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Radio gaga

Right now, nothing is going on. We are critical,” whispers Zahir Karodia. He stands behind fellow engineer Bala-chandran Chandrasekharan in the dark control room of the radio station Gurgaon ki Awaaz, or 107.8 FM, a community radio station that serves Gurgaon’s drivers, construction workers and migrants.

india Updated: Aug 20, 2010 02:19 IST
Anika Gupta

Right now, nothing is going on. We are critical,” whispers Zahir Karodia. He stands behind fellow engineer Bala-chandran Chandrasekharan in the dark control room of the radio station Gurgaon ki Awaaz, or 107.8 FM, a community radio station that serves Gurgaon’s drivers, construction workers and migrants.

Both men stare at the screen of the radio station’s main computer, which has frozen while running their software and now refuses to respond.

The station’s live traffic programme was supposed to start two minutes ago.

The station’s tens of thousands of listeners are hearing static, or dead air.

At last, Chandrasekharan reboots the software. Looking relieved, the anchors launch into an update on rain flooding in Hero Honda Chowk.

In April, Gurgaon ki Awaaz installed the Grameen Radio Internetworking System (GRINS) software as part of a pilot programme run by the software’s inventors: Chandrasekharan, Karodia and their friend Aaditeshwar Seth, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Karodia is Seth’s PhD student, and Seth and Chandrasekharan met at university in Canada. At 29, Seth is the oldest of them.

The station, which is run by the American-funded educational nonprofit The Restoring Force, installed the program to help manage the transition from pre-recorded programmes to occasional live broadcasting. All of the station’s employees, several of whom never passed high school, use GRINS.

For the engineers, GRINS represents the beginning of a new way of looking at community radio — and a possible business model in a struggling social sector.

HI-FI AMBITIONS

The engineers want to create affordable software that can bridge the gap between urban and rural markets, creating an information marketplace accessible to all.

In early 2009, the three engineered partnered with two businessmen, Parminder Singh — who had worked in rural markets before — and Mayank Shivam, to start Gram Vaani, a company that would develop and sell their programs. They came out with GRINS that same year, and it now runs at six stations scattered across Orchha (Madhya Pradesh), Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), Gurgaon, Mumbai, Erode (Tamil Nadu) and Supi (Uttarakhand). Seth says they will add a station in Pune in the next six months.

MULTITASKING

In the world of radio software, GRINS is a jack of all trades. The software serves as disc jockey, archivist and secretary. It automatically records radio broadcasts, which can be organised using descriptive labels known as ‘tags’.

GRINS groups items with the same tag together, making the files accessible later on. The software also contains a playlist manager that organises multiple inputs, including music and pre-recorded programmes.

The program’s nearest competitor — in fact, the only competitor — is an American software that retails for about $5,000. No Indian station uses it.

“The (GRINS) software is very user-friendly and easy to grasp,” says Shashwati Goswami, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in Delhi. Goswami manages the day-to-day operations of the college’s community radio station.

But the simple user interface hides a complex back-end; a snarl of software and hardware engineering that took the team a year to work out.

The GRINS software comes pre-programmed on a black box that hooks up to a computer terminal. Seth, Karodia and Chandrasekharan began buying and experimenting with readymade hardware components to come up with the design for the black box.

They started with a playlist manager, running songs all night in their South Delhi office until they had a system that wouldn’t break down. When they had a successful playlist manager, they started working on an inbuilt application for GRINS, one that would allow for incoming telephone calls to go directly into the computer. Most community radio stations have a separate bank where a worker answers the phone and records phone calls onto a tape. The tape is then input into the system.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY

Seth says the company’s goal is to transform the way people in underserved communities receive media. But Gram Vaani’s financial future depends on charting a course through an industry that has struggled to find viable business models. “Most community radio stations can’t even cover their capital costs,” says R. Sreedhar, director of the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia.

“With community radio, there is always a risk that even if a station has a use for the software, they won’t be able to afford it,” says Seth.

GRINS is open source, which means it’s free. Gram Vaani charges R 55,000 for the black boxes, which includes a markup, although stations have the option of buying hardware on their own and installing GRINS.

The company recently tied up with Nomad, a Mumbai-based company that installs low-priced transmitters in community radio stations. Now, Nomad installs GRINS with its transmitters. Gram Vaani engineers perform training, but they charge for it.

But even with these streams of income, they will have to expand.

“Radio is a one way model,” says Seth. “You receive it and listen to it. We want interaction.”

In a few months, they plan to introduce a voice-SMS application, one that runs both on GRINS and independently. A caller dials a number and leaves a message, and other callers can dial the number and listen to the message, as well as leave messages of their own, creating a question-answer forum.

“Radio stations can use the app to conduct polls,” says Seth.

They’re also talking about a tie-up with an American researcher who’s trying to create similar technology for farmers in rural areas.

In order to make a profit, the company will have to convince India Inc to buy in. “We want big companies to come to us. Let’s say Reliance has a program that they want to advertise to farmers. They could do it through us,” says Seth. “We would bridge the last mile.”