Indian builds village radio station with $1 of equipment

by Megumi Tomatsu

last modified 2007-10-08 09:43
Reprinted from:

February 24, 2006
By Amarnath Tewary in Vaishali, Bihar

It may well be the only village FM radio station on the Asian sub-continent. It is certainly illegal.

The transmission equipment, costing just over $1, may be the cheapest in the world.

But the local people definitely love it.

On a balmy morning in India’s northern state of Bihar, young Raghav Mahato gets ready to fire up his home-grown FM radio station.

Thousands of villagers, living in a 20km (12 miles) radius of Raghav’s small repair shop and radio station in Mansoorpur village in Vaishali district, tune their $5 radio sets to catch their favourite station.

After the crackle of static, a young, confident voice floats up the radio waves.

"Good morning! Welcome to Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1! Now listen to your favourite songs," announces anchor and friend Sambhu into a sellotape-plastered microphone surrounded by racks of local music tapes.

For the next 12 hours, Raghav Mahato’s outback FM radio station plays films songs and broadcasts public interest messages on HIV and polio, and even snappy local news, including alerts on missing children and the opening of local shops.

Raghav and his friend run the indigenous radio station out of Raghav’s thatched-roof Priya Electronics Shop.

The place is a cramped $4-a-month rented shack stacked with music tapes and rusty electrical appliances which doubles up as Raghav’s radio station and repair shop.

He may not be literate, but Raghav’s ingenuous FM station has made him more popular than local politicians.

Raghav’s love affair with the radio began in 1997 when he started out as a mechanic in a local repair shop. When the shop owner left the area, Raghav, son of a cancer-ridden farm worker, took over the shack with his friend.

Sometime in 2003, Raghav, who by now had learned much about radio mechanics, thought up the idea of launching an FM station.

It was a perfect idea. In impoverished Bihar state, where many areas lack power supplies, the cheap battery-powered transistor remains the most popular source of entertainment.

"It took a long time to come up with the idea and make the kit which could transmit my programmes at a fixed radio frequency. The kit cost me 50 rupees (just over $1)," says Raghav.

The transmission kit is fitted on to an antenna attached to a bamboo pole on a neighbouring three-storey hospital.

A long wire connects the contraption to a creaky, old homemade stereo cassette player in Raghav’s radio shack. Three other rusty, locally made battery-powered tape recorders are connected to it with colourful wires and a cordless microphone.

The shack has some 200 tapes of local Bhojpuri, Bollywood and devotional songs which Raghav plays for his listeners.

Raghav’s station is truly a labour of love – he does not earn anything from it. His electronic repair shop work brings him some two thousand rupees ($45) a month.

The young man, who continues to live in a shack with his family, doesn’t know that running a FM station requires a government licence.

"I don’t know about this. I just began this out of curiosity and expanded its area of transmission every year," he says.

Local hero

So when some people told him sometime ago that his station was illegal, he actually shut it down. But local villagers thronged his shack and persuaded him to resume services again.

It hardly matters for the locals that Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1 does not have a government license – they just love it.

"Women listen to my station more than men," he says. "Though Bollywood and local Bhojpuri songs are staple diet, I air devotional songs at dawn and dusk for women and old people."

Since there’s no phone-in facility, people send their requests for songs through couriers carrying handwritten messages and phone calls to a neighbouring public telephone office.

Raghav’s fame as the ‘promoter’ of a radio station has spread far and wide in Bihar.

People have written to him, wanting work at his station, and evinced interest in buying his ‘technology’.

"But I will never share the secret of my technology with anyone. This is my creation. How can I share it with somebody who might misuse it?" he asks.

"With more powerful and advanced chips and equipment I can make a kit which could be transmitted up to 100km or even more."

A government radio engineer in Bihar’s capital, Patna, says it is possible to use a homemade kit to run a FM radio station. "All it needs is an antenna and transmitting equipment. But such stations offer no security. Anyone can invade and encroach such locally made transmitters," says HK Sinha of India’s state-run broadcaster All India Radio (AIR).

But people in Mansoorpur are in awe of Raghav’s radio station and say it gives their village an identity.

"The boy has intense potential, but he is very poor. If the government lends him some support, he would go far," says Sanjay Kumar, an ardent fan of his station.

But for the moment Raghav FM Mansoorpur 1 rocks on the local airwaves, bring joy into the lives of the locals.

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