On the Air, from Mobile to Radio

September 6, 2011
Pilot project lets listeners record and pay for on-air radio messages via mobile phone, creating a new revenue source for community radio in Kenya

Recently dubbed by TIME Magazine as the “Silicon Savanna,” Kenya is home to innovative mobile phone technologies that have transformed the lives of millions of people. Ahead of much of the rest of the world, Kenyans have adopted mobile money as an everyday way to handle financial transactions. More than half the population use mobile phones for everything from transferring money to family members to paying bills – even cab fare.

Now, community radio stations are integrating mobile money into their business models. Through a four-month pilot launched in August  by Internews, in partnership with the mobile banking system MobiKash and a network of community radio stations, the stations will earn revenue while putting community voices on the air, through an innovative “M-Dedications” system.

Watch a video about the pilot program:

The tradition of sending out greetings, messages, or dedications over the air to family members, friends, partners and colleagues is tremendously popular in Kenya, says Dennis Kamau, a presenter at Koch FM, one of 5 stations participating in the pilot. "Sometimes we are forced to switch off the phones during shows because the calls are too many and they are distracting to the presenter,” he said. “We have to juggle between receiving calls, reading SMS and carry out the show. Too much multi-tasking!"

Stations have struggled in the past with various systems for paid dedications. Nearly all of the participating community radio stations have sold cards on which listeners wrote their dedication, to be read on the air. But the cards require listeners to travel to the station, and the system creates bottlenecks.

According to Eli Rop, Founder and Managing Director of Sayare FM,  “Up to 3,000 cards are sold a month while only 30 can be read in an hour. Some listeners are forced to wait for up to two weeks before the card is read.”

Now, instead of phoning, walking or texting in a dedication, audience members will be able to use Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and mobile banking to call and record a message to their local radio station, paying a nominal fee for the broadcast– all with one phone call. 

MobiKash, a new mWallet service, can be linked to any bank account or mobile provider that participates in mobile banking. The company, which also launched in August in Kenya, is working in tandem with Internews to build the innovative software and customize it for community stations. "We want to empower the small radio stations to use technology as a means to build their content and to increase their financial stability and sustainability," explained Duncan Oduor Otieno, Chief Executive Director at MobiKash.

Removing the filter between the dedicator and the broadcaster provides another avenue of democratizing the airwaves, by airing a multitude of voices with personalized messages. Stations are also excited about the opportunity to reward regular listeners in the future through a bonus system, where individuals who record messages regularly could get discounts or a certain number of free messages.

Currently, partners are engaged in baseline assessments and surveys of each radio station while MobiKash designs, builds and tests the system. The pilot will launch next month.

Through a partnership with the Nairobi-based innovation center, iHub, researchers will investigate the success of the project in the three test regions — Nairobi, Lodwar, and Kisii — in increasing revenue and audience engagement.

The pilot is supported by the Internews Center for Innovation and Learning, launched in 2011 to harness the potential of digital technologies and innovative approaches to better meet the information needs of communities around the world. The Center serves as a hub to inform and engage others in the fields of media, information technology and development.