Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Last week I had the good fortune to spend two days with the country’s most interesting, informative, and influential voices that helped India battle Coronavirus during the pandemic as effectively as they chirp about this and that and entertain the masses. Yes, all the nearly 100 of them, frontline warriors, and champions, had battled fake news and rumours about vaccination, treatment, and Covid appropriate behaviour and protocols through their messaging and saved hundreds of thousands of people from contracting the virus. Like in every natural disaster, radio professionals–Radio Jockeys and Radio News Correspondents and News Anchors–came to the fore once the pandemic broke out in January 2020 and were much in the front of the battle, working with the frontline workers on the ground and with the Government health and information departments to ensure the correct, useful information reached the audiences across the country, most important in remote and inaccessible villages.
When I was interacting with the lively young radio professionals from the plethora of private FM radio stations across the country or the hard-core news readers, anchors, and feature artists from the All India Radio, I was readily, mentally transported to the two natural tragedies–Chennai floods of 2015 and Cyclone Vardah in 2016 --and reported on for Hindustan Times newspaper group from the affected city of Chennai. It was then that I really experienced and benefitted from the quick, factual, and correct information about the tragedy, its impact, its severity, the damage it caused and was causing, the rescue and rehabilitation efforts of the Government and the like – all beamed from the studios of these Radio channels.
It was only then that I discovered that the anchors of most of the very popular FM Radio entertainment and programmes one listened to during driving–and traffic jams–swiftly turned into genuinely professional newsmen and women, ferreting out information from the Government, police, administration, and NGOs and relaying the same to the masses. Many with little or no formal training in journalism, became the most reliable conveyers of useful news and information to the masses, and I as a print media journalist owed it to the many young, and even old, colleagues from the Radio fraternity for information, and also perspectives that they brought in the form of in-depth interviews with the men and women who matter, and also most important, with the common man and the common woman.
So, when an occasion presented itself to me to interact with many Radio professionals –from All India Radio and the Private Sector radio world–I readily jumped, at the chance of participate in a workshop for radio professionals organized by the UNICEF and its Radio4child programme where they made presentations from out of their experiences during the Covid. These interactions not only helped me get a clearer and deeper understanding of how the radio professionals contributed in the overall fight against the pandemic, but also were useful in preparing a template for creating the most appropriate communications strategy to be deployed during a crisis of any nature.
The one point that emerged out of the two days of deliberations with and between the radio professionals, Government health sector officials and representatives from multilateral development bodies like the UNICEF was that the radio was, is, and will be always a key component of any communication strategy devised during a crisis–natural disaster or health epidemics. And not just in crisis–even in normal times, say for example on the Routine Immunization, Radio Jockeys are helping in spreading the message of the Government on the immunization programmes of the Government that have suffered somewhat due to the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted essential immunization services due to multiple reasons, and it has increased the possibility of un/partially vaccinated children being exposed to the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPD). The Government of India launched the Intensified Mission Indradhanush (IMI) 4.0 programme earlier this year to focus on geographic areas where improvement in Routine Immunization coverage is required.
Dangerous vaccine hesitancy persists in some sections of the society–people belonging to tribes and among those inhabiting remote and inaccessible rural areas–to remove which UNICEF was working on the ground with healthcare professionals from the Government and the private sector. For this, its Radio4Child, started in 2014, is partnering with radio professionals from across India to spread the message and build a narrative on child vaccination to remove vaccine hesitancy among people. Radio4Child felicitated radio professionals from AIR and Private FM stations for their commendable work during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as Routine Immunization (Mission Indradhanush 4.0).
I could not agree more with multi-Grammy award winning music composer and environmentalist Ricky Kej when he said creative content producers had played and will play a greater role in creating a better world. The creative content producers from the radio fraternity were helping spread the right messages and were in fact the Immunization Champions in their own right. For sure, their persuasion of the masses for immunizing their children will help save the lives of many children as vaccinations protect the children from 22 diseases, some of them life-threatening.
Viewed from this perspective, the radio platform created by the UNICEF, deserves praise as it motivates radio professionals to take up the cause of immunization and encourages the creativity in them through periodic interaction. Communication professionals like Zafrin Chowdhury, Chief of Communication, Advocacy and Partnerships, UNICEF India, recognize the radio and the power of the radio professionals who through their voice bring alive stories, voices, issues, and situations that connect people and the authorities. Which is why, radio for her is a medium that is a must have component in any communications strategy she prepares and implements.
And with good results.
But the work is not over, as it is present continuous given the gaps that still exist in the immunization coverage. Though India’s immunization coverage of children has improved substantially, there still are gaps in coverage, especially from marginalized communities in both urban and rural areas.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman