Santa Kalita, a newspaper hawker, started his journey with Jnan Taranga 90.4 seven years ago. At the time, he worked at a photocopier’s shop in Dispur, Guwahati’s political district. One day, while tuning a radio in the shop, Kalita, he stumbled upon a new FM station. It was Jnan Taranga (Wave of Knowledge), a community radio station that had started life in Assam in 2009.

Kalita approached the station and began participating in a community programme titled “Manar Khabor” (Mind Matters), making 2,000 telephone calls in five years. His voice became familiar to people running the station and its listeners. Whatever happened, Kalita would never fail to tune into or participate in the programme at 5pm every day.

As Assam went into lockdown to contain the coronavirus, the show became a lifeline. Forty three-year-old Manoj Kumar Deka, an empanelled “katha bandhu”, anchor, single-handedly ran 333 hours of broadcasting in 37 days.

But in May, transmission had to stop. For a decade, the community radio station had been run by the multimedia production unit of the KK Handiqui State Open University from its campus in Dispur. In its official note, the university said it was shifting campuses, which is why transmission had to be stopped, at least for now.

Sangita Kakoty, deputy director, multimedia, said they had all the necessary permissions from the Union ministry of information and broadcasting to continue transmission from the new campus. But, because of the lockdown to contain the coronavirus, technical experts from Noida could not be brought to Guwahati to shift the transmitter.

So North East India’s first community radio station became another casualty of the pandemic, leaving behind a mournful stream of listeners, volunteers and anchors.

Chinmay Kalita interviews students for a programme on Jnan Taranga.
Anchor Manoj Kumar Deka handled 333 hours of broadcasting through 37 days of lockdown.

A lonely shift

Deka ran a lonely shift during lockdown. “Since no permanent employee could come, I used to arrive at the studio by 8am every day from April 1, 2020 till May 7, 2020,” he recounted. “It was a different kind of experience. There was no one on the streets of Guwahati. I reached the studio around 8am with a tiffin box. In that campus, where thousands of employees would be bustling about every day, there was an eerie silence. Only the chowkidar opened the door. I used to clean the studio first, then start broadcasting for two shifts till 6pm. I used to sing while going back home to drown out the depressing silence on the streets. I used to get only six hundred rupees for two shifts of broadcasting per day, but honestly I enjoyed it a lot.”

Without a station to run, Deka says, he feels lost. “On every public vacation – as Bihu, (Durga) Puja – I was asked to run the station, because nobody was around,” he said. “For a decade, I never questioned this and enjoyed doing creative work, despite missing out on valuable time with family on those auspicious occasions.”

Deka has been with the community radio station since its inception. Jnana Taranga started with experimental broadcasts on January 28 and 29, 2009. Regular broadcasts started on November 20, 2010, after the station was inaugurated by Tarun Gogoi, then chief minister of Assam.

It had something for everyone, Weekly staples included “Mohila Chora” (Women’s Programme), “Mahanagarit Mur Jiwan” (“My Life in the City), “Sankalpa-Samajik Dayabaddhata” (Resolve – Taking Social Responsibility). There were special programmes for the differently abled and for children. There were programmes devoted to skill development and educational counselling.

Santa Kalita made 2,000 calls to the station in five years and was eventually invited to start the morning programme.

From callers to producers

Chinmoy Kalita, Santa Kalita’s son, also feels bereft. The 14-year-old, who studies in Class 8, is a volunteer and children’s programme producer at Jnana Taranga. His interest in the radio station started in 2015, when he went to visit the office on the Dispur campus.

Chinmay, then nine years old, wanted to know what it would be like to hear his voice on the radio. He began rehearsing for programmes in front of a small mirror in their hut. Then he started participating in the children’s programme, called “Sishu Tirtha” (Children’s Pilgrimage). Chinmay’s interest was noticed by producers at the station and he son took charge of the programme, recording episodes in different schools, picking up audio editing skills to give them finishing touches.

“I produced more than 250 episodes of the programme by visiting different kindergarten schools, music schools, municipal and private schools,” said Chinmay. “I enjoyed it a lot and the money [Rs 200 per episode] was a great help in my studies.”

An emotional Santa Kalita could not hide his sadness about the station closing. “Just before I completed 2,000 telephone calls to the station, a producer of the station invited me to the office and offered a volunteering assignment to open the radio programme at 9am, since no employee arrives before that,” he explained. “I opened the studio and started the morning programme every day at 9 am for nearly four years. Although I only got the conveyance fee of Rs 100 per day, it added up to Rs 3,000 and was a great help to me at the end of the month.”

For people like Kalita, the station meant not just a livelihood but also a means to stay connected, to stay resourceful in the time of the coronavirus.

Chinmay, Santa Kalita's 14-year-old son, soon joined as a volunteer.

Losing a lifeline

Regular listeners also miss the community radio station in the midst of the pandemic. “With no warning, the signal of the radio station vanished,” lamented Bashanta Saikia. “This is the most crucial time in the history of the radio station. They could play a pivotal role in creating awareness for social and behavioural change. They could have postponed shifting the radio station because of its strategic uses in the pandemic. I am very upset with the decision of the university. I only wish to hear the familiar voices again and hope the authorities understand what it means to the listeners like us.”

Many still tune in to find if the network has been resumed. For radio enthusiasts like Hemanta Borgohain, it was a dear companion, a welcome break from overly peppy, commercial FM channels. Another regular listener, who suffers from depression, had begun to find comfort in the soothing programmes.

Namita Deka, mother of two, found new things to learn every day from “Angana”, a show on women issues. She would occasionally ring in, too. ‘It wasn’t intimidating and I thought this lockdown would be the best time for the radio to connect more people, elderly people who are all alone at homes and even lost unemployed youths who are willing to acquire any skill at a moment of economic crisis,” she said.

The university decided to close the station at a time when the Central information and broadcasting ministry is planning to increase the number of community radio stations, recognising that they can be an agent of change.

More than 250 community radio stations across the country have been doing their best to raise awareness about the coronavirus. Jnana Taranga was only able to leave its work half done. Volunteers, radio anchors and listeners eagerly await a new avatar of the first community radio station in the North East.

Ankuran Dutta heads the department of communication and journalism at Gauhati University and runs the Dr Anamika Ray Memorial Trust, a non-profit.