As technology spreads, community radio stations reach the masses

porSeth Palmer
Jun 15, 2009 en Multimedia Journalism

In Kenya, where mobile telephone use has exploded in recent years, audiences of EcoNews Africa (ENA) radio are encouraged to call in to programs or text messages expressing their opinions.

In particular, one of ENA's programs, Voice of the People, is dedicated to giving the public a voice, engaging listeners directly by encouraging their participation in community issues and depending on the community for story ideas.

In this way, the station, which aims to influence policy-making on sustainable development issues, is "keeping people on their toes" when it comes to important issues that affect their lives, according to Grace Githaiga, ENA's executive director.

In much of the developing world, radio remains the dominant communication medium; it is inexpensive, pervasive and widely available. In recent years, with the advent of technologies including Internet, satellite and mobile, community radio has grown further, reaching out to groups who previously did not enjoy access due to limited technology or lacking infrastructure.

In Washington, D.C., on June 3, media professionals from around the world gathered at the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to discuss community radio and its role in democracy and development around the world.

Githaiga was joined on a panel by Tasneem Ahmar, director of Pakistan's Uks Research Centre, and Santoso, founder and managing director of Kantor Berita Radio 68H (KBR68H) Radio in Indonesia, the only independent national radio service in the archipelago.

In May, KBR68H was awarded the King Baudouin International Development Prize "for its contribution to a sustainable development based on the strengthening of democracy, tolerance and citizen participation, by producing and disseminating qualitative information through a network of local radio stations and by promoting professional ethics in the media world."

The Jakarta-based KBR68H employs satellite technology that allows programming to reach 18 million of the country's 240 million people at 630 stations across the archipelago.

As such, KBR68H "has been an essential player in the development process in the country" in recent years, according to Belgium's King Baudouin Foundation.

Integral to KBR68H's success, Santoso said, is the Internet, which is used as "the backbone of radio."

Like in Africa, mobile phone use in Indonesia has grown substantially in recent years, surpassing 90 million subscribers in 2008. But, Santoso said, "the lack of reception for most mobile phones in rural areas where community radio thrives restricts the ability for listeners to connect via telecommunications."

In Pakistan, community-based radio stations began to encourage interaction through mobile messaging following severe restrictions on television and radio discussions by former President Musharraf in 2007. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, there are more than 92 million mobile subscribers in the country.

Radio stations set up by Uks Research Centre, a research, resource and publication center devoted to the cause of women's empowerment, also encourage their audience to determine some of its programming through text messaging.

According to Ahmar, during Musharraf's period of media restriction, Uks stations experienced a "flood of information coming in from text messages" because the information couldn't be broadcast elsewhere.

Challenges

Despite the popularity of community radio, broadcasters face countless challenges, not least of which is the fundamental difficulty of working in a restrictive environment.

In many countries, popular independent radio stations remain illegally unlicensed out of fear that content will be filtered or limited with government oversight.

In Indonesia, radio licensing is hindered by the short-range capabilities of radio frequencies. According to Santoso, since there is so little space between issued frequencies, the frequencies interfere with one another, causing unnecessary competition between small radio broadcasters.

Additionally, a 300 million rupiah license fee (US$29,000) is required by the Department of Communication, a cost that most community radio stations cannot afford.

Unlicensed radio stations in Pakistan also have competition, but for a different reason: illegal stations that broadcast music have a much larger listener base than talk stations.

Having music stations and DJs talk about "issues that don't matter" hinders the objective of community radio, said Ahmar.

The Kenyan government protects against interfering frequencies, through a provision in the Kenya Communications Regulations of 2001 that states that frequencies be assigned to a station when it is determined that it will interfere with any other licensed station.

The main issue stations face in Kenya is acquiring radio licenses. It took ENA five years to get a license for one station in an East African village, Githaiga said.

But despite the challenges, community radio stations are succeeding in reaching people who never before had access, she said.

"It's a journey," she said, and "we should not be discouraged ... There are still many rivers to cross."

For more information, go to: EcoNews Africa at http://www.econewsafrica.org/, KBR68H at http://www.kbr68h.com/Utama_All.htm, and Uks Research Centre at http://www.uksresearch.com/.