The state of technology today means that nearly every village in the developing world could have someone — a local changemaker — who broadcasts his or her issues to the world. It’s commonplace today to hear people say the world is flooded with content and that “everyone” can now be a producer.

At every community video training that Video Volunteers conducts for people from marginalized communities in India, more and more people are showing up with $15 Chinese-made video-enabled cell phones. It’s now possible for rural people without data connections to send tweets via SMS. In India, the government has ambitious programs to bring the Internet into the villages.

Everything seems set for a mass of content to be coming out of rural areas — which brings us to our problem: the fact that it is not.

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Video Volunteers’ community media producers.

The mere presence of information technology, like the 800 million cell phone connections in India, does not ensure local content creation. If you search the names of most remote Indian villages on YouTube, nothing will appear. If you search them on Google itself, never mind YouTube, most of what appears is raw government data. Content is produced by a small group of people, and the world’s poor, in particular, are producing virtually zero digital content. Content continues to be made by the “drivers” for the “driven.”

Video Volunteers is seeking to change this one-sided status quo; we’re posing as a question the statement with which I started this post: What would it take for every village in the developing world to have someone — a local changemaker — who broadcasts that village’s issues to the world? How can one provide the training, support and human connection for some of the world’s most underprivileged communities to feel that their voice matters?

Over the last year, we’ve re-strategized our programs and revamped our business model in the search for a truly scalable model of community media. As part of a 4-part series, I’ll be sharing what we’ve done over the last year, our experiences, and what we’ve learned. This has relevance to people interested in numerous issues, from improving the quality of journalism, to understanding how communications between government and its citizens can be two-way rather than one way, and increasing the quantum of good ideas the world has for tackling poverty.

In this post, Part 1, I’ll be giving a basic introduction to IndiaUnheard, our flagship rural feature service. In Part 2, I will share what we learned in 2011 on how to make community media a sustainable enterprise. Part 3 details our distribution plans and strategies to earn revenue from the mainstream media. Part 4 looks toward the future.

A network of community correspondents

IndiaUnheard is Video Volunteers’ network of community correspondents. In February 2011, we took in our second batch of IndiaUnheard community correspondents, bringing the total number of community correspondents to 52, 45 of which are still with us. They now cover 24 states in India and 45 districts.

The basic model is as follows:

  • We recruit grassroots activists through a network of social movements and NGOs (non-governmental organization.)
  • The basic criterion is that the candidates be economically poor and also have a history of volunteerism and a strong sense of belonging to their community. This is to ensure that they’ll stay committed to producing the videos of the stories their communities say need to be told.
  • We only work with socially marginalized and oppressed communities — Dalit, Tribal, religious and sexual minorities, and women.
  • We train them for two weeks at an intensive training camp in video activism, journalism ethics, and television news-style production.
  • We give them each a low-cost HD video camera. Cisco has recently donated 500 of them, and we are very excited.
  • They return to their villages and produce at least two videos a month.
  • They come up with stories from their own village and in neighboring villages in their district.
  • They each work with a mentor in the Video Volunteers office. Every senior staff member mentors 5-7 community producers, advising them once a week by phone on their stories.
  • They shoot their stories, go to an Internet cafe, and transfer the footage to DVD, which they snail-mail us to our office in Goa.
  • It’s an entrepreneurial model where they are paid on a per-video basis. We pay them what we know the Indian media pays its stringers, or its local freelance reporters.
    A team of editors in the office edit the stories.
  • They are then posted on our “website:“http://www.indiaunheard.videovolunteers.org where we broadcast one video a day, accompanied by an article, which is generally written by a research intern.

Once the video is online, the community correspondent can download it from the Internet and start using it to get an impact in her village. Meanwhile, from our office, we can start the next level of distribution to mainstream media and other NGOs.

In the longer term, this low-cost, innovative model is a way for every village in the developing world to have someone trained to use the latest technologies to advocate for their rights. There are now video-enabled cell phones in all corners of the world, and a model like IndiaUnheard can enable these technologies to be used to capture human rights violations and bring them to the attention of the world.

Here’s a video compiling different sound bites from the community correspondents. You can watch more videos here.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, in which we’ll discuss what we’ve learned about what makes community media a sustainable enterprise.