The Spirit of Community Radio

The first transmission resembling what we now know as a radio show took place on Christmas Eve 1906, when Reginald Fessenden (the Canadian inventor who developed the AM frequency) broadcast a program with speech and music to a niche audience of ship radio operators and early broadcasting enthusiasts. 

In the decades that followed, hundreds of journalists, actors, and musicians would grace those same airwaves, solidifying radio’s place as a go-to source for information and entertainment. By 1922, Popular Science Monthly reported that America was “blanketed by wireless news and music.” 

Of course, the “golden age” of radio wouldn’t last. While thousands of stations still operate across the U.S., radio’s influence in the country is waning. This decline began in the 1950s, with the advent of television, and audiences have only continued to erode with the rise of the internet and podcasts. 

But even though fewer Americans are tuning in these days, in many developing countries, radio is still hugely important. 

For one thing, it’s a deeply democratic medium. Accessible to both rural and urban people, regardless of income (equipment is pretty affordable) or education level (literacy not required), community radio is helping to transform developing nations from the inside

Let’s explore the ways…

1. Promoting Community Wellness

For most of the 20th century, the nation of Kenya had only one radio station, and it was state owned. That all changed in 1996 when, for the first time, the government began selling broadcast licenses.  Today, dozens of radio stations operate across Kenya—a majority of them being community-run outlets.

Based in Nairobi, Kass FM is widely known as Kenya’s first “slum radio” station. While millions of listeners tune in to Kass to hear music or the news, the station is especially notable for its coverage of public health issues. In a 2014 study of Kass listeners, 81% agreed that the information given on air was useful to them in their daily lives. In a country where more than 5% of the population is living with HIV—but also where infection rates have fallen significantly in recent years—that’s no small feat.

Then there's the Population Media Center (PMC), a US-based non-profit focused on improving global health. PMC operates in fifteen countries across Asia, Africa, and South America, offering radio and television programming with an educational element. One of their most successful efforts was the radio drama, Gugar Goge (Tell Me Straight), which premiered in Nigeria in June 2006. The show successfully raised awareness of obstetric fistula, a common ailment among African women who’ve recently given birth. 47% of clients surveyed in 2006 said that the serial drama was their primary motivation for seeking treatment.

If it sounds surprising that the equivalent of a soap opera could have such a profound impact on women in the real world, it shouldn’t. In many countries, female health issues just aren’t widely talked about. 

2. Empowering Women

Female voices are underrepresented in media in many places, but especially so in developing nations. Community radio offers a forum for women to both listen and be heard.

In 2010, the international non-profit Internews Network established three community radio stations in eastern Chad, intended for Sudanese refugees who’d fled genocide in Darfur. Their flagship program, She Speaks, She Listens, addresses issues of gender-based violence through the sharing of real life stories. The show educates listeners while supporting survivors through an important step in their healing process.

Image Credit: Radio Mewat.

Image Credit: Radio Mewat.

Also in 2010, filmmaker, publisher, and activist Archana Kapoor founded Radio Mewat in Mewat, India, as a way to amplify “the unheard voices of the most vulnerable and marginalized sections of society.” One of its most popular programs, Apno Swasthya Apne Haath (Our Health in Our Hands), is produced expressly for women, offering frank, valuable information about topics such as children's health and personal hygiene, that simply aren’t discussed in other forums. 

But community radio doesn’t just help women and children. Indeed, it’s there to serve all citizens, especially when they’re at their most vulnerable.

3. Helping Citizens Survive and Rebuild

While it’s easy for many of us to think of radio as just another medium, in some situations, it’s literally a lifesaver.

In 2005, following an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, Internews supported the setup of the Banda Aceh-based emergency radio station Suara Aceh to spread information about what assistance was available from the Indonesian government, as well as the international community. The effort helped to streamline the reconstruction process in a country where access to other communication channels was limited, and started a positive trend.

In the wake of the 2017 floods that put almost a third of Bangladesh under water, five new community stations joined the airwaves with programming focused on reducing the impact of the disaster through flood forecasting, as well as by advising residents on precautionary measures they could take to protect themselves and their homes.

Try getting that kind of service from your favorite podcast.

4. Fighting Starvation and Promoting Sustainable Farming

Of course, it’s not just massive storms that have major impacts on people’s lives. 

This is especially true in developing nations, where bad harvests can more easily lead to mass food shortages. 

Over the past two decades, numerous African countries have experienced food crises, spurred on by the combined effects of drought and land degradationboth of which are exacerbated by climate change.

Luckily, local radio is doing its part to get the word out.

In 2004, by NPR co-founder Bill Siemering started a U.S.-based non-profit called Developing Radio Partners (DRP), that teams up with radio outlets around the globe to provide essential information to some of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. In recent years, this has meant quite a bit of programming about sustainable farming in African nations being impacted by climate change.

In Zambia, which has seen significant food shortages linked to drought and deforestation, DRP partnered with the Lusaka-area station, Chongwe Radio. With DRP’s support, Chongwe began producing weekly programs about "adaptive farming" techniques, which gave farmers advice for growing crops in problematic conditions. The station also established Radio Champions Group, a community organization responsible for planting more than 10,000 trees in the area since 2013.

The Radio Champions Group in action. Image courtesy of: Developing Radio Partners.

The Radio Champions Group in action. Image courtesy of: Developing Radio Partners.

DRP has also worked with community stations in Rwanda, Cameroon, and Cape Verde, helping to create programs that promote environmentally friendly farming practices. One of the most successful of these is rain harvesting, a greener alternative to traditional irrigation techniques that enables farmers to grow more crops while using less water. 

Idah Mwambo, a Cameroon-based farmer who learned about rain harvesting after listening to DRP programming, said, “I have tomatoes when most people don’t have tomatoes. My harvest has increased and I make more money because off-season tomatoes are more expensive.”

Knowledge is, indeed, power.

5. Promoting Democracy

Sometimes, the simple act of reporting the facts is considered an incredibly bold move.

Following the Nepalese Royal Coup of February 2005, King Gyanendra recognized radio’s power to spread information that was damaging to the monarchy, and actually banned traditional news reports. Since journalists were legally unable to speak the news, reporters from some of the country’s fifty radio stations began to sing reports instead. 

In December 2006, peace was brokered between the country’s ruling alliance and rebels, with an interim constitution signed. Following the agreement, over a hundred community radio licenses were granted in a fifteen month period. Today, the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters Nepal has over 300 community radio stations spread across 74 districts of the nation as members. The group’s tagline is: “democracy begins with the right to speak.”

For many of us, it’s probably difficult to imagine a situation where belting out the daily news would be a rebellious act. But, in more than a few countries, that's the harsh reality.

On a lighter note…

6. Last, but Not Least: Entertainment

Though much of community radio’s programming is deeply practical, entertainment hasn’t completely disappeared from the airwaves. 

Nairobi’s Kass FM plays traditional and local music for the older generation of Kenyans, who tend to want songs that remind them of their younger years. Kass is filling the cultural gap left by mainstream outlets, which primarily play English-language songs geared toward younger listeners. 

And while radio plays are something of an endangered species in the U.S, they’re still quite popular in many other countries. Founded in 1994, the Nigerian-based African Radio Drama Association (ARDA) creates original programming in six languages (including English, Yoruba, and Igbo) meant to both entertain and educate.

At the end of the day, public broadcasting matters (and we’re not just saying that because Articulate airs on PBS stations). When programming is created by and for the communities it serves, everyone benefits.