(This story was originally posted on Medium.)
“Welcome, Listeners, to Abyei Today!” Rose Monjtoch announces in Arabic as she fires up the program’s signature music.
Beside her, the entire program team has squeezed into the studio, an unfamiliar space for many of them. A mix of excitement and nervousness ripples through the room as the on-air light glows red.
Rose might as well be oblivious to the excitement around her. Her confidence and outgoing disposition demonstrates that she’s a natural presenter as she cheerfully guides the listeners through the program, joking with her fellow broadcasters as she transitions to the first item.
You wouldn’t know it, but this is Rose’s first time hosting a live radio show. Operating the sound desk with its hundred or more switches doesn’t faze her. It’s hard work, but as she says “This kind of work I don’t mind doing… we have always wanted to do this!” referring to her team’s long desire to go live.
For nearly three years the Abyei Today radio program has been a pre-packaged, pre-recorded magazine show of news stories and features reflecting the people and circumstances of Abyei, a disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan. The show is broadcast on Mayardit FM located in South Sudan’s Warrap State, which is very close to the border so the coverage reaches Abyei and surrounding areas.
Abyei Today has solidly built a reputation as the most trusted source of information and news among its listeners. This is not easy in an area where conflict is the status quo.
The Abyei region is made up of the Ngok Dinka ethnic group who wish to be part of South Sudan and the Misseriya ethnic group who maintain allegiances to Sudan. Ten years later, the local people have grown tired of the fighting and are ready for peaceful coexistence. But despite the signing of a comprehensive peace agreement by both the Sudan and Southern Sudan governments in 2005, the Abyei area remains disputed between the two nations, with no clear roadmap for resolution.
The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) operates heavily armed patrols to maintain security between the two groups, but the local chiefs of both Misseriya and Ngok Dinka are finally moving toward a real peace process with one key criterion — it should be locally brokered with zero involvement from “national” politicians.
As the dynamic in Abyei changes, there is an incredible demand for the program to evolve, as well.
Broadcasting a live, dynamic radio broadcast allows engagement with listeners in a way that a pre-recorded show cannot. Live broadcasting has also gifted Abyei a giant increase in airtime.
In the past, the pre-recorded twice-weekly show was limited to 25 minutes because the Abyei-based journalists would produce the show from their studio in Abyei and slowly upload the program file to the internet, while Warrap State-based journalists at Mayadit FM would need at least 4 hours to download the file on their end.
With live broadcasting capabilities at the Mayardit FM studios, the Abyei Today team has up to four hours of airtime on Saturdays, which will be useful as the program expands beyond its current two to three hour broadcast.
Abyei Today Editor Karbino Dut explains that live broadcasts have been a long time coming:
“We are all very excited, this is what people have been asking for.”
Although the Abyei Today team is nervous to operate the studio equipment, Karbino is confident the team is up to the challenge.
Through a series of pilot shows, Abyei Today is finally moving into instantaneous live conversation and dialogue with the people it serves. It also provides space for fun and relevant features away from the immediate news.
One pilot live broadcast premiered a multi-part feature on why things are so expensive in Abyei with comments from shoppers, discussions between traders and farmers, and even contributions by economists.
The official launch of the live program occurred in February with a variety of features in production to give the show a big opening impact including interviews with the Paramount Chief of the Ngok Dinka, UNISFA’s Head of Mission, and UNISFA’s Force Commander about the migration season.
There were clips of children graduating from primary school talking about their hopes for the future and also new music from local Abyei musicians showcasing their talent with new songs about peace. The big central feature was a nine-way discussion show-within-a-show about how the rising price of cattle is making it harder for families as it is has become more expensive to get married — due to dowry price — or have children.
What do the listeners think? Abyei Today has also stepped up its listener feedback and coordination efforts, as well.
Humanitarian agencies and development groups operating in Abyei have responded positively to the live broadcast.
Because the conflict resulted in many families being torn apart and fleeing violence, some families are still not in contact with each other and have no idea where to find each other. Growing demands for messages directed at separated family members to inform them of where they can find more information has made it a priority and has stressed the importance of community engagement.
Because radio is the most popular source of information in this region and its surroundings, the development of live broadcasting presents a huge space of life-saving and life-enhancing information.
Marco DeGaetano, Head of Office of UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Abyei remarked,
“We really welcome this development from Abyei Today. As FAO gets more involved, we want to go beyond raising awareness, and this expansion to two hours is something we are excited to hear about.”
FAO is in close discussions with the Abyei Today team to produce a series on the importance of vaccinations for livestock in the Abyei Region.
The shift also ushers in a new habit to the Abyei Audience. One female listener from Makerawetawet said she feels like the program is the community’s friend, and would even like it to be played more.
“I love listening to Abyei Today, it is very entertaining and useful. I’m so glad they play the program longer now. I’d like to hear it more everyday actually.”
Going live marks a significant milestone for Abyei Today as they continue to improve the depth and breadth of their program. The team’s optimism and energy to respond to community needs serves as a strong driving force behind this improvement and bodes well for giving a voice to Abyei’s voiceless, a necessary element in the search for peace in this troubled region.
Gian Libot is the Humanitarian Liaison Officer for the Information Access in Abyei Administrative Area project, which is funded by the Office of the United States Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan and is implemented by Internews.