In many parts of India, life came to a grinding halt when the government instituted one of the world’s strictest lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Gayathri Usman is the head of Kadal Osai FM, a community radio that serves the fishing community of Pamban Island in India’s Ramanathapuram district.
She remembers that even as communities struggled with difficulties of restriction on movement, myths and misinformation on the virus were travelling fast in the Island and across the country. Getting communities to comply with safety regulations would take trusted voices.
“Many said that our salty ocean water and the nutritious foods that we eat would protect us from the virus. Others even believed that COVID-19 was a disease for cursed people,” she said.
In what Gayathri describes as a financially and emotionally destabilizing period, Kadal Osai FM has been successful in helping their listeners learn and comply with health guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
They have done this, relying on a relationship of mutual trust with the local community.
A relationship of trust
But Gayathri told us that the beginning was not easy.
Other than its primary focus of climate change, the station at its founding carried content that was highly critical of the ills in the local community like child marriages, teenage pregnancies and unsustainable fishing practices. This made the community uncomfortable and less receptive. Especially because the station was not run by locals.
“Our tagline at the beginning was – the radio for your progress – people questioned who we were to champion their progress and what authority we had to speak about the issues we addressed in our programmes,” she recalls.
With time, and to make the station effective in its service to the local community, they had to identify and recruit voices that the community could trust and easily relate to. They employed locals, especially young people, who had an interest in radio broadcasting and trained them on basic radio production and broadcasting ethics before engaging them on air. These presenters on the other hand, with their ears on the ground, would help amplify community voices on the airwaves and align programming to local community needs.
Global issues, local experiences
Even before COVID-19, this relationship with the community cultivated over the years, has been beneficial in helping Kadal Osai explain global issues in local contexts, making use of long-established traditional knowledge and local resources.
“If we talk about climate change or the ice melting in the Arctic, no one really understands how it affects their lives but when we make the fisher people understand how their villages and livelihoods are affected by cyclones, extreme heat and sea erosion and connect that to climate change, then they realise the importance of the issue,” says Gayathri.
The community in the Island of Pamban has always had traditionally trained individuals who observe different weather elements to advise fishermen on when to safely launch out to sea. Such individuals are invited to the station for elaborate discussions on weather forecasts and issues around climate change.
While these individuals may not be familiar with scientific terminologies and explanations, they are able to complement scientific content broadcast on the radio by sharing their lived experience of the same. For example, they can tell when fish catch is dwindling, when certain species are declining or extinct or when the ocean shows observable signs of pollution.
Public service journalism
“In a way, we hand over the airwaves to the community,” Gayathri explained. “We go into the community, we meet our audiences, we know many of them by name, initially from the text messages they sent to request for music or greet their friends, but today because we interact with them in their localities,” she added.
This micro-level relationship with the audience may not be easy to achieve in the mainstream media but we asked Gayathri what large media organizations can learn from their experience.
“Care for people,” she says summarily.
According to Gayathri, there are certain “people centred issues” which have the potential of creating audience loyalty that big media should never ignore.
“A good example is public service announcements, like reminding people to hydrate frequently during the hot season,” she said, adding that audiences desire a human connection, defined by genuine interest, with the media organizations they follow. According to her, large media organizations tend to be profit centred and only carry such content when an advertiser is paying for it.
“In the age of climate change and increased weather-related disasters, we need to realize as media owners and practitioners, that profits and public service can co-exist and thrive.”
But there is also something to learn about how Kadal Osai communicates climate change to its audience: the use of ordinary fisherfolk as key sources in storytelling.
“Climate change is ultimately about people and planet and not science,” said Gayathri.
As shared by Vox’s Climate change and international affairs fellow Jariel Arvin in our previous article, climate change reporting is still dominated by scientific explanations and expert analysis and less of people’s stories.
According to Gayathri, complex ideas are easier to explain when ordinary people share their experience of them.
“We have fishermen who have been on the job for decades for example, they have kept mental notes of their catch through the years and the growing number of boats at sea each day, they are well placed to explain overfishing to their community,” she said, adding that giving local communities a voice deepens climate change reporting.
In her final words, Gayathri shared her hope in the media as a facilitator of social change regarding climate change and sustainable development. She observed that reporting with a positive outlook is one of the ideal ways to achieve that.
“Nobody likes to be told – do that, don’t do this – we can instead show them the right thing by covering solutions they can replicate,” she said.
Gayathri and her colleagues believe that the media can create a seat for local communities in the table of climate change conversations.