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Shibani has been listening to Radio Muskan ever since it went on air in 2012. She began volunteering by covering local events and soon realised that radio was her calling. Today, this bright and enthusiastic radio jockey has actually become the face and voice of Radio Muskan. So much so that today, in the district of Kandhamal, in the state of Odisha in India, the 28-year-old is widely known as Muskan.

Radio Muskan is a community radio station founded by Daneshwar Sahoo with the support of his NGO, Disha Foundation. The station was meant to create a communication network for people in the remote villages of Kandhamal, a district dominated by tribal communities. Kandhamal is considered to be one of India’s most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken districts. While implementing a project in one of the hilly regions here, the Disha team figured out that the local population was often unaware of any government projects or schemes. They were completely cut off from the rest of the world and had no access to news or entertainment.

Today, in Radio Muskan’s 15-hour, daily broadcasts, they cover themes as wide-ranging as children’s education, agriculture, health awareness, spirituality, phone-ins with experts, quiz programmes and local music programmes. Through their programmes, Radio Muskan has been able to both connect with the local population and build a communication channel for them.

Picture of Shibani interviweing a woman
The star broadcaster

With Radio Muskan, Shibani found an outlet to express her vivacious personality. Her phone-ins are extremely popular. When people call her up with their problems that range from serious and urgent situations such as “my husband is beating me” to public services like “please get the fallen tree removed”, she speaks to the local authorities and tries to resolve the issues, irrespective of the magnitude of the request. This has earned her a lot of trust and the status of a mini celebrity in the region.

Shibani also feels that radio has made her more responsible. For example, in her health programmes, she advocates for her audience to eat healthy food. When her listeners spotted her eating junk food and brought that up on air, she eventually had to stop eating it. She says with a big grin, “That’s a small price I pay for being popular.”

"Earlier, I would get angry whenever I would see something wrong happening in the community. My inability to take any action used to make things worse. Now that I’m with the radio, I’ve found an outlet to take actions and solve people’s problems."

Shibani says she has always been a daredevil and a go-getter and always wanted to work for the people. “Every single marriage proposal I’ve got so far,” she says, “they have asked me to quit my radio job. I’ve put my foot down and told them all that I’ll never quit. I’ve stopped getting proposals now, but I don’t care. I get many calls from girls saying that they want to be brave like me. I am their role model, and I feel very good about that.”

Empowering the listener

Radio Muskan has been continually producing programmes to empower the community. They believe that when community members get to hear their own voices on air, it makes them listen more actively. Every weekend the station broadcasts a phone-in show, where the locals get to speak to experts. It is one of their most popular shows, as it truly enables the community to have its voice heard. In this region, the locals grow rice, seasonal vegetables and fruits, so the station produces programmes on the correct usage of fertilisers and pesticides. It also airs stories about successful local farmers. And it plays local music, always keeping an eye out for new local talent to play.

In the last 10 years, Radio Muskan has played a significant role in bridging the gap for the community, improving their awareness of their rights and various schemes offered by the government. For instance, pregnant women commonly deliver their babies at home in Kandhamal. In order to promote institutional delivery, the government has introduced financial schemes. Radio Muskan has produced programmes to raise awareness about the dangers of maternal delivery at home and promote institutional birth.

Like all community radio stations, Radio Muskan has to keep operations frugal. The volunteers at the station use smart phones extensively to record the voices of the community and later to transfer, edit and broadcast their recordings. Smart phones are both cheap and comparatively easy to use. The station spends approximately USD 675 per year to run the radio station, which is funded by donations received by the NGO. This is separate from some minimal support they receive from the government projects they undertake.

Radio Muskan has earned the trust of the community by ensuring that various schemes reach the locals. From domestic violence to long power outages, the locals call up the radio station hoping that their problems will be addressed. Over the years, this community radio station has built connections with the local administration and authorities and has become a voice to address the local population’s issues. Women form the majority of their volunteer base and feel empowered by doing so. There are many more “Shibanis” in the making in Kandhamal.

The experience of Shibani and Radio Muskan is one of eight case studies from the report "Community radio enabling women’s empowerment in remote communities of India". Situated in the broader context of women and technology usage, the study focuses on women-led community radio stations in different parts of India, aiming to understand how community radio as a low-cost technology has been instrumental in empowering women in remote rural communities.

* Photos published by Shibani on Muskan Radio's Twitter and kindly provided by her for use in this article.