“All the weather programmes that you hear talk about rain," said John Thekkayam. "Fishermen are not concerned about rain. They’re concerned about wave height and direction, and wind speed and direction.”

Thekkayam is the weatherman for Radio Monsoon, a two-month old experiment in "narrowcasting" for the local fishing community in Thiruvananthapuram district, Kerala. Launched at the start of the monsoon this year, Radio Monsoon relays marine weather information assembled from the Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services and the Indian Meteorological Department directly to fishermen.

Fisherfolk rely on reading the weather, both for their lives and their livelihood. Yet their access to scientific weather data in India has been restricted. Mainstream weather broadcasts deal mostly with rain and elements on land that affect agriculture. Moreover, marine weather data and alerts prepared by government agencies for harbours, ports and merchant ships are in English, which they don’t understand.

Information that matters

Radio Monsoon aims to plug that information gap by partnering with INCOIS. The agency builds computer models using satellite data and is able to predict weather five days ahead. “We make a customised product for fishermen,” said INCOIS scientists Balakrishnan Nair. "We tell them how the wind speed will differ, how the wave height will differ, how the current will differ." INCOIS provides general forecasts for all coastal regions in the country but it also issues location specific forecasts for about 100 places, including close to 16 villages in Thiruvananthapuram.

Thekkayam and his team access INCOIS’ bulletins and calculate the averages of the highest waves and strongest wind speeds over the sea. They record a bulletin in Malayalam highlighting the worst-case weather scenario for the day. The bulletin is uploaded onto the server of the community information system Gram Vaani. A fisherman looking for a weather update can call Gram Vaani on a toll-free number and listen to the bulletin. Radio Monsoon also makes its bulletins available on SoundCloud, Facebook and Twitter.

Despite this, getting weather information to fishermen is not easy. For one, they are at sea most of the time. Radio Monsoon has roped in the South Indian Federation of Fisherman Societies to put up posters about their narrowcast in their offices. They are also working through science clubs in coastal schools in the district. “In fisher families, the grown ups can’t even save a number on their mobile phones," said Thekkayam. "We ask the kids to share this information with their parents and feed the server number into their fathers’ phones.”

The next step for Radio Monsoon is to set up a weather data feedback system. With no one to perform field observations for marine weather Radio Monsoon is asking fishermen themselves to report how accurate forecasts and warnings are to help INCOIS and IMD fine-tune their processes.

Radio Monsoon is the latest of several efforts to help India's fishing community get the information they need to make their job easier. INCOIS partners with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and the Reliance Foundation to disseminate weather alerts on the Tamil Nadu coast. Radio Benziger, a community radio station in Kollam just north of Thiruvananthapuram, broadcasts marine weather bulletins in Malayalam.

 Coming of age

Like Radio Monsoon, community radio ventures are changing information game in India. Commercial media have not kept pace with the information needs of local communities, observed Priya Kapoor, associate professor of international studies at Portland State University. “It is radio alone that has been able to transcend those chasms between rural and urban, between the right to information and not having information,” said Kapoor who has studied community media in India.

A big factor contributing to the emerging success of community radio in India is its connection to telephony. Radio broadcasts can be accessed on the most basic handsets, not even smartphones. Indian journalist Shubhranshu Choudhary beat Edward Snowden to the post for the Digital Activism Award this year after he set up CGNet Swara, a mobile and internet radio network that helped connect residents of the forests of Chattisgarh to the outside world.

Community radio Heval Vaani provides information on ecology and environment in villages in Uttarakhand. It is one of several radio projects that broadcast in local languages. “If someone can relate to language of broadcast it is more intimate, more timely, it is more location based and it means that these are people who have your interest at heart because they are within a 100 miles of you,” Kapoor said.