Listening to the listeners: intersections of participation, voice, and development in community radio
thesisposted on 26.06.2019, 07:47 by Bridget Backhaus
Community radio has long been considered a “voice for the voiceless”. But what good is a voice if no-one is listening? This thesis explores the role of listening in community radio. Specifically, how community radio broadcasters in India listen to their audiences and how these interactions influence broadcast content and other station activities. In discussing this, this research also examines the effect of a development agenda upon community radio stations in India. Employing an interpretive framework of cognitive justice, this research employs a bricolage-inspired approach to ethnography. The Hindi term jugaad reflects community radio’s contingent, determined, occasionally haphazard spirit, and therefore forms the basis of the methodology. A jugaad approach, in this case, means a multi-sited qualitative study that takes an adaptive approach and utilises methods from ethnography and other approaches as appropriate. In alignment with this jugaad methodology, the methods of data collection included participant observation, interviews, Kusenbach’s (2003) “go-alongs”, and listener storytelling. Three types of indepth, semi-structured interviews were conducted: listener focus groups, staff group interviews, and one-on-one interviews with key informants. The final method was listener storytelling which invited listeners to share personal narratives regarding their relationship and interactions with the radio stations. Data were then analysed using a combination of constructivist grounded theory and narrative analysis. Data collection took place at two rural community radio stations in South India. Though the identities of the stations themselves have been loosely disguised, the general location of this research is within the state of Tamil Nadu in the south of India. The foremost findings of this research relate to the influence of a development agenda on the community radio sector in India. Manyozo’s (2017) concept of "the spectacle of development" provides a useful frame for understanding the insidious ways in which development shapes the lives of so-called 'beneficiaries' at all levels. The spectacle of development was observed throughout the research data through the ways that audiences and station staff interpreted and performed development. Despite the participatory, horizontal flows of communication espoused in community radio literature, there was clear evidence of a modernisation discourse operating through a top-down transmission of information. While the spectacle of development clearly influences the work of community radio stations in India, there were examples of how the spectacle and subsequent spectres can be subverted. One such example was when community radio stations act as amplification of local or indigenous knowledge communication systems. This was observed through the amplification of local technical knowledge, as evidenced by the knowledge sharing practices of farmers, as well as cultural knowledge, which could be seen in the preservation of local traditions and the sharing of various aspects of different cultures. Community radio is intended as a participatory medium, but the spectacle of development and other contextual factors serve to limit who can participate and how. What emerged from the research was the value or meaning that audience members derived from their participation, however limited or restricted it was. Audience members derived value in several areas - voice, ownership, identity, and agency - all of which are collectively termed "meaningful participation”. The final area of findings relates to listening, which emerged as a way of subverting deeply entwined power structures to create new communicative spaces. Creating these spaces requires those in positions of power, such as community radio broadcasters, to relinquish this power and act as "listeners" themselves to work towards political equality. For community radio stations working within a development agenda, audience members most appreciate programming and activities that are deeply embedded within the contextual environment of the community and are based on listening to their needs and interests. The broader implications of these findings offer insight into how stations might design programming and activities to deeply engage with their audiences and embed themselves as an essential part of the local media landscape.