Calling All Listeners

A few years ago in the sleepy town of Chipata in Eastern Zambia, an elder named Dackson Nywingwe arrived on foot at the local radio station, BreezeFM. He had come from his village, one hour away. Born in 1915, Dackson had a lifetime of stories he wanted to share on the station. Dackson had a great love for BreezeFM, especially the interactive shows with a host called Gogo (grandfather) Breeze. Listeners called, texted, and wrote letters to share concerns and debate the burning issues of the day. “Before these radio programmes, during the one party state,” Dackson said, “people were in the dark.”

Radioactive! The Story of Interactive Radio in Africa
An illustrated guide to Cambridge’s research on interactive radio is available at Africa’s Voices Foundation, a non-profit start-up launched by research at the University of Cambridge.

At the end of the interview, full of colourful reflections and memories, Gogo Breeze asked Dackson if he had any final words. He proclaimed that at age 98, with 16 kids, he was still going strong. In fact, he was looking for a new wife!

Dackson made a terrific contribution to BreezeFM. But he didn’t need to travel so far to have his voice heard. In places like Kenya and Zambia where radio is incredibly popular, the most well-liked shows tend to be live call-in shows. Interactive radio — the type of radio that invites participation, such as via phone calls and texts — offers an opportunity to broadcast voices and ideas from people in all walks of life.

But research shows that listeners perceive a “certain type” of person calls in most often — and they are right.

The most active participants tend to be male, more educated, wealthier, and younger than the general population. This can lead to under-representation, in the very media format that should be most the most democratically open and inclusive, inviting everyone to participate.

Skillful hosts and producers can increase inclusion of diverse groups. A new toolkit, designed by the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning, in partnership with Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, and based on their research on Politics and Interactive Media in Africa (PiMA), is meant to help radio hosts learn how to be a conduit for community voices, and boost their own ratings and success as a result.

Why does representation matter?

In Kenya’s Rift Valley, Radio Citizen produced had a show focusing on deteriorating security. A listener called in with an alert: thugs were raiding a home. Within ten minutes, police were at the scene. The talk show host believes that the radio conversation pushed the police to act.

After young girls drowned in a part of Zambia long prone to flooding, community members voiced their grief — and anger — on the local radio station. Not long afterward, a bridge in the affected area was built. Community members believe that the radio conversations drew attention to the issue and pushed local authorities to build the bridge.

In both examples, it may be the case that the police and leaders were already aware of the issues, and even planning to act. But the community felt that without the radio bringing attention to these issues, their concerns weren’t being sufficiently heard. With the ability to join together and call for change, and have those calls amplified by media and witnessed by other listeners, they actively participated in making improvements to their community.

“People have issues, but they don’t know where to take their issues
— because they don’t have that platform to speak. [Interactive radio]
is giving them a chance, a podium.” — Joseph Mazizi, Manager and presenter at Mudziwathu Community Radio, Malawi.

What People Use: Radio - 88%, Mobile - 83%, TV - 60%, Newspaper - 41% and Internet - 20%

Radio: The most effective low-tech solution for communication

Radio is so commonplace, so low-tech, that it is easily taken for granted. But radio is truly unique in its ability to connect two-way, one-to-many, and many-to-many conversations.

Radio removes the barrier of literacy that bars entry to print news and online forums. Radio’s cost is minimal compared to television, and even to mobiles and SMS. And radio speaks the vernacular of its listeners.

Cambridge’s research shows that in Kenya and Zambia, almost everyone listens to radio. And of those who listen, most listen to interactive shows. The Internews toolkit provides tips and exercise to help hosts make the most of these shows, gain listeners, and provide a truly open dialogue that supports all voices in the community.

Importantly, the skills of the radio host can make a difference.

Cambridge’s research showed that while listening is influenced largely by interest in the issues discussed, participation is also influenced by the quality of the show and the atmosphere for callers. So even though the default callers to a show skew male, wealthy, and young, a skilled host can curate a show that makes more marginalized groups more likely to participate.

Cover of Interactive Radio Toolkit
Download, use and share the Interactive Radio Toolkit.

For example, the most exciting thing about live radio is just that — it’s live! Anything can happen. But the excitement of live radio is also a landmine. What if a caller is off topic, boring, or unclear? Or worse — what if they spew hate speech? Setting ground rules with the audience on abusive language, knowing the keys to coded language, and having prepared ways to talk out of tricky situations are all skills that hosts can practice and refine, via the toolkit.

With the right presentation, interactive radio is like a public meeting where the community can come together to think through an issue. The Interactive Radio Toolkit can improve radio, anywhere in the world.

This story originally ran in Medium