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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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!