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The Problem of Airtime Costs

Radio is agreed to be one of the most effective means of getting information to rural populations on a mass level. Extension services in many countries are understaffed and incapable of providing the individual attention many farmers require, and radio can be a much more cost-effective way to communicate orally. In many countries it is used frequently by agricultural extension agents trying to get the word out. However, in certain countries radio is massively underutilized, even when there is clear demand for agricultural programming and extension bureaus have the capacity to produce programs. The reason extension agents give is that they cannot afford to put programming on the air.

First, the airtime rates of many commercial stations are frequently higher than extension bureaus can pay. Sometimes free airtime is given, but it is often not at hours when farmers are listening. Attempts have been made to appeal to station owners' social responsibility, as in a 1996 Ouagadougou workshop run by FAO. However, by definition, the goal of commercial stations is to make money, and it is difficult for them to justify choosing to give free airtime to agricultural extension bureaus when they could be paid for that airtime by advertisers or other show sponsors. Many don't really have a programming philosophy to give them a social orientation, and in many countries there are no regulations to incentivize including public service programs in their schedule.

Second, community radio stations, which are not-for-profit and development-oriented, are often few and far between. According to the Ghana Community Radio Network, of 130 on-air stations in Ghana, only 7 are community stations. Most extension bureaus don't have one in their immediate vicinity. According to Wilna Quarmyne, the Network's coordinator, this is mainly an issue of frequency authorization. Groups attempting to start stations often wait years without knowing whether they will ever receive authorization. Many of these initiatives lose steam over the years and some eventually give up. If licensing for community stations were made simple, quick and cheap, there might be a lot more of them.

One possible solution would be to create a mechanism by which extension bureaus could apply for area stations to receive fast-track authorization or lower fees in exchange for cheap airtime. Potentially, this would give extension bureaus something to offer commercial stations in exchange for lowering their rates, and give community stations an easier way to get a license. A first step would be to improve dialogue between licensing authorities and rural-focused ministries, through a workshop or forum, at which stakeholders such as extension bureaus and radio stations, community and commercial, would be invited to participate. FAO is currently discussing an initiative to hold such a workshop in Ghana.

Nathaniel Heller
Policy Fellow
Information and Communication for Development
UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Accra, Ghana

 

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