Mapping the Expanding Radio Landscape in Liberia

“When Internews contracted me to do an assessment of Liberian community radio stations with the aim of creating a community radio map for Liberia, I knew it was going to be both exciting and challenging,” said Benjamin Kiplagat Sharp, a Kenyan radio engineer speaking at the end of an exhaustive exercise that took him across the 15 counties of Liberia.

Benjamin’s excitement about the project was the opportunity to see the topography of the tiny West African State, whose recent history is marred by violence and the Ebola virus disease. He was also eager to experience a country trying to rebuild its infrastructures and institutions after 14 years of brutal civil wars, under the watchful eyes of the continent’s first elected woman president.

“There are presently close to 80 radio stations in Liberia serving the country’s population of 5 million, while Kenya, which has a population of almost 45 million, relies on only 30 community radios,” Benjamin discovered in his research.

Benjamin was right about the prospect of the huge challenge he would face on this assignment – exploring the highways and the city streets of the country for 55 days, searching for radio signals and talking to key people in this somewhat flourishing media industry – flourishing because there are stations everywhere.

The task couldn’t be more challenging. After painstakingly reaching the broadcast sites in villages and small, dusty cities, Benjamin sometimes had to wait hours for the manager to show up; in some cases spending nights in uncomfortable conditions, just for the opportunity to talk to relevant authorities and tour the broadcast facilities, including the transmitters.  

“Yes, it is exciting how [community] radio is spread across the country as there appears to be an uncontrolled growth of the sector, notwithstanding the cost to maintain the facilities,” Benjamin says.
However the challenges are great, ranging from inadequate national policy regulation to insufficient technical capacity, to staff training and retention, revenue sources, electricity [power] supply, internet and phone connectivity, and transmitter strength. An unending list of problems.

“Sourcing electricity remains the biggest challenge in almost all the radio stations, save for the ones hosted by companies like Firestone, or learning institutions,” he said.

The lack of affordable and reliable electricity is a killer of big businesses in the country, let alone smaller ones like community media. As a result of this problem, media businesses have to depend on private generators as the main source of electricity and community radio stations have to survive at the mercy of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) companies, for constant power supply.  

“It’s a common thing in Liberia to see a radio station built next to a GSM station, in order to be close to the power supply, and to take advantage of the communication tower for their antenna,” Benjamin added.

But that comes at a price and with serious risks. Community stations are compelled to shut down their air conditioning and reduce the strength of their transmitter when mobile phone companies decide to reduce their power, often without informing them – a situation which leads to constant equipment breakdowns.

According to Benjamin, most of the community radios are also operating without a production studio and acoustics systems, which affects the sound quality of their broadcast programs.

“As I went from station to station, I would come across a station with a 2000 watt transmitter while another would only be equipped with a 200 watt transmitter,” he observed. “This variation is too wide, especially if the two stations are supposed to operate as community radio stations. The 2000 watt transmitter is capable of propagating a signal strong enough to cover most of the country, while the 200 watt would barely cover a county.”

Benjamin’s research found there are presently close to 80 radio stations in Liberia serving the country’s population of 5 million, while Kenya, which has a population of almost 45 million, relies on only 30 community radios.

This is indicative of the lack of a national policy framework for the establishment and operation of, in particular, community radio stations. Addressing the policy challenge is a function of the media law reform project of the USAID-funded Liberia Media Development (LMD) program, which is being implemented by Internews and for which this mapping was undertaken.

This article was written by Peter Quaqua, former Chairperson of the Press Union of Liberia and present Head of the West Africa’s Journalists Association (WAJA). He was recruited by Internews as the media Law Reform Specialist. Data for the article was provided by Benjamin Kiplagat Sharp, the Kenyan Consultant.