Indu Ramesh was busy collecting interviews from village women in Karnataka state, India, in the spring of 2011. These women were organizing in preparation for the upcoming round of elections in which, under a new constitutional amendment, half of India’s local government seats were now reserved for women. In her early 70s, Ramesh had developed a walking handicap, but she was insistent on overcoming barriers, be they defined by physical ability, social status or gender. In a bustling nation of more than one billion people, Ramesh and her audio recorder honed in on rural women’s voices.
Satisfied with the material she had foraged, Ramesh went back to Bangalore, sat in front of her home computer and packaged these audio clips into a radio program titled “Women in India’s Panchayats.” After distilling all the information she had gathered, the program ran just under 30 minutes. She uploaded it to the Women’s International News Gathering Service (WINGS ) website, leaving it in Frieda Werden’s hands.
Werden opened this file at her home computer in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the sun cycle lagged 12 hours and 30 minutes. Her living room doubles as the production studio and is overrun with file cabinets and boxes full of cassettes and CDs that she plans to digitally archive. From every surface, papers teetered toward the ceiling, but she stayed focused on editing Ramesh’s story, to broadcast it on WINGS. Two weeks later, the thoughts and opinions of novice female Indian candidates would land on the ears of Canadians, Americans and Australians who turned in for their weekly dose of authentic international women’s news.
This is a spotlight on women empowering women through radio. “Women in [their] countries speaking for themselves – this is not something that I invented,” said Frieda, the woman who started WINGS in 1986, back when feminist media was still fairly new. As a general rule of thumb, Frieda accepts locally produced submissions that cover women’s issues from a constructive angle – featuring ways women are “resisting or organizing or conceptualizing a way forward” rather than falling victim to social or cultural circumstances.
WINGS operates at three distinct levels: focusing on untold stories about women, ensuring that female reporters have access to the resources they need and recognizing the value of women’s work by paying journalists for their submissions. Frieda estimates roughly 400 women have filed with WINGS at some point over the years and she pays each reporter and producer anywhere from $40 to $200 out of an annual budget that currently hovers around $10,000. Donations make up roughly 70 percent of the budget, with radio station subscriptions comprising the remainder.
“For a women who’s just doing local radio, to be able to play something internationally is a big boost to her self-esteem, I think, and her understanding of her power,” said Frieda. Continuing on the fact that WINGS pays for content, she said, “It’s to say that we value the work that women do. A lot of [WINGS contributors] have moved up the ladder in various places and I think that they’re carrying this feminist perspective with them. I certainly hope so.”
Reports on women in radio highlight the need for programs like WINGS and journalists like Ramesh. According to the latest Media Report to Women , “The percentages for women in the radio news work force declined again, with news directors plummeting to just 10.7 percent from 20 percent [in 2010], the lowest in the 17 years of the Radio Television Digital News Association’s survey.” In India, where Ramesh reports on local women’s issues, a media survey in the 2010 Global Media Monitoring Project report also revealed a gender imbalance. In radio, only nine out of 53 station surveyed included female news subjects.
But the power of radio lies in the fact that it is an affordable way to connect with people and the issues they face from anywhere in the world. Ramesh retired from a 30 plus year career with All India Radio before she began freelancing for WINGS, where she found cause, for the first time, to focus on the gender perspective of each story. Her story began as a young aspiring journalist in Bangalore, India, in the early 1950’s:
Q: What led you to journalism?
A: Right from my school days, the highpoint of the day for me was reading the local language newspaper. Anything printed was a craze and I used to get hold of the paper after my father finished with it and read from the masthead to the printer’s name. I started writing in the regional language and got them published also from age fifteen. My dream of going out with a notebook and following political leaders just after the country got Independence did not come about. Women did not work in newspaper offices in any department other than a secretary perhaps.
Q: What does radio mean to you?
A: It is the best medium to take information, education and entertainment to the people at the minimum cost, in their own language and idiom. Especially in a country like India where there are 18 languages recognized as National languages, it is essential to speak to the people in their own language.
Q: Did you focus on local women’s issues in your reporting for All India Radio?
A: Not really. As a programmer, I had to produce talks, interviews, radio features, live coverage of events etc. If it was about women, and it was important, it was covered as an event and not specially as a woman’s event. However, all stations had a section, which produced shows only for women, and that section would cover only woman related events and stories. The issues would be anything from health, childcare, girl child education and domestic violence to things like how to open a bank account!
Q: How were you slotted as a female producer at All India Radio?
A: In the early day we were told not to do this, not to do that. They said that some man would have to protect us. It used to be like that, but not any more. [Back in the early 60’s, women were] confined to the studios. It’s not that women weren’t efficient enough. It’s just that they thought women should be protected.
Q: How has WINGS influenced your journalism career?
A: Doing shows for WINGS has given me new insight into problems of women. In fact, today, whatever information I collect, whatever story I hear, I try to see the woman’s angle in it. Because I do programs for WINGS, [whenever someone tells me about a story] my first question is “Is it women who are affected? Are there women in that organization? Can I speak to those women?’” I love Frieda for that.
Through her connection with WINGS, Ramesh has found inspiration to continue to report on women’s issues in India. However, she cannot manage her recorder and walking stick on her own. “I’m trying to train some young people to do what I’m doing because I don’t expect to be doing this five years from now,” said Ramesh. Now, whenever she does a program for WINGS, she recruits the help of an intern. “There are some who give up after one or two programs, but it’s okay,” she mused. “Somebody, somewhere, will take an interest and start doing the kind of things I’m doing.”
In Vancouver, Frieda has hit the same wall. She runs the WINGS studio from home and recently added a curated Facebook news feed to her agenda. In the hopes of spreading WINGS content ever further, she is looking for an intern next semester to help manage their social media presence. Her outlook is positive. “WINGS is just a drop in the bucket of the kind of coverage of women that is needed,” she said. “But at least if there’s a drop in the bucket, you know what water is.”