(This editorial was originally published on journalism.co.uk)
The latest nationwide radio audience (RAJAR) figures out today, show 48.9 million people over the age of 15 listened to the radio every week in the fourth quarter of 2017, equating to a 90 per cent reach. This is up by approximately 178,000 people compared with the same quarter the previous year. With last month’s Edelman Trust Barometer showing trust in traditional media is at its highest level since 2012, radio is perhaps a more powerful and vital medium than it has ever been before.
It’s certainly fair to say that the way we’re listening to radio is changing. Far fewer of us are tuning into the radio every evening at six o’clock to listen to the news as we might have done 20 years ago, for example. But thanks to the rise of DAB radio, online streaming, smartphone apps and the like, we’re even more able to tune into quality radio programming on demand.
With the UN’s World Radio Day approaching on 13 February, it seems apt to examine how this changing and thriving medium still benefits communities across the globe. For more vulnerable populations, radio remains a fundamental tool for improving social cohesion, delivering quality journalism, speaking truth to power and, at times, providing what can only be described as life-saving information.
I recently met with some senior staff members from an organisation called The Radio Community in South Sudan, a network of stations dotted through the world’s newest, yet tragically still conflict-ridden, state. My organisation, Internews, has supported this network of stations to thrive and survive this tough environment for years.
They told me recent upgrades to their phone-in systems had an enormous effect. They can now have multiple callers on air at the same time engaging in debates and conservations. Until recently, the local network and technological constraints meant so-called ‘talk shows’ consisted of one caller at a time.
The impact of this seemingly modest upgrade is that power can now be held to account by journalists far more effectively. When government ministers agree to come on air, they are immediately answerable to the questions and concerns of the population they serve.
Individual listeners and callers also become accountable to each other. For those wishing to air divisive or extreme views, they have to be able to defend their opinions to fellow callers, and all with the moderation of highly skilled on-air hosts.
Let’s take a moment here to think about the validity of radio in the context of some of the common grumbles we hear in the UK about social media, filter bubbles, echo chambers and the like in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era. It’s all too easy for somebody with something nasty, or entirely fictitious to say, to bash out a few words on a keyboard and let rip with little or no recourse. Some turgid ‘social media backlash’ may well follow, but this is little substitute for the source of it having to defend your position on live radio, in your own voice – and in real time.
Whether FM or DAB digital radio becomes technologically obsolete in due course is arguably irrelevant. What matters for democracy and social cohesion is the preservation of live debate, news and analysis. Whether this is broadcast online or via apps doesn’t particularly matter. It’s the very existence of plural, vibrant, broadly accessible and accountable conversation that will make radio, and the associated art of conversation, a powerful social force for so many decades to come.
Within communities, radio stations also serve an increasingly vital social role off-air. In many of the less affluent or unstable countries in which Internews operates, they support social cohesion as they give communities a way in which to communicate their messages, which might otherwise go unheard.
I note that Prince Harry and his fiancée Meghan Markle used one of their first official public outings to visit youth station Reprezent FM in Brixton, South London. Whilst the couple dutifully donned a pair of headphones to sample the station’s output, I might hazard a guess that their primary interest was in the lives being transformed by this radio station.
Launched around a decade ago, this volunteer-led station was created, in part, to provide an outlet to get young people off the streets. It provides media and employment training to its young volunteers, dramatically improving the future prospects for many of them.
In the last 15 years, there has been dramatic growth in the UK community radio sector with hundreds of voluntary stations popping up across the country, all providing similar opportunities for their audiences and volunteers alike.
Finally, I strongly believe radio save lives. In the wake of man-made or natural disasters, people often turn to radio first. Time and again, radio has offered the fastest and most efficient way for emergency workers to inform people where they can reach a place of safety or access life-saving aid.
Additionally, it provides for a level of accountability between humanitarians and the people they are trying to help. Don’t just take my word for it; the UN Secretary General’s report into 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in Haiti called for more such humanitarian information services in the wake of disasters. Meanwhile Britain’s aid spending watchdog, ICAI, cited investment in Radio Bakdaw after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines as one of the most cost-effective and high-impact of the whole emergency response.
So to the soothsayers, don’t write off radio just yet; the evidence points to a socially critical role for this sector for some years to come. Of course it needs to innovate and adapt to remain relevant. But it’s hard to imagine a healthy media ecosystem in any country completely devoid of this most flexible and powerful of media.