Rural Radio Explosion
Newslink Africa (news service), London, Jan.
(World Press Review, March 2000)
According to some estimates, there are now 2,000 rural radio
stations in Africa and developing nations in the Caribbean and
Pacific regions. This compares with a mere handful a decade ago,
when most rural radio took the form of an hour's programming on
the national station. The explosion of rural radio has been in
three areas. First, and this is often overlooked by the more recent
converts to the medium, national radio stations have greatly increased
their air-time for items of rural concern, in part by expanding
their programming and, more significantly, by opening regional
stations. Senegal is typical, where the national station has set
up six regional stations with high rural content, sometimes known
as Radio Disso, or "dialogue radio."
The second area of growth has been in local and community
radio stations. In Mali, there are about 300 local stations, many
more per person than in the Netherlands, for example. Other countries
with similar surges include Burkina Faso, Uganda, and South Africa.
Their strength is their closeness to the local population, and
for this reason they are often known as "proximity radio."
Finally, commercial stations are extending their operations
into rural areas, having established themselves profitably in
the major urban centers. In some smaller nations, such as Jamaica,
commercial stations have long had a rural focus, but this is now
becoming a general trend throughout African, Caribbean, and Pacific
"We could well be on the verge of a partial implosion
of rural radio," notes Dudu Diallo, a professional broadcaster
in West Africa. "That the dramatic growth in radio stations
could take place at all is thanks to the wave of democratization
that has swept most ACP states," he says.
The fall of the oligarchies has also been accompanied by a
decrease in the complexity and cost of broadcasting technology.
Now anyone can get the basic equipment for a local FM station
for no more than US $3,000, Diallo says. "The consequences
have been obvious, and at times hard on our ears and on our cultural
tastes. But even here there are positive points: the further acceptance
of radio, already the most appropriate communication medium in
All stakeholders in rural broadcasting have an active role
to play in ensuring its viability. The state, no longer a monopoly,
still needs to ensure that regulatory bodies can perform properly
and freely, especially in allocating frequencies and overseeing
broadcasting ethics. And the state, together with external partners,
can ensure that infrastructure is in place and intact: antennas,
relay stations, and their maintenance. And above all, the listeners
must ensure that the stations can continue to serve them.
One way is through subscription. Studies have shown that the
annual operating costs of a rural station in West Africa are about
$20,000. This is well within the grasp of some community-based
stations. The National Council for Conservation and Cooperation
Among Rural Communities in Senegal, which operates a rural radio
station, is a case in point. It has formed a federation of about
The other way is through direct advertising and sponsorship.
This has been done successfully with many external partners, from
oil companies sponsoring technical broadcasts for fishermen, to
national and international bodies providing AIDS education for
The rural radio stations that will prosper are the popular
ones. This does not necessarily mean that the airwaves will be
full of pop music. Stations must earn and keep listeners' loyalty
by providing constant quality and relevance. With a loyal audience,
able to mobilize its own subscriptions and provide an interesting
market for sponsors and advertisers, most decent stations will
However, there are significant costs in setting up stations
in terms of equipment and staff, not to mention maintaining both
these assets in good working order. Here the international community
has a role to play. "We need to explain to donors that investment
in rural radio is not just a fashion, but direct long-term investment
in essential infrastructure," stresses Diallo.
New technologies, such as the Internet, already help by giving
local stations the means to exchange programs regularly and punctually
through computer networks. Experts are convinced that rural radio
stations, at least the ones that deserve to survive, have superb
decades of service ahead.