In rural Lofa County, Liberia, at the country's northernmost tip, local radio station manager QuaQua Miller is committed to building peace where civil war once raged. He travels from village to village on his "Radio Life" station scooter, fueled by the palm wine he is served, to hear what is on his people's minds.
Back at headquarters, in Zorzor City, 14 people work – many as volunteers – to keep Radio Life broadcasting for 18 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to midnight. The station, Miller's brainchild and passion, broadcasts an array of music and talk radio, always infused with messages of peace, cohesion and community involvement.
For a country still recovering from years of civil conflict, Miller's vision is unique, says Cyrus Ahalt, who recently spent six weeks at Radio Life, researching community radio as a tool for peace building.
From 1989-2003, civil fighting left 250,000 Liberians dead and thousands more refugees in neighboring countries. And Lofa County was at the heart of the fighting, Ahalt told IJNet recently. During those years, armed rebel groups would retreat from Liberia to Guinea or Sierra Leone, and forcibly train young men to be soldiers. Then, he explains, the soldiers would charge the Liberian capital, Monrovia, straight through Lofa County, destroying everything in their path.
"Cities and towns in Lofa Country were destroyed, completely razed, multiple times in the course of those 15 years," says Ahalt, who was sent to Liberia through the U.S.-based Search for Common Ground organization (SFCG).
Now, Lofa County is rebuilding, and by Miller’s design, listening to radio with a peaceful message. Music played on the station is reggae and other African music with a "one people message," Ahalt says, “the message that we're all Africans, united."
Because of a lack of funding, the station's journalists rarely report from the field, but Miller has crafted alternative ways to capture community voices and engage listeners through the station. Call-in shows invite people from anywhere in the listening area to call toll-free to discuss anything – from relationship issues to a government-run clean-up program. A "requests" program allows individuals to send family or friends a message, or a "shout-out," for a small fee. And prepackaged, issue-focused programs from NGOs broadcast important messages, such as "sleep under bed nets," that get the community talking. The station gets paid by NGOs to play those programs a certain number of times.
One recent campaign, titled "Rape is Bad," generated great interest, Ahalt says, spurring conversations about rape and gender-based violence even in church. When Miller saw people talking and discussing the issue, he continued to air the campaign – for weeks longer than he'd been paid to.
"If a program is popular, and if Miller feels there's a great message and people are talking about it, he will play it four times as much as he's obligated to," Ahalt says. “He’s very receptive to the community in that way."
The birth of Radio Life
In 1989, when conflict began, Miller and his family sought safety in the Lofa bush. In 1992, the family journeyed east, to Guinea. But Miller, scared of being recruited to the rebel army, returned alone to Liberia in 1994. He lived for three years in a camp for the displaced, and in 1996, trekked to Monrovia, where he earned his high school degree.
In Monrovia, he envisioned a return to Lofa County, to "rebuild the community he'd left behind as a child," Ahalt says. He made it to neighboring Bong County, but by then, in 1999, Liberia’s second civil war had started, and again, Miller ended up in a refugee camp.
There, he listened to Frog FM, a station run by a fellow resident in the camp who broadcasted from the jungle, amidst the croaks of frogs, Ahalt explains. Miller was intrigued, and soon apprenticed himself to the man and learned the basics of radio transmission, slowly adding scrap metal to the transmitter the man had pieced together from the parts of a hundred broken radios.
Together, they reported on the "comings and goings" in the camp, and the troop advance and retreat. Before long, the station was broadcasting on a 20-watt plus signal as far as 10 miles down the road, and under Miller's guidance, they had a full-fledged news department. They sold announcements and requests, and broadcasted every morning and evening.
When fighting finally ceased in 2004 and UN peacekeepers set up posts in Lofa County, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) learned of the station, and sought to support it.
In exchange for a new transmitter, USAID asked Miller to return to Lofa County, where people were beginning to re-settle. He did, and on July 9, 2005, Miller welcomed the people of Zorzor back to Lofa County, through a 50-watt transmitter courtesy of USAID.
QuaQua Miller: a man of 'integrity'
Today, about 5,000 people live in Zorzor, Ahalt says, and the town is rebuilding – albeit slowly. Poverty, malnutrition and poor sanitation remain, and there are no paved roads, no infrastructure. The closest Internet café is 100 kilometers away.
"But Zorzor just got its first bank," Ahalt says. "Certainly, changes are happening."
When Miller first returned, he spent two months in a field hospital because of sanitation issues. Now, he can draw a monthly salary from Radio Life, though it’s fairly meager, Ahalt says. He lives in a concrete house with his wife and young son (most in Zorzor live in mud homes), and even pays school fees for two young Radio Life volunteers. (Pictured: most of the Radio Life staff.)
In the community, he is one of five or six men really considered leaders, Ahalt says. "Others are traditional chiefs, the mayor, a judge. But Miller commands a certain amount of respect, he is known as a leader."
"Everybody knows Miller," Ahalt says. "He has an incredible amount of integrity."
Without any real training, he instinctually has a good grasp of journalistic standards, Ahalt says. He understands how important objectivity is, in issues including politics, ethnicity, religion and language.
Though most programming is in English, Radio Life broadcasts programming in three traditional Liberian languages. For Lofa's elders, most who never learned English, listening to programming in their native tongue is a source of pride, Ahalt explains.
The station also provides international coverage. For 30 minutes a day, Radio Life broadcasts international news fed from the UNMIL (United Nations Mission in Liberia) station out of Monrovia.
"You think that people who are struggling so much would only be concerned about what’s going on the local community, but that is not true,” Ahalt says. "People there have a real curiosity about what’s going on in Europe, in America, in Asia; there is a hunger for international news."
And Miller encourages his young reporters, all volunteers, to come up with ideas for new programming, and helps them build confidence. "Miller says: 'Here’s a recorder, make it happen and let me listen,'" Ahalt says.
Youth Talk, a half-hour program per week that talks with teenagers about what's happening in the community, was the product of one such young staffer's idea.
"Without newspapers, with no access to television stations, and no other radio station reliably available on the FM dial, Radio Life is the lifeline connecting communities to each other, to greater Liberia, and to the world," Ahalt wrote recently in a report to SFCG.
The future of Radio Life
Today, the station reaches 50,000 people throughout rural Liberia. Miller is building a name for Radio Life, but countless challenges remain. Just a few years out of the conflict, the threat of backsliding into violence is always present, Ahalt says. Especially as people in Lofa gear up for the 2011 elections, "there is real tension."
The station needs "major capacity building," he says, and equipment and training in areas including basic journalism, financial management and English language skills.
In a society where the concept of journalism is not well defined, journalists often feel uncomfortable traveling into the community to ask tough questions, especially to elders.
Transport, too, is an issue. Miller saved for months to be able to buy the Radio Life motorbike, which he labeled "Press," in white out, all over its surface. But he is often out in the community, on his "palm wine circuit," Ahalt says, so others rarely use the bike.
"Two more motorbikes could change a lot," Ahalt says, "just for $1,200." Bikes would allow journalists to report more from the field as well as collect revenues from the local community for specific programs, such as requests.
With just small amounts of money, capacity building and training, Ahalt knows Radio Life could become a modernized radio station that could support more journalists and grow profits.
"The journalists at Radio Life," Ahalt says, "can make leaps and bounds with just little things."
There is no lack of hunger for information among the staff, he explains. Most work other jobs, including as farmers, barbers and a cell phone store attendant, but see Radio Life as an opportunity to do more for the community. In the little free time they have, they volunteer at the station.
And Miller plans to spend the rest of his life as a journalist in Lofa, devoted to Radio Life, and to his community.
"To find someone who wants to stay in Lofa, who doesn’t want to go to Monrovia or to the US," Ahalt says, "is so rare."
For more information on Search for Common Ground, go to http://www.sfcg.org/.