What started as a short WhatsApp bulletin sent to a handful of friends is now a multi-faceted programme with hundreds of followers
S. Anukeerthana tries to stifle a giggle as she reads out her signature line delivering the Oru Nimida Yosanai (one minute thought) for the day on a loop for the photographer as much older co-presenters look on. The Class VI student of Montfort School, Kattur, is a celebrity of sorts among listeners of the Natrinai Audio Gallery, an audio service that is quietly ruling the airwaves.
It’s radio, but without the studio.
Named after the classical Tamil epic of 400 poems that is part of Ettuthokai, a Sangam-era literary anthology, Natrinai started out as an experimental news bulletin on May 23, 2015, in Tiruchi. It completed 500 episodes in September 2016, and with a zero-holiday schedule, is fast heading towards its 700th recording.
“I was all alone at home, reading the newspaper, when I started wondering how many people actually take the time to go through entire articles anymore,” Natrinai founder Gnanapriyan* says.
The senior pre-press engineer decided to create a short bulletin of four or five lead headlines of the day, with a brief summary of each report. He then proceeded to record himself reading out the news summaries on his mobile phone and dispatched it to 10 of his friends through WhatsApp.
The enthusiastic response to that first audio news digest spurred Mr. Gnanapriyan to produce a bulletin every day.
“I would avoid crime and negative news. Slowly, I started selecting five headlines each related to State, national, world, business, sports and entertainment news,” he recalls.
But it was hard to keep up with the schedule of recording, which had to be done after Mr. Gnanapriyan’s late-night office shift. “It was difficult to balance both,” he recalls. “So I decided to shut it down by August 2015.”
It was around this time that Mr. Gnanapriyan responded to a call for volunteers from the Jagajothi Readers’ Circle to help create a bank of audio learning material for visually challenged students in Tiruchi.
A second coming
When he joined the group, Mr. Gnanapriyan found that there were many fans of Natrinai among its 200 members, who had been forwarded the news digest on their phones by friends.
“The visually challenged listeners said they enjoyed the Natrinai bulletins because they could be played at their convenience, and they could stay informed about current affairs. I realised then that Natrinai’s closing may affect far more people than I had imagined,” he says. “Natrinai is alive today primarily because of our visually challenged friends.”
Deciding to stay on air, Mr. Gnanapriyan added other sections to the bulletin, with help from a crew of volunteers, including his daughters, Anukeerthana and Subiksharathna. A daily general knowledge quiz, readings from literary works, the one-minute thought and storytelling segments were some of the new offerings.
But success brought another set of problems. As the number of listeners crossed 1,000, it became difficult to sustain the WhatsApp group messaging model. “So we shifted to a website [www.natrinai.org],” says Mr. Gnanapriyan. “We have retained our WhatsApp number , but our archived recordings can be found only on our website.”
As the audio service grew, it attracted several language enthusiasts. “Natrinai introduced me to many Tamil radio enthusiasts, several of whom later became part of our core team of presenters and programmers,” Mr. Gnanapriyan says. “All of us have full-time jobs, but we always manage to put in the hours needed for Natrinai.”
Among the earlier volunteers was S.S. Manian, a civil engineer based in Pudukottai. “I got in touch with Gnanapriyan through the programme Ullathai Solvom [Telling it like it is]. We started talking about how to develop Natrinai and became close friends.”
Today, Mr. Manian is an integral part of the 27-member production team and is in charge of uploading the different sections that make up the bulletin, which are first finalised by Mr. Gnanapriyan, on to the website. “We were originally approached by the Karaikkal-based online FM station Nesa Ganam for our recordings. Since we were already thinking of diversifying into the space, we decided to give it a trial run through Nesa Ganam,” Mr. Manian says.
Natrinai’s programmes were broadcast by Nesa Ganam from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. every day . Now the group has developed an Android app (available for free download on Google Play Store) to run their own online radio service through the website, which went on air on February 10.
The feed runs from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and is re-telecast from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the same day; archived recordings are available after 9 p.m.
Rather than talk about their Wi-Fi bills or scheduling headaches, Natrinai’s presenters say their biggest challenge lies in finding a silent room for their recordings. “Since we are all managing with our mobile phones and working from home, getting a soundproof studio is out of the question for now,” Mr. Gnanapriyan says.
Diverse talent pool
The nascent Natrinai Trust, administered by Gnanapriyan’s wife Gnanalakshmi, raises funds for worthy causes. “Recently, we were able to collect ₹20,000 from an appeal on our website to help visually challenged people get software training in Tiruchi,” Mr. Gnanapriyan says. There is a long list of potential subjects to be added to the programming. “We have had requests for information on parenting, and legal and health issues, which we will be looking at this year,” Mr. Manian says.
While Mr. Gnanapriyan’s story is inspiring, his growing team reflects passion and innovation. M. Karupaiah of Gandharvakottai is in charge of the daily quiz show Podhu Arivu Kuviyal (‘general knowledge bank’). A visually challenged Social Sciences teacher, Mr. Karuppiah spends around three hours a day researching questions and verifying the answers. He then types his work out on a Braille typewriter and records the audio version on his mobile phone.
“I find this section to be of use to those attempting competitive exams, so the Braille manuscript can be stored in the District Central Library’s database for differently-abled members,” Mr. Karupaiah says.
Erode-based music teacher S. Senthilkumar enjoys preparing a short list of important events in history for Natrinai. “I have to keep the information concise, otherwise it becomes boring for listeners,” he says.
“We may lose our listeners’ support if we become commercial,” Mr. Gnanapriyan says. “If we have people from places like Malaysia, Qatar, Italy, the U.S. and Oman getting in touch with us today, it’s because we seem to be giving them a product that is devoid of advertising.”
Natrinai has nearly 1,000 regular visitors, but the actual number may be higher, Mr. Gnanapriyan says, since there are so many niche groups of people that access it via forwarded messages. The Natrinai FM app has been downloaded nearly 500 times.
P. Sami, Associate Professor of Chemistry at V.H.N.S.N. College, Virudhunagar, contributes to the motivational Naalum Oru Vidhai (“a seed every day”). “From a service for the visually challenged, Natrinai has become a platform for everyone,” Dr. Sami says.
“I know of schools in small towns that use Natrinai’s digests over the public announcement system every morning.”
*Name changed on request.