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Arun Mehta

Chief Technical Officer | 18 Jan 2005

Internet and radio go very well together, like if you have a large number of small stations, the Internet can be an excellent way to combine these small stations into effectively larger stations. You could be simultaneously streaming content from any one location to other. You could also exchange content offline with stations around the world. You could interview people via the Internet. Audio chat can be used as a means to make the Internet a virtual recording studio for a radio station. The opportunities are tremendous.

Dr. Arun Mehta has been very active in the areas of telecommunications, computing and human rights since his graduation days at IIT Delhi. Continuing his zest for higher studies, Mehta became a doctorate in Applied Control Theory under Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, and did his MS in Computer Science from the State University of New York.

Mehta is also currently serving as a Director in Kaleidoscope Private Limited, the film and TV company that produced films like Bandit Queen, Fire and Rajdhani. He is working as the Chief Technical Officer in Net Radiophony India Private Limited, a company launched to pursue innovative projects in convergence. He is also President of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment (STEM), which seeks to bring the benefits of modern telecommunications to the poor.

In conversation with Rummana Ahmed of exchange4media, Arun Mehta talks about the scope of Radio in India. Excerpts:

Q. Give us a little background on Radiophony.

Radiophony is a company that has two partners – Vickram Crishna who is the CEO and based in Mumbai and, me, based in Delhi. We have basically sought to bring the benefits of modern information systems to the 50 per cent. There is a very large segment of India that cannot afford a computer, a phone line or any of these things. Therefore, audio has been our focus and in this we have further identified two areas, where we have done work.

First is setting up low cost radio stations in villages, which cost a few thousands only. This is the only communication device that a poor man can afford – a simple AM/FM radio. No matter what information system you talk about, the last few 100 metres access is only possible through an AM/FM radio for a very significant part of the population.

The other area we are working is in the area of access for people who are disabled.

Q. What are the latest technological innovations that Radiophony has come up with?

One of the latest was bringing out a completely low cost radio station in a village for a few thousands. When people talk about radio stations, they talk at least in the lakhs if not in the crores. But we are saying, if you want to cover a small area of population, you can do it a lot cheaper. If you want to connect larger areas of population, you can have larger number of small stations where the people live and interconnect them through the Internet or whatever other medium possible.

We can implement or use this technology in low cast simultaneous translation systems. People can get a radio and there is one transmitter for every language and you just tune in to the station, where someone is speaking in the language you understand and you get the entire proceedings.

Then again, in the area of disability, we wrote software for Professor Stephen Hawking, who can only press a single button. So there is this software that allows you to operate the computer, to do editing fairly efficiently using just one button. After you have done the text editing you can give a command to the computer to speak it out for you.

Q. Tell us about the community audio system you set up in Oravakal in Andhra Pradesh?

The women’s self-help group in Andhra Pradesh needed a means to communicate among themselves, so that if any of their members couldn’t attend the meeting, they could at least listen to what was being said while at home. So, we suggested this technology – a radio station with a range of about 500 metres – just covering Oravakal village.

Q. What would you say is the scope for community radio in India?

There is this category of people who are called ‘text-challenged’, either they are blind or illiterate. For them radio is absolutely a critical means of communication. So far these segments are well above 50 per cent and that’s a huge part of our population. This is very important technology for us.

In India, commercial radio is a total disappointment. For example, in Delhi, we have three commercial radio stations that are completely indistinguishable from one another. In the music and the Hindi songs that they play, there is not even much of a variety. So even culturally they are very poor.

Then again, when we are looking at this whole system of disaster management, no matter whatever warning system that might be there, ultimately if information has to reach poor people, like the fishermen at sea, the farmers in the field or the tribal in the jungle, information has to reach them quickly. How are we going to ever do that without AM/FM radio? There is no other means of communication that these people can afford and the government is not about to give half a billion people in India mobile phones. So, the importance of this is huge.

Q. What are the policy hindrances that are there for setting up community radio?

There are several hindrances. For example, during the Oravakal station, as soon as news about it came on STAR News, the central authorities sent an officer there to stop the people. They were not interfering with anybody; we had been very careful and were using only 50 milli-watts of power. This is the cheapest way for any village, without any risk, to check out for itself whether it finds community radio interesting. This is a low-risk entry point into community radio but this is not allowed. The policy is unclear, when we asked what the policy was, the Government says that any device that transmits more than 1 milli-watt of power needs clearance from SACFA (Standing Advisory Committee on Frequency Allocations), which means clearance from 33 government departments.

Q. Are you looking at a convergence of radio and Internet?

Very much so. Internet and radio go very well together, like if you have a large number of small stations, the Internet can be an excellent way to combine these small stations into effectively larger stations. You could be simultaneously streaming content from any one location to other. You could also exchange content offline with stations around the world. You could interview people via the Internet. Audio chat can be used as a means to make the Internet a virtual recording studio for a radio station.

The opportunities are tremendous.

Q. What are the innovations that radio stations in India need?

First and foremost, they need a good Internet connection. Secondly, there is a need to open their eyes to the possibilities; I feel the possibilities far exceed what the management knows about. And finally, we have a situation where policy is seriously hampering us and for no reason at all. The stakeholders are the radio stations and they need to ask the questions.

Q. How do you see radio vis-à-vis other medium?

There is a lot of space in our lives for radio. Television is in competition with other visual media, whereas, radio is not. Radio is a huge unexplored space in the Indian psyche. We had almost forgotten radio but it is coming back and still there is room for a lot more. In fact, 50 per cent of the community can’t read, they need the radio, the blind need the radio. There is a lot of space for radio in our lives.

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