Bruce Girard has extensive experience in journalism, research and international development.
Girard has published many articles and book chapters on communication, communication policy and alternative media; edited A Passion for Radio: Radio waves and community (Black Rose Books, 1992 - also published in French and Spanish); and is co-author the forthcoming book Global Media Governance: A Beginners Guide (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). He has designed and led workshops on Internet, new media, and radio broadcasting, in more than 25 countries. Girard was organiser and co-chair of two international conferences on broadcasting and the Internet in developing countries: in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (www.comunica.org/kl/, 1999) and in Tampa, Florida (www.comunica.org/tampa/, 2000).
Over the past few years the related issues of the importance of knowledge for development and of the digital divide have achieved an important position on the international agenda. Despite the interest, the enormity of the divide between the countries and sectors that have access and those that do not makes it virtually impossible that it will be eliminated with purely technical solutions.
Given this divide, if rural Africa is to harness knowledge for development, it will have to do so with new strategies, different technologies, and by building on the strengths it already has.
Research has shown that systems for networking information and knowledge are most effective when building on existing local information systems, incorporating community intermediaries - institutions and individuals that serve as a bridge between the Internet and the community. Radio is already established as a key component of local information systems and has the characteristics that make a good intermediary - "proximity, trust and knowledge (including the ability to combine techknowledge about ICT with context knowledge) about the environment in which it is used".
Over the past five years three ways of combining radio and Internet for development and democracy have emerged.
The paper concludes with the observation that technology is neither an unavoidable barrier nor a panacea. Communication technologies and practices are changing. The rural radio/Internet combination presents an opportunity to mix the best of the two media and Next-generation Rural Radio can be a powerful tool, combining research and reflection to harness knowledge for development and democracy.
It is fitting that we are meeting here in Italy, the birthplace of Guglielmo Marconi, who one hundred years ago demonstrated the communication potential of radio technology. Until Marconi's January 1901 transmission of the news of Queen Victoria's death from the Isle of Wight to Cornwall, a distance of 300 kilometres, it was believed that radio waves could not follow the curvature of the earth and that broadcasts were therefore limited to a maximum of about 100 kilometres. Marconi's experiment not only proved this wrong, but set the stage for his first transatlantic wireless transmission, between Cornwall and Newfoundland, Canada, in December of the same year.
Marconi's 1901 broadcasts are worth noting at this meeting for two reasons.
On the one hand, the innovations that accompanied these early radio transmissions were the same ones that shortly afterwards enabled modern broadcast radio. Technology advanced at the pace we grew used to in the 20th century and only five years after Marconi's historic transatlantic broadcast, radio operators on ships in the Atlantic were surprised to hear a human voice emitting from the Marconi-built equipment that normally emitted the dots and dashes of Morse code. It was 1906 and Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, had made the first long-distance audio broadcast. Three years after that, the first regularly broadcasting station was transmitting news and recorded music programs every Wednesday night to a handful of pre-Silicon Valley residents of San José, California who had bought radio receivers before there were any stations to listen to.
But the wireless communication afforded by Marconi's experiments was more than a technological advance. It was also an important milestone for the real-time globalisation that was one of the most significant phenomena of the last century, and of the large-scale social and economic consequences that accompanied it. Marconi's transmitters may have been bulky and hugely expensive by today's standards, but their size doesn't diminish their significance as a harbinger of the information superhighway, permitting real-time global movement of information at the speed of light, at least for those who were in the centres of global economic activity. For those on the periphery, Marconi's transmission was an analogue precursor of the digital divide.
In this paper I will first discuss the nature of the digital divide and some limitations of a US-style Internet model in the context of rural Africa and then some of the characteristics that have enabled radio's success in the same context. Following that I will look at ways the Internet and rural radio are working together to form low cost networks, to improve radio programming, and to facilitate communication with emigrant communities. Finally, I will make some concluding remarks and some suggestions for the way forward.
One hundred years later, the digital divide occupies an important place on the agenda of governments, international agencies and civil society organisations throughout the world. Over the past few years there have been countless seminars, studies and statements about the digital divide, the knowledge gap, and the role of knowledge in development. Not surprisingly, the Internet has provided the most active forum for discussion of these issues. A search for the phrase digital divide in Google's search engine returns references to more than 250,000 pages.
As the debate continues, the definition of the problem has become less and less clear, while the complexity of the issues has become more apparent.
A few years ago the main thrust of the debate focused on questions of access to information technology. Cutting edge activities included privatising State telephone monopolies, establishing Internet service providers, and developing affordable technologies to extend access. This view was highlighted recently with the G8's Okinawa meeting's focus on the digital divide.
Eliminating the access divide is a task of daunting proportions.
While the numbers vary according to who is counting, the trends behind the access side of the digital divide debate are well known. According to NUA, an Irish company that has been tracking and consolidating Internet use surveys since 1995, there are 407 million people online in the world - about 6.5% of the world's population. Of these, 69% are in North America or Western Europe, home to 10% of the world's population. A handful of Asia/Pacific countries account for almost 26%. Barely 4% are in Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa, with roughly the same population as North America and Europe combined, has about 3/4 of one percent of the world's Internet users.1 Sixty-five percent of Canadian adults are online.2 In Africa, less than one percent of the population is online - more than half of them in South Africa and virtually none in rural areas.
And let us not forget that one third of the world's population has no access to electricity and three quarters has yet to make a telephone call. On the other side of the divide, by 2005 the number of US households with highspeed Internet subscriptions is predicted to reach 36 million, exceeding the number of households with dialup access for the first time.3
If the only way of harnessing knowledge for development is to address the digital divide and to provide rural Africa with whatever level of access is enjoyed in the developed world, then we should not expect to succeed in our lifetime. While technology is important, it will not be enough to focus exclusively on the quantitative development of Africa's rural communication infrastructure (more computers, more satellites, more bandwidth, more speed). If rural Africa is to harness knowledge for development, it will have to do so with new strategies and different technologies, and by building on strengths it already has.
Even if we were able to address the digital divide in terms of infrastructure roll-out, providing rural Africa with access to the Internet, this would not solve the problem. The information and communication possibilities offered by the Internet represent a necessary but not sufficient contribution to the problem of harnessing knowledge for rural development.
As the debate is better understood, it is becoming clear that the essence of what is required is not technology, but relevant and meaningful content, digital or not. Escaping from poverty requires knowledge, and knowledge is transported in content. It is also becoming clear that the distribution systems for that content are most effective when building on the local information systems currently in use. This allows for what Richard Heeks refers to as community intermediaries, institutions and individuals that use the Internet and serve as a bridge between it and the community members. Characteristics that make good community intermediaries include "proximity, trust and knowledge (including the ability to combine `techknowledge' about ICT with `context knowledge' about the environment in which it is used)".4
Thus, while the Internet is one way knowledge can be accessed, it is not the only way. Nor is it necessarily the best way. It is here that radio has shown strength in the past and, with the right strategies and policies, may play an essential role for the future.
More than ninety years after the world's first station was founded, radio is still the most pervasive, accessible, affordable, and flexible mass medium available. In rural areas, it is often the only mass medium available.
Low production and distribution costs have made it possible for radio to interpret the world from local perspectives, and to respond to local needs for information. More than any other mass communication medium, radio speaks in the language and with the accent of its community. Its programming reflects local interests and it can make important contributions to both the heritage and the development of the cultures, economies and communities that surround it.
More than any other medium, radio is local. In Latin America, for example, while most radio is produced locally or nationally, only 30% of television programming comes from the region; with 62% produced in the United States.5 Quechua, a language spoken by some 10 million people in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, is all but absent from the region's television screens, but in Peru alone an estimated 180 radio stations regularly offer programmes in the language. The same is true in Africa, where local radio stations produce their own programs and speak in the languages of their communities.
Radio is also widely available. While there are only two telephone lines for every hundred people in Africa, there are twenty radio receivers per hundred - even in rural areas most people have access to a receiver. Radio stations are also common. Fifteen years ago there were only ten independent stations in all of sub-Saharan Africa; now there are thousands, many of them in rural areas. In 1985 the term rural radio usually referred to a division within the national broadcaster that produced programs in the capital and broadcast them to the countryside. Now rural radio is local radio. In addition to rural populations, women, youth, ethnic and linguistic minorities and even children have benefited from the explosion of radio and see themselves reflected in the media for the first time.
Long before the Internet inspired the convergence of media and telecommunications, rural radio was fulfilling a role as a "community telephone" with several hours a day reserved for broadcasting personal messages, birth and death announcements, invitations to parties, ordering food and supplies from the store in the next village, calling for emergency medical assistance and even for receiving personal medical advice from the local doctor.
In many rural areas radio is the only source of information about market prices for crops, and thus the only defence against speculators. It is used in agricultural extension programmes, is a vehicle for both formal and informal education, and plays an important role in the preservation of local language and culture.
While in some parts of the world we take radio for granted, seeing it as little more than an accessory for an automobile, in others it fulfils a variety of roles: it is the only mass medium that most people have access to; it is a "personal" communication medium fulfilling the function of a community telephone; and it is a school, the community's first point of contact with the global knowledge infrastructure.
The medium has demonstrated tremendous potential to promote development. Relevant, interesting and interactive radio enables neglected communities to be heard and to participate in the democratic process. And having a say in decisions that shape their lives ultimately improves their living standards.
Probably the four most important characteristics contributing to radio's success as a medium for development are its pervasiveness, its local nature, the fact that it is an oral medium, and its ability to involve communities and individuals in an interactive communication process.
The Internet is also characterised by its interactivity, and, technically, its potential in this area is far greater than radio's. It is also a store of useful knowledge and among its 300 million pages there is a substantial amount of information relevant to development issues. However, in addition to the overwhelming problem of access that we have already looked at, the Internet faces hurdles related to language7, high functional illiteracy rates, lack of an interface with indigenous information systems, and a lack of local content or relevance.
Over the past five years a number of experiments have initiated ways of blending independent local radio and the Internet. Many of these were presented and discussed at a pair of seminars, one of Asian radio broadcasters held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in September 19998, and the other of broadcasters from Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Florida, USA in September 2000.9 Similar projects have also been undertaken in Africa, North America and Europe. These experiments have taken three main forms:
1. Projects that use ICTs to support low-cost independent radio networks;
2. Projects that use radio stations as community intermediaries or gateways to the Internet;
3. Projects that use ICTs to facilitate communication between the local communities and emigrants.
The first major initiative to link independent radio stations via the Internet was the Agencia Informativa Púlsar, a Spanish-language radio news and information agency based in Ecuador that distributes its material via email and the web.10
Púlsar began in 1996, sending a daily news summary of 10-12 stories via email to forty-eight subscribers in Latin America. The main sources of information at the time were the websites of the few Latin American newspapers on the Internet and IPS's daily dispatches. The news from these sources was rewritten in radio style and from the perspective of Latin American civil society and the bulletins were emailed as a "rip and read" service. News staff at the stations was free to use the stories they wanted and to read them over the air.
Five years later, Púlsar's services are sent by email to more than 2,500 subscribers in over fifty countries and are freely available on a website that is updated several times a day. The agency has also diversified its news sources, adding, among others, a network of more than twenty correspondents and a number of independent national or thematic news services. In 1997 Púlsar began offering an additional audio service, featuring short clips in MP3 format, to those stations that had the technical capacity to receive and use them. Some news items are available in full audio and a daily audio news roundup can be downloaded from the agency's website.
A survey of community and independent radio stations conducted prior to Púlsar's launch helped to identify some of the problems that were facing them at the time and thus to determine the services to be offered. The study focused on the changing radio market, sources for international news and information programming, and opportunities offered by the Internet.
The changing radio market
The study revealed a number of tendencies that were threatening independent radio in the region:
International news sources
While local independent radio stations had a marked advantage in terms of local news and information, the survey showed that they had very few good international news sources available to them. The most common source for independent radio stations was newspapers. In the case of rural stations, this was often yesterday's newspapers from the capital. Other sources included foreign cable and satellite television stations and international short-wave stations. While very few radio stations subscribe to the services of the major international news agencies, almost all international news comes indirectly from them, since they are the primary international source for most media. The predictable result of this was that international news, including news from neighbouring Latin American countries, reflected North American and European priorities rather than Latin American ones. News about Colombia, for example, rarely dealt with the country's internal tensions or with its relations with its South American neighbours, which were important. It was more likely to be concerned with the relation between Colombia and the USA's drug problem. This situation is not unique to Latin America and I am sure many of the people at this meeting are familiar with it in their own countries.
Finally, the Internet was considered - both as a potential source of news and information and as a distribution channel.
Armed with an analysis that showed: I) a threat to independent and community radio that required them to be more competitive, II) a weakness in the news and information offerings of these stations, and III) a technology that would help overcome the weakness and thus make the stations more competitive, the following objectives were established for Púlsar's first experimental years:
After nearly five years of operation, there are far more lessons to be learned from Púlsar than time allows us to mention. However, I would like to highlight a few that I think will be useful to keep in mind during our deliberations over the next few days.
Púlsar was introduced at a time when Internet connectivity was difficult, just as it now is in the rural areas of Africa that we are considering in this meeting. There was a good deal of scepticism from donors, radio associations and even some potential users. However, while access was a problem at the beginning, it quickly became less of a problem. There are many solutions to rural Africa's access problems on the horizon: including direct satellite connectivity and other wireless technologies. We have to be aware of these possibilities, and to make plans for them.
Púlsar's strategy has been to provide service at a number of levels: text, audio clips, and full audio. The additional cost of the extra levels of service cost is minimal and the scaleable service ensures that the service is widely available. Strategically, it allows for new users to adopt the service at their current capability, and then to grow as their own access and expertise permits.
There are a number of other Internet/radio networking projects going on in the world and there are many others in different regions and with different styles and objectives.
Kantor Berita Radio 68H
Kantor Berita Radio 68H is an Indonesian radio network that began in 1998 with the fall of the Suharto regime, which had banned independent news programs and obliged the country's thousands of radio stations to carry an official newscast. Radio 68H uses the Internet to link radio stations scattered throughout Indonesia, a country of 200 million people living on more than 13,000 islands. The project distributes its material via email and a website.11 Unlike Púlsar, Radio 68H only distributes the complete audio files of its reports. The resultant file size exceeds the capacity of the Internet connections available to many stations, limiting the network's reach. To overcome this, Radio 68H is experimenting with satellite distribution of its service.
Banque de Programmes On-Line
An extension of Panos West Africa's Banque de Programmes, which distributes tapes of documentaries from West and Central Africa to one hundred stations across the continent, the Banque de Programmes On-Line (BDP On-line) exchanges programs between ten African stations via the Internet. Because the programs are full audio, and thus very large files, the service has had a difficult time. However, as infrastructure and technology improve, and as a planned service becomes available on satellite, the BDP On-line will become more available to African broadcasters. The project is based at Panos West Africa office in Dakar and information is available at its website and of course from the Panos representative present at this meeting.12
Started in August 2000 as a joint project of Panos (London) and One World, "the world's leading portal on global justice", InterWorld Radio commissions journalists to file reports on economics, the environment, science and technology, human rights and social change and makes them available via email or on the web. It produces both daily summaries of news stories and regular features. InterWorld Radio's programs are intended to be equally suitable for radio stations in the North and South, although unfortunately they are only available in English.
Technically, InterWorld Radio tries to provide something for everyone. If you have a bad Internet connection, you can get daily text summaries of its programs by email. If you have a highspeed connection, you can download broadcast quality versions in either MP3 or RealAudio format, and if you just want to listen online, lower quality streaming audio is available, also in either MP3 or RealAudio format. With digital technology, offering a variety of formats takes very little time and effort and helps ensure a wider audience for the material.
In the same way that a single cybercafé or telecentre with a few computers can be an efficient way of increasing the number of people connected, giving access to hundreds of people with only a few computers, a radio station with thousands of listeners that makes active use of the Internet can address the problem of the digital divide with a tactic of digital multiplication, multiplying the impact of its Internet connection.
The UNESCO-supported Kotmale Internet Project in Sri Lanka is one of the best-known examples of a radio station adopting the role of a gateway or community intermediary between its listeners and the Internet. The Internet Project has two main components: a community telecentre, using a dedicated line provided by the telecommunications regulatory body, and Radio Browsing, a daily two-hour radio program in which journalists take the Internet to the community by surfing the web in search of answers to listener queries. Sifting through the Internet's terabytes of data, Radio Browsing finds information that is useful to the communities and then interprets it - making useful information meaningful. It plays a role that is part search-engine, part librarian, part journalist and part translator (English is the language of the Internet, but not of most Sri Lankans).
Another example of a station playing a gateway role is Radio Yungas, a rural station in Bolivia. The station has a daily program in which listeners send in their questions. The answers used to come from the 15 year-old encyclopaedia in the town library, but now they come from the Internet. When a local farmer sent in a description of an unknown worm that was eating his crops, Yungas sent the message out to a specialised electronic list. Six hours later they had an answer from a Swede, a leading worm expert, in which he identified the worm and explained how to deal with it. The answer was broadcast to the entire community, and we can be sure that the farmer with the question was not the only one with the worm problem.
A Peruvian experiment is trying to do something similar in conditions where the stations do not have any access to the Internet or even to a telephone. The project is being coordinated by the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG-Peru). Questions from three communities will be relayed by their local radio stations to ITDG's office in the provincial capital of Cajamarca via shortwave radio transceivers. ITDG staff will provide the answers, using whatever sources they have available, including not only the Internet but also indigenous expertise and experience available in the communities. The answers will be sent back to the station and included in a database which will be regularly updated, and made available on the WWW and on CD Rom to the radio stations and other information centres in the communities that are equipped with computers. In this way the database will be not only a living record of the questions and answers most sought out in the communities, but also a tool for collecting, ordering and sharing local knowledge.
In March 2000 the Global Knowledge Partnership agreed to an "action agenda" which included a component linking radio and ICTs. Groups involved in this initiative include the UN system agencies (Economic Commission for Africa, International Telecommunications Union, UNDP, UNFPA and the World Bank), bilateral agencies (CIDA, IICD and IDRC) and international NGOs (AMARC, APC, Oneworld, ORBICOM and VITA). The FAO is also a member of this group and this International Farm Radio Workshop provides us with an excellent opportunity to move forward with this action agenda item.
UNESCO was designated the "champion" agency for the GKP initiative and has begun working to promote community multimedia telecentres, along the models described above. At a meeting called by UNESCO in January, Volunteers in Technical Assistance (VITA - a US NGO) agreed to allocate satellite ground stations on a priority basis to UNESCO-supported networks of community radios. VITA's contribution means that the radio stations without access to telephones will be able to exchange up to fifty pages per day of email via low-orbit satellites.
While the above initiatives build on expanding the reach of the Internet through traditional and existing communities, the configuration and location of communities is also changing, creating new needs and opportunities. Radio and the Internet can play a role here, as well.
International migration is both a consequence and a driving force of globalisation and there are an estimated 75 million international migrant workers and their dependants in the world today. Most of these workers retain close ties with the families and communities in their country of origin and keeping in touch with family members living outside the country has been identified as one of the important factors behind the take-up of ICTs in some developing countries.13
More than ten years ago, before the Internet was available in Mali, emigrants from the Kayes region of Mali living in France maintained regular contact with Kayes Rural Radio as a way of getting news from home. When the station faced a sudden financial crisis brought on, in part, by the sudden loss of donor assistance from Italy, the support group quickly went to work printing leaflets and raising money to keep the station going. Working together with the station, the group also came up with a novel idea for making money - a fax machine was installed in the station and the residents in France were able to pay a fee and have their faxed messages read out over the radio station.14
While there has been very little systematic research in this area, there are a number of examples of local radio stations that webcast their content, not to reach local audiences, who usually don't have access to the Internet, but to maintain relations between local communities and those who have left for political or economic reasons. Radio Ondas Azuayas15 in Cuenca, Ecuador, a country that has seen 10% of its population leave in the past two years as a result of an economic crisis, directs its webcasts at Ecuadorians in the USA and Spain. In addition to informing them of local events, the station also maintains a voicemail box in the United States. Listeners to the webcasts can record messages which are then sent to the station as audio files via the Internet and broadcast over the air. In this way emigrants can not only listen to the station, but actually participate in the programming.16
Like the ship radio operators in 1906 who were surprised to hear a human voice over their morse code equipment, rural inhabitants in some of the remotest parts of the world are now tapping into the digital world via their radios.
It took only a few years for radio equipment to become standard on ships and throughout the world - the benefits were easily recognisable.
The 21st century challenge is to strategize the best formulation for ensuring the benefits of the Internet reach the digital deserts, where regular access to information technology seems unlikely. Digital divide research has highlighted the imperative of spreading access to information and resources. Building and improving ICT infrastructure will be an important element of a strategy aimed at making information available, but a successful strategy must also focus on ensuring that information is meaningful within an existing knowledge infrastructure.
I want to conclude by highlighting three principles that we might keep in mind during our deliberations over the use traditional technology - such as radio - in conjunction with the Internet.
1. Technology is not necessarily the barrier
As we have seen in the examples highlighted in this paper, technology and access to it need not be understood to be the significant barrier to participating in an information society.
First, we must not underestimate what can be done when we combine limited technology with determination and imagination. ICTs are adaptable and given some resources, people will find a way to take advantage of synergies and make the technology serve their communicative needs. Adaptability is the fundamental reason that radio has been so enduring because it has allowed for different approaches to its use in terms of range, interactivity and content and it is this that has enabled it to integrate so effectively with existing social communication networks and practices. Radio and Internet projects should be designed to be scaleable - allowing users (both radio stations and listeners) to define and refine levels of sophistication and interactivity depending on the level of access that is available to them.
Second, technology is changing and roll-out of it, even in remote areas, is becoming easier and more affordable every month. New technologies for wireless connectivity and increased investment encouraged by privatisation and liberalisation of telecommunications infrastructures will go a long way towards improving Internet connectivity in Africa.
2. Technology is not a panacea
Technology can play an ambiguous role in the pursuit of goals such as pluralism and decentralisation. The initiatives discussed in this paper all aimed at promoting these goals, but it is easy to identify uses for the technology that could efficiently deprive local communities of their autonomy and limit pluralism on the airwaves. In the United States, for example, the introduction of digital satellite technology that enabled relatively low-cost radio networks was accompanied by a frenzy of purchases that has seen thousands of independent stations absorbed by a handful of networks.17 Formerly independent stations have replaced local programming with network programming in a move that has limited the diversity of the nation's radio. The same is happening in many South American countries. It would be sadly ironic if the introduction of network technologies led to a situation in which rural radio once again referred to radio programs produced in the cities and beamed to the countryside.
3. Next generation rural radio
The injection of the Internet's digital DNA is already changing the nature of radio and will undoubtedly mean that Next-generation Rural Radio will be a new species, with a different sound and a different way of relating to its community. The projects discussed in this paper offer some insight into what that might be like, but they represent only the first few steps in the transformation of the two media. There are tremendous opportunities for broadcasters but in order to take advantage of them we will have to experiment and to develop a vision of it that responds to the distinct needs and desires of our communities.
It has been said that the Internet is a window to the world - offering a view that includes a wealth of knowledge and information. Local radio is a mirror that reflects a community's own knowledge and experience back at it. The convergence of the two just might offer us the most powerful tool we have yet known to combine research and reflection to harness knowledge for development.