Kadal Osai has established a loyal audience with his peculiar mixture of gossip, jokes and songs combined with serious global issues.
Selvarani Mari, who lives on Pamban Island in Tamil Nadu, at the southernmost tip of India, is a fisherman and kelp collector.
She helps her husband cast fishing nets every day, carries seaweed rafts, and dives into the sea to gather sargassum.
Yet she still leaves time for the radio to be listened to.
Mari, 33, and her friends and family tirelessly tuned into Kadal Osai on 90.4FM, the first local fishing culture radio station in India. The station has become a staple of local life with gossip, jokes, old songs and news about fish prices and the condition of the sea, with visitors including village elders exchanging fishing knowledge or talking about the climate crisis. Kadal Osai’s director, Gayathri Usman, fell in love with the station when she visited the area and remained there to oversee it.
“While the majority of the 12-member crew is from the same community, I am the outsider,” she says.
“Our shows are popular because they are entertaining, useful and, more importantly, in a local Tamil dialect that the fishing community understands and is comfortable with,” she says.
Kadal Osai (‘the sound of the ocean’ in Tamil), created by businessman Armstrong Fernando, who himself comes from a fishing family, started a few hours of regular broadcasting in August 2016 before going full-time in 2019.
The station also holds on- and off-air seminars on the climate crisis and biodiversity, in addition to offering reports on the weather, ocean and fish prices, guidance on healthy and sustainable fishing, and coral reef protection.
Pamban and its surrounding 20 islands and coral reefs are part of the biodiverse Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve on the edge of mainland India, across the sea from Sri Lanka, and home to 47 hamlets of indigenous Marakeyars that have been fishing for centuries.
Because of the poor reception of the signal, the fishing community cannot rely solely on All India Radio [the national broadcaster of India], especially when it is at sea.
It’s Kadal Osai – with a reception range of 5-10 km – that they turn on in such a situation, Usman says.
The climate crisis has had a dramatic effect in recent years on marine life and the livelihoods of locals.
At a seagrass growing site in Pamban, Senthil Rajan is a microbiologist.
“It has become increasingly difficult to predict and interpret sea levels, cyclone formation and potential fishing zones. The unpredictable weather patterns have led to unprecedented sea level and wave height rise, affecting many seaweed growing areas,” says Rajan. “In such a scenario, tapping into the traditional knowledge of the fishing community is a rich source of learning.”
Knowing the need to share information with the next generation, Kadal Osai invites seasoned fishermen to talk to experts on the impacts of marine resource over-exploitation and the value of combining traditional and modern methods of fishing.
“Using generic terms like climate change and global warming might not have the desired effect on this coastal community.
So, with the right blend of anecdotes and analytical methods, we juxtapose information passed down from generation to generation and keep the conversation regarding climate change going, Usman says.
Radio, with a huge scope among its 1.38 billion people, is one of India’s most effective means of communication. Also Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a broadcast every month.
By 2030, Unicef partnered with 215 Indian community radio stations, such as Kadal Osai, to raise awareness to eradicate child marriage, which is declining in India.
“We launched the ‘Kutty Chutty Express’ to educate children about the dire consequences of child marriage through skits, quizzes and road shows, and to conduct workshops,” Usman says. The channel also advertises the Childline India Foundation number, which operates the first 24-hour hotline for children in need in the world.
During the pandemic, Kadal Osai has become a bridge between authorities and coastal communities.
It generated awareness of the value of hygiene and social distancing, and free masks were also distributed.
We tried to crack a misconception among the islanders in the first few months who thought they were safe from Covid-19-19.