Rural Radio Explosion

Newslink Africa (news service), London, Jan. 24, 2000.

(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 (ACP) states.

"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 Africa today."

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 300 associations.

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 rural communities.

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 survive.

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.

Media Reform