The world's only fishermen-run radio station makes unexpected waves

Kadal Osai 90.4 (Sound of the Sea) is broadcast from the tiny island of Pamban in Tamil Nadu, India

The station broadcasts citizens' advice on topics ranging from child development to wildlife conservation. Photo: Kadal Osai FM
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Kadal Osai 90.4 (Sound of the Sea) is the world's only FM radio station run by fishermen. It has transformed the lives of the 100,000 people living on the remote and tiny island of Pamban, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, from where it broadcasts.

Launched in 2016 by fisherman Armstrong Fernando, Kadal Osai’s dozen-odd production team comprises mostly fishermen, who research, report, present and disseminate news in the local language 24/7. Everything is covered, from timely weather updates about storms and cyclones to advice for fishermen about fertile fishing zones to help them boost their daily haul, social messages about children’s education, and women’s empowerment and job vacancies.

Fernando, who is well versed in the problems the community faces, started the Nesakarangal Charitable Trust in 2010 to support families who had lost members in marine accidents. He helped them to get jobs or financial aid from the government.

The launch of the radio station took his philanthropic mission further. “We help create alternate livelihoods and raise awareness about societal issues and marine conservation, such as endangered sea turtles which get caught in fishing nets,” he tells The National. “In a special initiative, Radio Kadal Osai has also launched an award for fishermen ― INR 1,000 ($13.35) if they release trapped turtles back into the ocean.

“Our work is as much to safeguard our community from the sea as to protect the sea from the people,” Fernando adds. “Earlier, just by looking at the sea, we could make weather forecasts. But climate change has made such predictions increasingly tough. We face problems identifying wind patterns, water levels and potential fishing zones. But still, we do our best.”

The station’s awareness campaigns have also helped to reduce littering on the island while keeping the community informed about sustainable fishing practices and environmental pollution. “We also regularly broadcast programmes on climate change as well as government loans and subsidies which fishermen can avail of,” says Fernando.

Kadal Osai’s sustained campaign about Covid-19 was also enormously successful in helping to raise awareness about practices to keep down infection rates. Volunteers say that due to a lack of authentic information, people used to shun contact with the infected rather than treat them properly.

“Fake news was rampant and since most householders don’t subscribe to newspapers, the problem was exacerbated,” one of the channel's DJs says. “However, the station’s programmes helped the locals become more aware about the dreaded virus and save lives.”

There’s entertainment, too. Traditional music is played daily as are broadcasts of skits with a social message about the importance of hygiene or education. Information about government schemes and vacancies are also shared, along with the location of local vaccination camps, and more.

Initially, the community was wary about the station’s purpose and intent, but they have gradually warmed to the team. Now, veteran fishermen are happy to go on air and share their life experiences, as well as talk about topics such as building alternative livelihoods and money management. Community achievers feature regularly in broadcasts to tell their success stories and motivate others.

Fisherman Muthukumar, 45, a father of two, says the station is prompt in sharing information that can help the community, particularly government welfare schemes and job vacancies. “Since we’re not well educated, we used to miss out on these benefits earlier, but not any more.”

Legal experts are often invited to share their knowledge about law-related matters and answer fishermen’s queries about marine law, property disputes and more. Last August, the channel collaborated with Unicef for a narrowcasting session on breastfeeding and complementary nutrition as well as Covid awareness.

Singing, music and poetry sessions, as well as trivia about the island and marine life, make the channel’s content engaging and interactive. “We try to be as inclusive as possible and have something to interest all age groups, including children,” says Aflec Fernando, a volunteer and the founder's nephew. “In special segments, children discuss their school life and their ambitions. General knowledge quizzes test the knowledge of the young ones. The radio also announces scholarships and grants for their higher education.”

To make it all work, the channel depends on rent earned from shops housed in a building owned by the trust, Aflec says. “All team members and the founder also contribute from their personal salaries to run the channel’s day-to-day operations. We also work on a project-to-project basis with various international organisations, like Unicef, to boost our income.”

Kadal Osai has inventively made use of the power of social media to help the community. Its Instagram account (13,000 followers) regularly shares updates about disasters and mishaps where public or government help may be required. Last December, the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Montus on the island was widely publicised to garner support.

In November, on World Fisheries Day, the channel organised a successful beach-cleaning drive around the island in which hundreds enthusiastically took part. The station’s campaigns to save marine life, including huge whales, have inspired other communities to take care of their own environment.

“All in all, it's been a very challenging but fulfilling journey,” Armstrong Fernando says. “We hope to continue doing good work and contribute in our own little way to make this world a better place.”

Updated: February 03, 2023, 6:02 PM