Monday, August 28, 2006

The Very End of the Long Tail


As much as I admire Chris Anderson’s thesis in The Long Tail, I’ve had a problem with it since I first heard him describe it at a conference last fall. That boiled down to the question, What about the non-wired world?

At that conference, I asked him, What about the great majority of the world that isn’t on the Internet? Doesn’t the Long Tail thesis break down when you deal with moving physical objects around a physical world, or in cases of poverty, spotty electricity, illiteracy etc.?

To Anderson’s credit, he thought for the briefest moment before admitting that it did and added, as I recall, that it would be awhile before most people were on the Internet and able to enjoy some of the efficiencies that it enables.

I’ve been casting around since then for a good way to illustrate my point—that the Long Tail, while an immensely powerful way to think about online economics, is for now a First World phenomenon. Old-school technologies still dominate in terms of creating efficiencies and transparency in the world’s poorer regions.

Finally, along comes Anuj Chopra’s “Rural Indians turn to radio over Maoists” in the Christian Science Monitor:

BAURAHA, INDIA—When villagers in this restive corner of India realized that an official was siphoning off food and fuel meant for the poor, they had a choice. They could go to the authorities, or turn to Maoist rebels.

Worried the government would get bogged down in bureaucracy and the Maoists would only invite bloodshed, the villagers chose a new route: They broadcast their case on community radio.

After their report aired two years ago, administrators were questioned, and the corrupt official was promptly sacked. Distribution of food essentials resumed. Soon after, residents of a nearby village followed suit and drove out an official who was pilfering rice and wheat.

"Such action is unprecedented. It made us marginalized people heard for the first time," says Satendra Kumar Mehta, a local farmer who exposed the Bauraha official on the radio. "It solved our problem."

Tired of the daily toll of Maoist violence, rural people in India's Jharkhand state are experimenting with radio as a potent new tool that promises social transformation—without bloodshed and gore.

"They [the Maoists] come and kill the corrupt. But that doesn't solve our problem," Mr. Mehta says. "Community radio [on the contrary] empowers people to kill corruption."

Local villagers say they are excited to find a voice of their own on the airwaves. During broadcasts, people gather at village schools and community halls with a radio set - still beyond the means of many—for group listening. Many villagers—literate and illiterate alike—actively report stories, and participate in making these radio programs.

In this case “community radio” is locally produced programs that play on government-owned radio in the local Maghi dialect, frequently in the form of musical plays that are appealing and easy for both literate and illiterate villagers to understand. They deal with issues ranging from alcoholism to unresponsive government. Here are some of radio’s advantages in this type of poor, rural setting:

A 2001 study by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation says that community radio is one of the best tools to reach the marginalized segments of society who lack other means of communication. The study notes that experiences from Latin America, dating as far back as the 1940s, have demonstrated the potential of community radio for social change - especially in third-world rural areas. And with community radio stations multiplying by the thousands all over the world in the past five decades, the same was being repeated in Asia and Africa.

Radio, analysts say, has several comparative advantages over other media as a tool for social change and participatory communication. It is cost-efficient, for those who run the station and the audiences. Its language and content can be targeted to local needs.

The Maoist rebels understand the programs’ potential to erode their regional soft power, though, and have served the NGO that produces the programs, Alternative for India Development (AID), with a typically thuggish cease-and-desist:

A local [Maoist] Naxalite outfit has warned AID to stop their radio program in the region. Two years ago, they gutted one of their audiovisual vans. And the rebels often browbeat local reporters from AID. While the Maoists refused to comment on this issue, many here view this friction as a sign of insecurity over losing influence.

In a case like this, I can honestly ask readers to stay tuned for word on whether AID’s programs stay ahead of Maoist and bureaucratic attempts to silence them.

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