February 6, 2008

PROJECTS / RADIO: The unlikely radio stars of an Indian village (INDIA)

The unlikely radio stars of an Indian village - By Thingnam Anjulika Samom

A crude loudspeaker, a PA system and dedicated news presenters are attracting loyal listeners in a remote Indian village.

A crude loudspeaker and a PA are the only pieces of technical equipment in a large hall where a long wooden bench by the window serves as the news desk. As the smell of fresh cow dung wafts into the room from the fields outside, a young woman grumbles as she tries to fix a microphone to its stand. “They borrowed the set for a farmer’s meeting yesterday and have left it like this,” she says in a low voice and tries to reconnect the jumble of wires.

This is the studio of the tiny Paothang Channel, which has become a trusted news source for many of Takhel village’s 5,000 residents. Takhel is only 15km from Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, but it remains an isolated pocket, concealed from the outside world by the Tinseed and Thumbi hill ranges.

In Meiteilon – the language of the Meitei population of Manipur - Paothang means ‘news relay’. But the Paothang Channel is more like a social service than a conventional media operation. It is the sole people’s broadcast initiative in Manipur.

The grumbling young woman is the voice of the channel, an unmarried 27-year-old called Arambam Romita who reads out news directly from the Poknapham newspaper, the largest selling Meiteilon-language daily in the state.

These newscasts are relayed via four loudspeakers hooked up to a simple PA system. The official editor and patron of the channel is Tensubam Ratan, local member of the district level governing body, the zila parishad. Together with an educated farmer Keisham Biren, he set up the channel.

But it is Biren’s co-presenter Romita who is undisputedly the voice of the channel. “I used to like the way the newsreaders read news on radio and TV. So when Tamo [Biren] asked me to join as he couldn’t manage the work alone, I agreed readily.”

“It is basically our own interest - not profit - that guides us, otherwise we’d have stopped long ago,” Biren adds. The dilapidated hall is the station’s third ‘studio’ - the first was in a hotel for about a year, then the second at his house for a brief while.

“I like [reading news] most when there is good supply of light, the microphone is good, there’s silence around and I have come out from home without an argument. I practiced a lot, mostly in the nights, reading aloud to my mother or the young kids in my area, or mostly to myself,” says Romita.

“When I am reading, an urge to know more about the incident or news wells up inside me. I am also excited that people will be listening,” she adds.

At 7.50am, Romita and Biren get ready to read the news. The light from the window crisscrossed by a wooden cane falls on the watches they keep on the desk before them. They check that the microphone is on.

“Paothang Channel welcomes all its listeners. We are on air,” says Biren. “In this world full of differences of caste, colour, and creed, let’s not be divided by these artificial walls,” he adds.

And then he makes an announcement - the local Communist Party of India branch will be meeting the next day and all its members are asked to attend.

Romita takes over, speaking in a soft voice. There are many good stories today:


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