Community radio, new technologies and policy: enough watching, it’s time for doing

11 06 2007

by Bruce Girard

In Mali broadcasters search the internet to find answers to listeners’ questions, translate them to local languages, and encourage discussion and learning around issues of public interest. Without the internet Mali’s rural radio stations used a handful of old books and last week’s newspaper as main sources of information, but with access and training they are able to find information on the internet and help discover solutions to community problems. They are only able to do this because visionary policies and programmes enabled community radio and provided them with internet access and training.


Technological developments have often been favourable to community radio. In the 1940s the introduction of FM technology in the United States made community radio possible because it allowed for more stations at a time when the AM dial was already filling up in urban areas. A few decades later, in the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of community broadcasters was able to get on the air thanks to technological advances that dramatically reduced the cost of transmitters and production equipment.

But it would be a mistake to think that these developments, and many others, were solely technology-driven.

In the case of FM radio in the United States, community broadcasters starting up in the latter part of the century were only be able to make use of FM because a visionary policy adopted in 1945 reserved 20 percent of the new FM frequencies for non-commercial and educational broadcasting. Without this policy commercial broadcasting would have quickly monopolized FM and the left of the dial (the reserved frequencies are from 87.9 MHz – 92 MHz) would have sounded pretty much like the right.

Similarly the low-cost equipment introduced later only became a factor after policies adopted at the national level in many countries recognised the importance of local and community broadcasting, established licensing frameworks to allow it and policy mechanisms to support communities in their efforts to get on the air.(1)

A few key actors in the development community also played a role in this by supporting the research and advocacy efforts of community media associations struggling to establish their place on national policy agendas and helping new stations acquire equipment and training.

Over the past fifteen years government and donor policies have supported the emergence of thousands of community radio stations worldwide. There are now 150 community radio stations in South Africa, 150 in Peru, 850 in Colombia, 120 in Mali, twenty in Nepal (with another 45 due to start broadcasting in 2007), to name just a few countries where community radio is flourishing.

The technological developments that have had the most impact on community radio in more recent years have not used broadcast technology but rather other ICTs, especially the internet, digital audio formats that can travel across it(2), and mobile telephony. These technologies have seen tremendous advances in both their accessibility and usability.

In 1996 when we started the Púlsar(3) news agency in Latin America only the most technologically advanced community radio stations in the region had access to the internet, and they mostly used it to exchange emails with donors in Europe or North America. Despite the scepticism of donors and traditional media, broadcasters scrambled to find a way to access the new service and before long Púlsar had 1,000 subscribers. Today the internet and mobile telephones are part of the basic toolkit for many community radio stations.

Mobile telephones are community radio’s remote broadcasting units. For a community radio news team they are as useful as television’s ENG(4) trucks, but they cost less than $100 and are so simple to use that community members with phones can become empowered correspondents, commentators, and critics.

A connection to the internet can be used in multiple ways by a station to provide a better service to its community. In the book The One to Watch(5) we identified a number of ways that community radio and the internet converge to exploit synergies and address the needs and problems of their communities in new and powerful ways.

  • In Indonesia an internet-based radio news and programme exchange network put the concerns of poor and remote communities on the national agenda and helped create a democratic culture after years of authoritarian rule and censorship.
  • A community radio station in Sri Lanka became a community multimedia centre when it decided to build an internet café to share its internet connection with the community.
  • In Ecuador and Spain community radio stations use the internet to co-produce programmes that keep Ecuadorian migrants in contact with their communities and expose money transfer companies charging excessive commission to transfer remittances.
  • Over the past decade the international community and national governments have invested tremendous effort and expense in ICT for development projects. There have been countless seminars, studies and statements; national ICT policies have been drafted, discarded and redrafted; bilateral cooperation agencies, UN agencies, the G8, and the World Bank and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) have spent many millions developing and implementing ICT4D policies and programmes.

    Yet, despite the boom in community radio and the interest in ICTs, initiatives to link the two have been limited to the pilot projects of the type that have characterized ICT4D when what is needed are visionary policies and initiatives of the type that led to the emergence of community radio. These might include:

    1) Support the growth of the community radio sector. A community radio station can be built and equipped for less than the cost of a single tower of a single mobile telephone network but it enables a dimension of public communication that telephony and the internet cannot.

    2) Include community radio in universal service policies. In poor and remote communities radio is often the only medium available and it serves multiple purposes as a mass medium, a public forum, an emergency warning system, a school, a community telephone, and a primary point of contact with the rest of the country and the world. The action plan agreed at WSIS calls for all communities to have access to radio by 2015. To meet this target community radio will need to be included in universal service policies and be given access to the universal service funds usually reserved for telecom infrastructure development.

    3) Community radio stations in poor and remote communities must have affordable and effective access to the internet. Achieving maximum impact with limited internet connectivity within such communities can best be accomplished by situating connections within the local community radio station, since the multiplier effect that the station can provide ensures that the benefits are felt in each household in the community.

    4) Support the development of “community triple play” in under-served rural communities. Community-driven solutions are emerging in many parts of the world designed to extend networks to communities bypassed by traditional telecommunication networks and provide ICT services that meet the specific needs of poor and rural communities. In conjunction with community radio these networks and service providers can offer “community triple play”, locally-owned and managed operations providing radio, internet access, and voice over IP telephony. Evidence shows that when regulatory and other hurdles are removed, business models emerge that provide sustainable modern communication capabilities to poor and remote communities.

    In The One to Watch I wrote:

    It has been said that the internet is a window to the world – offering a view that encompasses a wealth of knowledge and information. Local radio is a mirror that reflects a community’s own knowledge and experience back at it. The convergence of the two just might offer us the most effective avenue we have yet known to combine research and reflection in order to harness knowledge for democratic and sustainable development.(6)

    Four years have passed and we have yet to move much beyond anecdotes and the pilot projects. Only with vision and with policies such as the ones mentioned above will we be able to realise the potential offered by community radio and ICTs. It is time to move beyond watching the marvels of new ICTs and the potential they offer to people living in poverty when combined with community radio. It is time to get serious by becoming more strategic about putting in place policies and measures that genuinely release the energy of an ICT enabled community media sector.

    Notes

    (1) Government support takes many forms including making public funds available, but also simplifying the process of getting a licence. As long as frequencies are available, rural communities in Mali, for example, can get a community radio station licence by filling out a simple form.
    (2) E.g. MP3, Realaudio, and the open source Ogg format.
    (3) The Agencia Informativa Púlsar was the first major international initiative use the internet as a platform for a daily radio news service. www.agenciapulsar.org.
    (4) Electronic News Gathering units, a crew and an equipped truck, send sound live sound and images back to the main studio for rebroadcast.
    (5) The One to Watch: Radio, new ICTs and interactivity, Bruce Girard (ed), FAO, Rome 2003. Available online at www.comunica.org/1-2-watch.
    (6) Ibid. p. 23


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