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Rural Radio: Role and Use over the Past Three Decades

by Jean-Pierre Ilboudo, Extension, Education and Communication Service, FAO, Rome


Doctor in Information and Communication Sciences, Jean-Pierre Ilboudo is a radio journalist by training. He has taught radio techniques in Germany and Burkina Faso, as well as Communication Sciences. He also served as Head of the Study Service at the Inter-African Centre for Rural Radio Studies of Ouagadougou (CIERRO).

In his present position, Jean-Pierre Ilboudo is a Communication for Development Officer, at the Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE), FAO, Rome, Italy. For the French-speaking as well as the Portuguese-speaking countries of Africa, his present responsibilities include the :

Jean-Pierre Ilboudo has written and published numerous articles, studies, manuals and other works in the field of communication for development, and rural radio, in particular: "Participatory and Interactive Methodology for Rural Radio" (Rome, 2000); "Strategies to Relate Audience Research to the Participatory Production of Radio Programmes" (London, 1999); "Communication Policies and Strategies for Development (Established Methodologies and Teachings): Seven Years of FAO Experience in French-and Portuguese-Speaking Africa" (Rome, 2000); "How to Create and Produce Educational Communication Tools" (in collaboration with J-Y Clavreul, Rome 1998); "Contribution on Rural Radio" (Rome, 1998); "Communication and Development" (Cologne, 1995), on "Community-Type Local Radio, the Case of the Mali-South Area" ( A new publication, presently being prepared).


To deal today with the role and use of rural radio requires raising the question of the place of rural radio in a new African media scene, particularly the radio scene, with broadcasting deregulated and demonopolized.

Faced with a great number of radios, what can be the role of rural radio for a civil society? What can be the future of African rural radios and even public radios taking into account the ever increasing number of local stations, be they commercial, community or associative?

Before we reflect together about this new problem facing us on the eve of the 21st century, I would elude the task you entrusted me by making a diachrony on 30 years of the role and use of rural radio i.e. from 1965 to 1995, if I did not recount the history of this evolution. Indeed rural radio has experienced different forms and different objectives; the rapidity with which its role and use evolve is explained by the fact that rural radio cannot be considered as an independent educative technology dissociated from the social system or from integration policies enabling the current leading coalitions to stay in power.

More or less rapidly, the African States governments who decide any major change regarding radio, became aware that most programmes were suited to the taste and need of city dwellers1. It was then necessary to review the programmes for rural people: thus, the concept of rural radio emerged. How did this evolution operate? At different rhythms according to countries. Let us review together what is considered the basic steps for this consecutive or simultaneous development.




Before independence there were radio programmes aimed at giving the populations advice on hygiene and health or practical economy, especially farmers; thus, radio in Black Africa was used rapidly by the new States (as from 1956 in Cameroon, 1957 in Mali or in anglophone Africa, namely in Nigeria as from 1954, and in Ghana) in support of the economic development policy. From the eve of independence in 1956, Radio-Accra began using Ghanaian languages and organized programmes for rural people. For two years, a weekly programme was broadcast, called "The cocoa family" devoted to life in cocoa plantations. In 1957, discussions on agriculture were broadcast on Radio Ghana in English.

In Benin, even if in 1960-61, Radio Dahomey was broadcasting a special programme in Fon language against felling palm trees, it was during that year that the Dahomey Government called FAO to conceive an agricultural radio service. This radio service worked in collaboration with the agriculture directorate based in Porto-Novo; the pilot project started in 1967 and used six languages for its programmes dealing with planting palm trees, development of maize fields and the introduction of rice and cotton.

In Niger, the creation of the Radio Club Association in 1962 and the launching of its first programmes in 1965 were not far from the agricultural radio policy. Subjects related to selecting seeds, preparing soil, fertilizers, bovine bits were predominant among themes which also dealt with other subjects such as commercialization of food products, irrigated agriculture, water hygiene, women at home, the National Assembly, animal traction agriculture, etc.

In Nigeria, Radio Kaduna, a programme for farmers, broadcasts programmes encouraging agricultural mechanization and the use of new types of seed.

In Kenya, as soon as 1962, the programme "education through radio" broadcasts advice on agriculture.

Radio was widely broadcast in what is known as anglophone Africa. These programmes were produced by Ministries of Agriculture which often had their own radio production unit.

As soon as 1966 in Cameroon, advises on agriculture are broadcast in Fulani and Haoussa by regional stations.

In Ivory Coast, the programme called "The national cup for progress" created in 1966 mixes dissemination of information on agriculture, traditional music and competition between sub-districts in an effort to improve agricultural production and social conditions.

These are many examples showing this initial orientation towards use of radio for development; this was the case of Radio Progress in Benin in 1968-69 and for the radio competition programme of the Voltaic rural radio in 1975. It is important to stress that this radio club system was adopted by other countries, Ghana (1956), Niger (1962), Benin (1967-68), Burkina Faso (1969), Togo (1970) but from then on, this was a second phase; the point is not in promoting radio but in using radio to support agricultural policy in general and rural policy in particular.

Agricultural radio with or without support from collective listening clubs (radio clubs) has been considered as a complement to agricultural vulgarizing and to some extent a gap filling measure underlining the lack of support service; the question was to give the peasants brief and rapid information (micro-programmes) towards improving agricultural production.

Agricultural radio will often be considered as a school, since it is used to start structuring pre-cooperative groupings. Agricultural radios were rapidly transformed by setting up collective listening clubs as we said earlier; this second phase which we refer to as "the radio forum strategy" or "radio platform" is a strategy which associates listening, discussion and decision making according to the philosophy of the association of radio clubs in Niger which were as follows:

What lessons can be learnt from these two models which evolve almost within each other?

Even if the impact of agricultural radio programmes, echoing extension services and programmes enabled a net increase of cash crops in the 1 970s, in most African countries it can be stated that agricultural radio made a mistake through a reductionist approach of development which was deemed a simple increase of the agricultural yield (messages were centered on rural problems rather than concepts of underdevelopment). It may be added that the socio-economic changes were not globally understood. There is a refusal of political action in favor of rural mobilization. The educational work is accomplished in isolation i.e. without collaboration with other sources dealing with promoting of the rural world.

Concerning radio clubs, it has been difficult to show on a long-term basis that such or such change is due to forums or other active influences within the community. It was also found difficult to assess the cost of the radio forums: staff (radio clubs animators), material (distribution of radio sets: 714 radio sets were distributed in Benin in 1973 and 580 in Burkina Faso in 1980), printing of the listening reports, their forwarding etc.

Nevertheless the major constraints of the radio-clubs have been of four types:


Action and propaganda campaigns carried out on radios from the States capital cities' directorates and directives seldom achieved the expected results; but can a change of conception be seen, a third phase inspired by radio clubs experience?

Giseyni (Rwanda) and Moshi (Tanzania) 1966

Radio for rural people is no more considered as a programming sector (with agricultural information programmes as there are programmes for young people or technical information programmes) but as an autonomous organization within radio administration.

In Senegal, educative rural radio was created in 1968 (even though the idea dates back to 1965), seeking to reach beyond preceding experiences and conceiving it as an array of integrated rural development programmes. In Burkina Faso, a similar rural radio was born in 1969, much inspired by Radio Mali's rural animation section. These rural radios or educative rural radios of the 1970s were striking owing to their freedom of expression (for example "Disoo" in Senegal) and especially by a greater quantity of programmes concerning agriculture, livestock, health, information, culture (music, tales), etc.

These radios did not only aim at modifying agricultural methods but they also aimed at changing the state of mind through profound behavior modifications. In fact the different phases and methods, the different objectives and the multiplicity of their combinations seem to describe rural radios as plural. The major problem of these rural radios lies in the choice of a broadcasting strategy. In spite of regular programme hours, the broadcaster has no means to verify the effect of his message on an unprepared audience. Listeners' letters don't prove that the message has been integrated or followed by any form of action. On the other hand, a radio message demands repetition because of its transient character, and we come up against time restrictions. Finally not all the heads and directors of programmes accept to devote a lot of time and the best listening periods to educative programmes. The restriction which seriously influenced operating rural radios has been a lack of financial means which appeared at the end of the projects backing these rural radios.

Indeed the economic crisis beleaguering the continent for the past two decades with its devastating effects on the African States economy certainly did not spare the world of communications. The depletion of the funding internal and external was generally expressed through a crisis of radio production in the African stations, particularly in the area of rural radio. Rural radios which started blooming in the 1970s ended up gradually being con fined to a type of bureaucratic production due to lack of necessary means to go where the peasants live i.e. in rural areas; to avoid total asphyxiation a second breath must be found.

In general, just after the crisis it was observed that rural radio has played a partisan role by serving more the intervention companies and development projects able to meet the fees for field trips, than serving villages expecting visits from the radio in its role of a general public service.

In order to do more with less, rural communicators have to be extremely imaginative by using other nations experience and by taking into account new possibilities offered by technological progress.

African rural radios were very soon faced by a lack of competent staff trained to the job, difficulties related to placing the finished product because of coexistence constraints with foreign languages programmes on the same radios, languages problems in order to reach the target listeners, class censorship which tends to accept only what does not question the social, political, cultural and economic order. A lack of credibility resulted, paving the way to a communication failure.

A new order was vigorously demanded for information and culture but at the same time almost nothing was done to change on an internal level, where order was established by a small number of technical agents so called "facilitators for development" who were sitting firmly on strong convictions and propagating the good news from the CIERRO /ACCT seminar of perfecting of the programme planners of rural radio held in Ouagadougou in 1981, and I quote:

"The studio becomes a church where only full size organs can play, where no outside sound is perceptible, where the only words which are amplified are those which come from the channel of truth. The believer who receives these words and who knows the meaning of what is sacred promises internally to obey to the principle of the sermon, but as soon as he leaves the cathedral he takes another path and this surprises the gentle preacher who sincerely believed that he was able to convince the faithful of the relevance of his arguments".

Even though such a judgment can be a bit excessive it is easy to notice the perverse character of the circulation of information as it is organized by some rural radios services or organizations; univocal circulation results in "non communication". Among alternatives the promotion of rural radios in Africa is placed at the centre of debates carried out by rural communication professionals from the beginning of the 1980s at the occasion of different meetings convened by organizations such as the Agency for Cultural and Technical Cooperation (ACCT) the United Nations Organization for Education Science and Culture (UNESCO) and the Union of African National Radios and Televisions (URTNA) through its Inter African Centre for Studies in Rural Radio in Ouagadougou (CIERRO).

At the beginning of the 1980s the reflection around the action of rural radio concluded with the necessity of questioning approach methods to the rural world as they had so far been experimented and to look for new ways of establishing better communication.

From October 4-28th 1981, a seminar for the improvement of programme planners in rural radio was held in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso), jointly organized by ACCT and CIERRO. The seminar regrouped 15 participants from Togo, Mauritania, Tunisia, Niger and Burkina Faso. At the end of the workshop, the seminar report stated that "if they have passed on the necessary knowledge to the peasants, rural radios have forgotten that learning means expressing oneself, educating oneself, especially if the objective is to bring the populations to assume responsibility".

The seminar participants agreed that local rural radio could constitute an innovation capable of laying the foundations for a possible renewal of communication in Africa oriented towards a participatory teaching method related to development problems.

Early in May 1982 the community radio station of HomaBay in the province of Nianza in Kenya started broadcasting regularly in the local language Luo. Animated by a producer of the national radio network the Voice of Kenya (VOK) and three assistants, the station was broadcasting local news programmes every day for an hour. Health problems and family planning were alternating with information bulletins on VOK in Kiswhahili. Most programmes were made from interviews in the market places, farms, schools and organized groups such as the Local Feminine Organization.

Setting up this community radio was part of a UNESCO project aiming at setting up cheaply a rural area radio station whose equipment would be conceived and built in close collaboration with local labor.

This station was using a low power VHF/FM transmitter (10 watts) involving weak energy consumption which made possible use of solar energy. The cost of the imported material was 903.62 US dollars. It should be mentioned that the station is now closed because of difficulties between the population and the authorities.

From March 21st to April 8th 1983, the second CIERRO t ACCT seminar on local rural radio devoted to the deepening of what was done in October 1981 was held in Ouagadougou. On this occasion debates took place about the report "for a local rural radio" emanating from the first seminar.

From September 22nd to October 10th 1986, a workshop on endogenous production of messages for the use of community media apprehended the concept of polynomial meaning of local radio, community radio, free radio, and participatory radio. This workshop also determined the characteristics of the content and the orientation required for messages broadcast by a rural radio. The workshop was organized under the aegis of UNESCO and URTNA. In September 1990 a workshop on the articulation between national radio, regional radio and local radio was held in CIERRO with the assistance of Swiss Roman radio/TV.

What can we say about this evolution and the efforts to better focalize the roles and functions of rural radio? The general observation of all these reflections is that African rural radios were mainly created in the 1969s after different preparatory meetings initiated by UNESCO and FAO, especially after creating the Giseyni rural radio in Rwanda which requested the generalization of the extension of existing radio forums in Ghana (1956) and in Niger (1962) with the Association of radio clubs in Niger (ARCN).

After a decade of existence, the limits of collective listening structures as the basis of rural radios in Black Africa were quickly evident. The failures of ARCN, of radio clubs in Benin and Burkina Faso clearly show the lack of interest of the peasants vis-a-vis these types of strategies for the use of radio for development. These limits are mainly found in the fact (and we repeat) that rural radios if they have transmitted the necessary knowledge to peasants have often forgotten that learning is first expressing oneself, educating oneself, especially if the objective is to bring the population to assume responsibilities.

So the question is not modifying the educational objectives of rural radio but giving them their full meaning by completely reversing habitual strategies. This is what rural radio services try to apply since the 1980s by adopting a strategy and methodology for an interactive radio use. Public programmes, debates in villages take part in this strategy and tend to make rural radio play a role of dialogue between villages. International organizations such as FAO, CIRTEF, CTA etc. should support these efforts for a better democratization of the role and use of the public rural radio.

Vertical operating, now an obstacle

The question is still and always to invent, to reinvent the participation of peasants to the programmes, to free the voice of the peasants, to set up a self educative radio school where everyone recognizes his language and can identify himself. Such a radio will get closer to the area it is dealing with. The future of rural radio lies in local rural radio, in decentralized radio in fact. It becomes what the population wants it to tee.

One basic characteristic of this type of radio is that it is for the community and aims at meeting community needs. Its privileged method is democratization of communication through enabling a larger participation of community men and women to various radio usage. This participation takes different forms according to social contexts.

This type of radio is meant for an alternative use of the concerned medium by adapting it to its socio-cultural environment. This adaptation is motivated by a concern to be close to local specificities, to offer a real participation in programming, in determining broadcast content and radio administration. By putting at the disposal of a social group a mass broadcast media such as radio, these new implantations bring a certain democratization thanks to the participation they provoke. This democratization is not limited to participation of the populations to the medium but also to the contents that will shape their radio. Educative rural radio for example includes literacy programmes and provides advice concerning health, agriculture and livestock breeding; but it should be innovative by creating attractive radio forms and models which integrate values and know-how.

In conclusion, to the four aspects of radio correspond four methods. The first insists on sensitizing rural people to radio even if equipment (radio sets) is far from being generalized. This step is largely taken in most countries. The second which supports agricultural action by informing and initiating to new techniques, depends more on agriculture policy than on information policy. The third aspect which gives the floor to the peasants, supports agricultural policy through a new conception of radio. The fourth model takes up the democratic challenge because radio communication can lead to an exacting democracy. When it is understood and used correctly, democracy can confer to local radio not tranquilizing functions but an instrument of expression and popular education. This situation will open excellent prospects for peasant self-promotion.

The debate around the legitimate question of the fact that local communities would not be ready to take up and manage democratic structures in Africa make some specialists in communication reluctant if not negative on the subject of community type local radio.

We think radio is a political tool for those in power and accepting to decentralize, to make it regional under the form of local community radio would mean to give away part of the power to some communities who have long been excluded from the public administrative scene but who had for milleniums and who still have structures with democratic legal and organizational forms. These forms have long been confiscated for hidden political reasons. These forms should be progressively given back to the communities who can integrate them through different social, political and economic organizations broadcasting on the continent and why not, using local rural radios?

The experiences in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Guinea, Congo and Ivory Coast under the aegis of ACCT deserve questioning the appropriation mechanisms of the stations by the communities (general public), on the programme contents and their mode of production, on languages used and roles assigned to radio programmes.

The blossoming period of private, commercial, associative or community radios corresponded to the rise of political claims in Africa. Radios related to associations or political parties claimed space of freedom and democracy. Thus, from 1989-1990 some States inscribed in their constitution codes of information which authorized creating private radios of any type.

That is how the first commercial-type private radio called FM Horizon was established in Burkina Faso, in early 1991. Other religious radios (three in all in Burkina Faso) came to being between 1992 and 1995. In Mali it was only in the advent of the State of Law in 1992 that several radios were established in urban and rural areas. This tendency will certainly accelerate in Niger, Senegal, and Cameroon where communication professional, associations and rural communities claim more space for freedom of speech.

In this way, depending on their origin these radios will play political, cultural, spiritual roles and functions. Some of them are used to linking villages to the community of their immigrant children (Radio Kayes). Many of them are commercial radios broadcasting music and advertisement.

But all of them broadcast programmes related to information, health questions, environment, while cleverly using national languages and local music. In fact many of them take up the roles and initial purpose of rural radios with a particular attention to target groups (young people, women, farmers, fishermen) or entire communities.

This is why one can wonder today what the future of rural radios in five years time will tee. Civil society is getting organized to wield communication tools because it needs to communicate. Among these tools radios are included because they are the least expensive tool which people can easily obtain. Radios dispose of instrumental flexibility which enables them to fulfill the following roles and functions:

This is why it is difficult to conceive division between "clients" as some people pretend they can do, into two opposite groups, urban listeners and rural ones. Reality contains more nuance and we feel that differences and living habits related to the membership of an ethnic group, to language, sex group, or age group play a more and more important role.

The role and use of rural radios on the eve of the 21st century will be determined by that which separates and bring together community, public, private and religious broadcasting, and existing rural radios. The end of monopoly will come sharing of roles. These will be determined by liberties, the game rules, measures of cohesion which will be required for media pluralism which Africa is experiencing.

Will there be alliances between radios? What general set of structures, regulations, etc. will be necessary to enable coexistence between commercial and public stations? What can public radio learn from its commercial rivals and vice versa? How is it possible to supply more economically profitable services?

These are, ladies and gentlemen, the few questions I have in mind concerning the subject of roles and uses of rural radio over the past thirty years and particularly the past five years.

Thank you.


Tudesq, André Jean, La radio en Afrique noire, Paris : Pedone, 1983.

ACCT, Pour une radio locale en Afrique, Ouagadougou, 1980.

Bliß Rudiger, Landfunk - ein Entwicklungsmedium fur die Dritte Welt, in Entwicklung und landliches raum, 1987.

Ilboudo, Jean-Pierre, L'expérience burkinabé dans le domaine de la radio rurale, in Carrefour africain n0 1102, 1989.

Tudesq, André Jean, Albert, Pierre, Histoire de la radio-télévision, Paris, 1981, Presses Universitaires de France, Que sais-je.

Ilboudo, Jean-Pierre, Etude des conditions de production, du contenu du discours radiophonique et de l'auditoire de la radio rurale au Burkina dans les années 1980. Thèse pour le Doctorat en Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication, Université de Bordeaux III, 1992.

In his work on rural radio in Black Africa, Pr André Jean Tudesq from Bordeaux III University made the following relevant remark: "Rural radio in Black Africa has first been a urban fact for a long time before becoming a rural one".

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