I love radio. There, I said it.
Not matter how much I might go giddy at the thought of an iPad or the latest mobile phone app, radio is the medium that is always on in my house and it's something I can take literally anywhere with me. Yep, podcasts, shared social media audio via audioboo and an mp3 player are now part of my audio-radio programming mix too, but listening to the radio still makes up a significant part of how I consume media.
Wherever I travel I'm always on the look out for what role radio plays in people's lives - be it for news, information, entertainment and culture but especially for education, humanitarian development and emergency purposes. And perhaps because I had my first real start in broadcasting as a volunteer at a community radio station (where you might do everything from answer the phone to host a programme) I'm very interested in how radio can play an active and participatory role in a community; adapt to harnessing new technologies; work around obstacles such as remote locations or legal restrictions; and, reach out to people who for whatever reason might be marginalised in society. That said, radio also has to stay relevant in an increasingly net driven, mobile multimedia and social media landscape as well as compete with the TV sat dish and box in the corner of the living room.
Right now I'm in Vietnam with colleagues from the Deutsche Welle Akademie training local radio journalists. We've been working in Hanoi and also in the World Heritage listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to gather materials for environmental radio features. Hopefully they'll be sound rich and oozing radio goodness. We want to tell real stories about real people, not just the voices of administrators and development agencies. I personally hope participants will view radio in a different light after the course - that along with providing information, you can use radio to help your listeners discover and explore. Our training aims to produce the sort of programming that really gets the most out of radio and prompts listeners tell their friends about it. People share quality.
I am though typing out this post on my MacBook Pro in a modest air conditioned hotel room. I have wifi internet access (which is a very pleasant surprise), a mobile phone using a local network for 3G/GPRS (excellent to send a quick Tweet or Audioboo and read email) and my trusty short-wave radio which (sadly!) sort of seems redundant here given that I can listen to radio stations via the internet.
Maybe I have to hope for a power cut to feel good that I brought my radio with rechargeable batteries, or walk outside beyond the range of wifi to listen to the radio?
OK, but what has all that got to do with radio and the community?
Well, I suppose because I've been travelling through rural areas and absorbed in radio production and citizen journalism of late, I've been thinking back to ideas from a training course last year in Kano, northern Nigeria. I was working with local journalists from state and commerical radio stations to help produce education and youth programming. Outside of the host station Freedom Radio, I was quite pleased that I could live stream video from my mobile phone via 3G direct to the internet.
The wonders of broadcasting live video aside, what really struck me in Kano was the city's dynamic mobile phone market. Not only was every conceivable phone available, but phones were being used in all sorts of practical ways and selling or sharing content (mainly music) by Bluetooth and USB cable was fascinating to watch.
For instance, I hadn't thought about using the ring-tone library in a basic mobile phone as an mp3 music player until I saw it in action in the market. A simple hack you might say.
But the mobile phone market also got me thinking: why can't radio and audio programming such as podcasts be offered in city bazaars and markets, not just music? And moreover, maybe radio stations should think about setting up stalls in markets or having a shopfront or street studio presence? The local newspaper in my home city of Bonn has a shop (not really inviting though) but I'm thinking more along the lines of East Village Radio in New York with a street level studio where people can literally drop in and chat with DJ's and staff.
Of course it's very common to see radio stations located at secured sites in a light-industrial part of a city. There are important practical reasons too. A station might need a lot of land if its radio mast is onsite and station security is vital - more so in some countries over others.
However, this means radio stations can be quite physically removed from their local community. The community radio station I volunteered at in Sydney was in a tall university building but often participated in local outdoor events which was a good way of funding raising and promoting the station. I'd like to see radio stations in developing countries experiment with having a prominent presence or a regular stall in their local market. Podcasts of programming and other multimedia content could be offered free of charge via bluetooth or USB cable - alongside station merchandise for fundraising. Maybe a station could even produce specific audio programmes or multimedia content in formats for mobile phones? Take a look at how Practical Action is using podcasting in Zimbabwe to disseminate information among people in remote locations via Bluetooth.
If people can charge their mobile phone at a market stall, why can't they go to a stall to download via Bluetooth a free programme, podcast or multimedia content?
There could also be loads of possibilities for sort of lo-fi social media networking, news and current affairs programming, citizen journalism and fund raising.
People from the radio station who run the stall could be 'social media community producers'. Perhaps they could be students or cadet-trainee journalists? Helping to run the stall could be a useful way of actually getting more journalists talking to people in their community - discussing issues, problems.... discovering potential story ideas and importantly, listening to the community and building a network of contacts.
Journalists or 'social media community producers' could even record interviews at the stall with a mobile phone. If there's a good internet connection or mobile internet network then this content could be sent back to the station quickly. Good quality live two-way interviews are also possible with the right mobile phone broadcasting kit. Of course a station might already have an outdoor broadcasting capacity and could produce a regular show where they broadcast live from the market.
I have seen community radio stations working out of central market places before - even quite low tech versions. In Moldulkiri, Cambodia, the local community "radio" station broadcasts from the village market. But rather than broadcasting over the airwaves to radios, the station broadcasts via wires to several loudspeakers. There are a few drawbacks such as no volume control. Forget about pumping up the volume - it's loud everywhere. The thing is it works and everyone knows where the announcer and "station" is.
Maybe you've seen an innovative way that a radio station has "embedded" itself into a community and is proving to be more than just a studio, newsroom and broadcasting mast?
Have a look at PBS MediaShift this week, there's a great post on interactive citizen media projects experimenting with radio and mobile phones. Comunica also has blog devoted to Radio 2.0 for Development. And, following up on what I mentioned about media in India in my last post, the community radio sector there is experimenting with broadcasting using mobile phone technology.
(First published on the EJC TH!NK3 Developing World Blog)