Local Radio Starts with Local Design

It’s a complex challenge: how to design radio stations that work reliably in hot, dusty, remote environments where electricity is unreliable at best. Further, how to sustain the stations in places where, if things break down, skilled technicians are days or weeks away.

Steven Lemmy was up to the challenge. After years of working as a radio engineer with Internews in South Sudan, and after a detailed plan of study that included observation at radio studios in the UK and mentoring by leading radio engineers, his own vision for local stations – one informed by the local needs of South Sudanese in remote areas – was realized.

Designing for Community

For many of South Sudan’s 12 million people, radio is the only source of news and information. In the remote areas where the four radio stations under Lemmy’s charge operate, known as The Radio Community (TRC), radio is a critical lifeline. Too critical, Lemmy knew, to accept that broken equipment or poor design would regularly knock the stations off the air.

3 men and 2 women sit at a table in the Aweil radio studio.
Staff of TRC station Akol Yam FM pose for a photo after a training about their new studio equipment from Lemmy. Credit:Internews

“We wanted a solution to using technical equipment in conditions particular to South Sudan,” said Lemmy. “The design came from us. With dust and heat we need something enclosed but high off the ground.”

“Most of the equipment systems we chose are analog and easy to use. We avoided software-based equipment and opted for more robust mechanical equipment, so we do not need a software expert.”

Beyond the numerous technical challenges, Lemmy was conscious of how design could influence how connected the community felt to the radio station.

On a study tour in London, Lemmy was impressed with the studio layout of a station he visited, with windows to the outside that encouraged engagement with the public. “We can design our studios like [this], so the community can see what goes on and not be intimidated by being on the radio,” he thought.

Lemmy is particularly proud of making call-in easy through the station’s technical design, an aspect of community radio he’s always put at the center. “When I used to go to the stations I see how they struggle to pick listeners calls. Not enough lines, network is terrible.”

Designing a call-system that works in a country where no landlines exist, and where network connectivity is a constant challenge, was indeed quite a challenge. Lemmy beams with pride when he describes their system, the only of its kind in South Sudan.

“Using this system it becomes easy, just a matter of pressing a button, they can conference on call with each other and much more.”

Investing in Individuals to Support Locally-Led Development

To design technical solutions for the radio stations, Internews could have relied solely on outside experts. But a fly-in, fly-out approach isn’t sustainable, and doesn’t build on the local knowledge captured by individuals like Lemmy.

“Lemmy’s accomplishments are illustrative of the success Internews is seeing with the Local Partner Development model – a model that works with, supports and builds local expertise to strengthen the capacity of South Sudan’s most promising organizations,” says Nigel Ballard, Internews Project Director for Community Radio in South Sudan.

The model calls for a mix of practical, experiential learning and formal training. An Internews advisor supports the staff member, and the partner organization as a whole, toward their vision of independent success.

Two men talk to each other.
Lemmy and a fellow engineer in the UK at TechCon discuss virtual studios and how they can support troubleshooting and problem-solving at radio stations. Photo:Internews

To undertake the challenge of upgrading the four existing radio stations, Lemmy traveled to see how radio stations operate in other contexts, from Kenya to the UK. He was also able to attend radio engineering conferences, including presenting his work at London’s TechCon.

Through networking sessions with engineers in his field, Lemmy met Rupert Brun – a senior engineer with 30+ years of engineering leadership at the BBC, now an independent consultant. Brun worked as an advisor and mentor, listening to Lemmy’s vision for TRC.

Brun and Lemmy stand next to each other
Rupert Brun and Steven Lemmy 

Together, the two worked through each specific item – from headphones to carpet – involved in the studio design. Using the Internews Partner Development model, Lemmy was able to lead the process with the expert support and guidance from Brun.

After designing the system, Lemmy travelled to the UK to visit the chosen supplier and conduct a factory acceptance test. So far, Lemmy has successfully upgraded three out of the four stations – Akol Yam FM, Mingkaman FM and Singaita FM.

A man demonstrates equipment to 3 journalists
Lemmy takes journalists at Akol Yam FM in Aweil, through the new studio components after its upgrade. Credit: Internews

He developed thorough maintenance procedures, creating manuals and user guides for station staff to operate and manage the studios on their own. A management and support network that Lemmy designed ensures equipment is maintained, spare parts are kept in stock and stations get back on air as quickly as possible. Through all of Lemmy’s planning, TRC has a technical strategy for the next five years.

For Lemmy, the ability to explore, bring things to the table, and have his experience and expertise valued has allowed him to advance considerably in his career.

“Where I am not being told what to do, but guided through motivation, the atmosphere of creativity was given to me and I was able to grow.”

Lemmy hopes to one day cultivate a broadcast engineering community in South Sudan and mentor aspiring engineers – to provide them with the same opportunity he was afforded.

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With a commitment to community-based public service broadcasting, The Radio Community (TRC) receives core funding and technical support through the USAID Strengthening Free and Independent Media in South Sudan (i-STREAM) project, implemented by Internews. TRC was established as an independent NGO in 2016.

(Banner photo: An example of a TRC station – Singaita FM in a remote location in Kapoeta, South Sudan. Credit: Internews)