Community Radio:  a "most appealing tool for the common man"

For over five decades, radio has been the "most appealing tool" for participatory communication and development. It "has always been the ideal medium for change", says a new book on how radio, the Internet and other technologies are helping the poor get a better grip over their lives. Titled 'Making Waves' this 352-page report focuses on how radio stations across the globe are making a difference, often to those who lack other means of communication. It also looks at how other tools are being used for this purpose -- including computers, the Internet, multimedia, threatre and video.

But the largest number of case-studies deal with radio. Twenty experiences of unusual radio stations from across the globe are studied, while in two cases radio has been linked with the Internet, to widen its reach. "Today, any small country in Latin America can count by hundreds the stations, most of them FM, that serve rural or urban communities with content that is appropriate to the local language, culture and needs," comments the report by Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, who spent nearly a year researching and interviewing.

This report was put together for the US-based Rockefeller Foundation. It suggests that Asia and Africa "are certainly undergoing the same process that Latin America lived through decades ago". Asia provides important examples in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Nepal, says the study.

It adds that community radio stations have "multiplied by the thousands" all over the world in the past five decades. "It is almost impossible to even calculate the real numbers, as statistics do not include the many that operate without a legal license," it adds.

Cases studied include the Radio Sutatenza in Colombia, set up in 1947, by a Catholic priest, to broadcast Christian doctrine to poor farmers and also teach skills that would help community development.

Bolivia's network of miners' radio stations is called "one of the most outstanding examples of popular and participatory comunication in the world". At its peak, in the 1970s, the miners' radio network comprised as many as 26 independent stations. Other rare cases come from Radio Izcanal in El Salvador and local radio stations in Burkina Faso, besides Haiti. In Burkino Faso, the project of creating six local radio stations was part of the vision that the local leader Thomas Sankara had, even he became president.

In Haiti, the UNESCO donated radio equipment and provided initial training for four stations in in remote areas of the island in the 'nineties. But, till date, the stations are "still struggling to build their own identity in a country constantly shaken by political upheaval", says the report.

One unique example in networking is the Tambuli radio experiment in the Philippines. Some 20 stations were set up with help from UNESCO and DANIDA, the Danish international development agency. Networking for Tambuli included the exchange of cassettes, training, meetings and overall monitoring from the Tambuli Foundation in Manila.

Tambuli's radio stations are so spread out in the "most remote places" of the island, that no real-time networking is possible. They can't get in touch through their low-powered transmitters. But even if Tambuli is not a network technically, philosophically all the stations share the same objectives and ideas".

Indonesia's Local Radio Network, says the report, shows that radio networking is possible even when the stations are all privately owned. In this country, no law provides for community radio stations. But the need for "democratic communication" saw the UNESCO support over 20 private radio stations, and to "spark a process of networking with the help of new technologies".

Computers and Internet-access enables the stations to exchange news on a daily basis. In spite of threats by the army, the network continues to grow, notes the report.

It also studies the work of Pulsar, a news agency in Latin America, that provides daily reports and news through e-mail and the Internet, to several hundreds of community radio stations. In Madagascar, two stations were set up with Swiss development aid. In Latin America, Catholic priests supporting radio "quickly understood that the survival and development of the radio stations had to be linked to community participation, involving the real social, political and cultural needs of the people, and not just to preaching about faith or against communism".

In Bolivia, Catholic priests set up Radio Pio XII in Llallagua, with the aim of "fighting communism and alcoholism" among ministers. It later changed to become part of the network of union radion stations, and was often attacked by the army for defending the rights of workers.

Jesuit priests created -- and still prop up -- Radio Kwizera. This station serves the refugee population in western Tanzania, near the borders of strife torn Burundi and Rwanda. More commonly, community radio stations have been set up with help from local or international NGOs (non-governmental organisations). It's less common, notes the report, to find radio stations established by government institutions to serve the community.

"What Thomas Sankara did during the early 1980s in Burkina Faso has not been replicated by other African governments, who have been too jealous to release their tight control over the media," says the study. It notes, however, that the government of Mexico does have a policy of promoting community radio, in particular within indigenous communities. Some 24 indigenous radio stations have been established by the official Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI). These stations produce and air programmes in 31local languages and Spanish, and reach an estimated six million indigenous Mexicans.

Dagron's study cites Kothmale Radio in Sri Lanka and Radio Kiritimati in the Kiribati archipelago (South Pacific) as "examples of community radio stations that were established and partly funded by the government, with little political interference".

Radio, says the report, still has "several comparative advantages" over the other media as a tool for social change and participatory communication. It is cost-efficient, for those who run the station and the audiences. It is ideal for the huge illiterate population that remain still marginalised, specially in Third World rural areas. Its language and content can be made most suited to local needs. It is also relevant to local practices, traditions and culture.

After the initial investment is made, sustainability of the project is feasiable, and community participation can be depended on. In terms of outreach and geographic coverage too, radio has a strong advantage. Lastly, it says, the "convergence" between radio and Internet is providing new strengths to community and "has enormously increased networking opportunities". (ENDS)