great help. They have the inquisitiveness to explore things and follow things up on their own. So far, the training they have received has been on field work. They were unfamiliar with the concepts behind audio mixers and were not confident in their knowledge of the connections and configurations of their existing setup.

Content production

They do not have adequate access to quality content which they could use as raw materials for their content production. The nearest public library is in Jhansi (about 16 kms away), which, apparently serves mostly old content. They have access to an unreliable internet connection, but even when connectivity is available, they are unable to make effective use of it since most of them are not conversant in English. I think we should try to make quality content available in local languages. Lack of access to experts in fields like basic sciences is yet another reason why they are unable to produce radio content related to such fields. They were quite taken in by the 3D interactive globe on my KDE desktop. They found kstars quite interesting too. I believe we could make localized versions of similar educational software available to these students. I suspect software like Celestia, Kgeography, and Parley will turn out to be immensely popular! Next time Gram Vaani visits Radio Bundelkhand, we will be carrying some of these software with us.

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Creating a program on the solar eclipse

We got a chance to watch them make a programme on the solar eclipse (July 22). They aimed to counter prevalent superstitions on the subject. Through discussions and reading articles from magazines, they quickly built up their own knowledge and promptly recorded a fifteen minute programme. We chimed in with our knowledge of Earth, Universe and Everything. (And yes Nishi, you were right, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to the sun, while Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system. My bad.). She was pretty comfortable with her astronomy, since she had a chance to brush up on it when she prepared for the Railways Examination. All this happened under the watchful eyes of Shuklaji, who gave them a few suggestions on how to structure the show. His ability to contribute to things both technical and non-technical is invaluable to this station.

Bundeli Idol and advertisements

Radio Bundelkhand regularly broadcasts programmes on agriculture, folk songs, career opportunities, heritage and life of women. Recently, they have started airing advertisements too. The reporters themselves put in effort to bring in these ads which could potentially be a good source of revenue. Broadcast of an advertisement of a particular horticultural nursery seemed to get the attention of nearby local businesses and more of them have expressed their desire to broadcast their own ads. Amit had come up with an idea to have a Bundeli Idol contest which has generated a lot of interest from the public. We attended one of the audition sessions in the village of Niwari, about 30kms from Orchha. They had about 35 participants coming in that day, and fifteen more on the following day. The make-shift studio was an office belonging to Taragram. RB had taken a few instruments with them which the participants could use. They are required to sing Bundeli (local dialect) songs for the contest. Those who are selected in this round would be called up and invited for a recording session at the station. They have worked out the format of the competition and arranged for judges. The daily transmission time was to be extended by half an hour to accomodate this programme. This programme would give a boost to their collection of Bundeli songs.

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Bundeli Idol recording in progress

What’s next

We will visit Orchha pretty soon. During our next visit, we will add some minor features that were requested by our friends here. We will also make arrangements for getting the application logs that are created here back to Delhi. In another two to three months we should be here again with our brand new telephony related widgets. It should help them with running contests like Bundeli Idol, where the viewers can vote via SMS or through the telephone. Telephony service would also help them in disseminating basic information like programme schedules, without engaging the time of any of their staff members.