COMMUNITY RADIO AND ICTs - CAN THE POOR BENEFIT?
Community media refers to:
· Media managed and programmed (for radio) by the people it serves;
· Non-profit media responding to a community's expressed needs and priorities;
· Media accountable to community structures;
· Media that allows involvement in its programming through contribution of program ideas and participation by the community it purports to serve.
Access and participation are the two main tenets of community media production.
The World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC) avers that community media is not about doing something for the community but about the community doing something for itself, which means owning and controlling its own means of communication.1
Community media provides a vital alternative to the profit-oriented agenda of corporate media. They are driven by social objectives rather than by private, profit motives. They empower people rather than treating them as passive consumers; they nurture local knowledge rather than replacing it with standard solutions. Ownership and control of community media is rooted in, and responsible to the communities they serve. And they are committed to human rights, social justice, the environment and sustainable approaches to development.
Community media promotes discussions and debate among the members of the community: it does not just group activities or present generalized packaged information. It enables marginalized and poor communities to speak about issues that concern them at the local level.
Interface between Community Radio and ICTs
Radio is the most widespread electronic communications device in the world and community radio is a practical and cost-effective means of reaching and connecting the world's poorest communities.
The convergence between radio and the Internet is providing new strength to community radio; it has enormously increased networking opportunities.
Not only are community radios getting empowered to reach new latitudes, but also Internet users are learning from a participatory experience that is expected to contribute much to social change. The Pulsar Network in Latin America, Kothmale Radio in Sri Lanka and the Local Radio Network in Indonesia are some relevant examples of this trend.
And in Africa, an initiative to have community radios connected to the Internet is being spearheaded by AMARC Africa. This is being undertaken through its Catalyzing Access to ICTs (CATIA) project. Another component of this project is through OneWorld Radio (an Internet radio service) where community radios can upload and download their information.
In Kenya, Mangelete Community radio based in Nthongoni but serving Makueni District will be a beneficiary of the CATIA. It will receive a set of connectivity equipment and support for connection for at least one year. This is aimed at supplementing the locals with global information.
Mang’elete Community Radio is an initiative of 34 rural women groups active in community development. The purpose of Radio Mang’elete is to facilitate communication and information exchange in order to uplift the standards of the local listeners, and to educate, entertain and inform them.
ICTs are here to stay: they play an important role. And this puts a challenge to communities in the sense that they have to catch up with IT.
Radio is an Information and Communication Technology (ICT). And one can safely argue that it is the world’s most successful ICT to date. Apart from the human voice used face-to-face, it is the greatest vehicle for dissemination of informational content known to humankind. Radio content is cheap to create and cheap to consume, and neither the creators nor the consumers of radio content need to be able to read or write due to the oral nature of radio. Community radios are proving this. They are exploiting local knowledge, and being run by people who have no college degrees.
Radio content can also be transmitted in languages that are purely oral, that have never been put into writing.
Discussions are going on to clarify options for Community Radio to get wired and computerized and use ICT in its best interest. A limiting factor is that electronic awareness amongst Community Radio has tended to emphasize on getting connected and not sufficiently on content, both on the generating side as on the receiving side.
Shaping the Internet, or some of it, in a way that serves the objectives of development, democracy, social change and cultural identity through a participatory process is important but may not be easy to achieve. However, there are countries that are trying hard to bring this about: India and Brazil are good examples.
Community radios that are interfacing with ICTs equip themselves with computers and Internet access, receive requests for information from the audience, search the web for the appropriate data, and return the results to the listeners in a local language. They also build data bases with information useful to the local constituency. In the process of appropriating new technologies the local users have the capacity to invent their own words and to rename the hardware.
ICTs give a new dimension to the bottom-up flow of information: community radio has access to much more information than those based on transmission only.
ICT’s Contribution to Community Media
Below are some of the benefits that ICT can bring to community media:
· ICT brings to radio excellent new technologies for recording, mixing, editing and transmission. The digital audio recorder and the audio computer editing on PC, as well as the sending of sound programmes electronically as attachments, are part of the new way forward;
· Creating awareness of research findings in diverse areas of interest to the community;
· Mobilising community for best practices;
· Simplifying research findings;
· Translations into user languages;
· Providing radio with additional tools to serve the information needs of the community.
· Linking: NGOs to community, researchers to community, Government to community.
Challenges for the Sector
Use of ICTs by poor communities has its own challenges. Some of them include lack of access to telephone, e-mail, Internet, as well as to technology that is accessible and user friendly to the community. The HF radio is currently being used where no electricity or telephone exists. In such cases, it is important to have equipment that adapts to the locally available sources of energy, for example rechargeable car batteries and solar power.
Equitable access to technology, particularly in remote areas and marginalized communities, is another challenge. Telecommunication law and policy should promote the goal of universal service and access. There should be proactive measures by the state. There is need to think of ways of mobilising resources for funding research in order to keep abreast of the rapidly changing media technology landscape and how communities can take advantage of these.
Another challenge is the development of local content. This is critical as there is danger of community radios utilizing information from the North without making it relevant to local needs. Tied to this is the issue of language. In a world with thousands of languages and cultures, 90 percent of web-based information is in English. The ten other most important languages in the world are largely under-represented within the remaining 10 percent, which has more speakers than English worldwide. The pattern is similar in terms of content. U.S. web sites largely predominate and the content is therefore mainly of interest to US based users. Peasants in Kenya may not find much of interest on the current World Wide Web, even when they are fluent in the English language. The Web is not yet ready for their needs, although there are ongoing efforts to promote Swahili on the Google search engine.
The Way Forward
In areas where there is no electricity and where there are no telephones, there is a need for exploration of satellite technology. In Kenya, this is an area that is under regulation, but it is very costly and might still be a burden to the marginalized. However, enabling policies can be put in place. These would address the issue of universal access and the high cost of the technologies for marginalized communities.
Cost and efficiency of equipment must also be considered. The telephone is an essential tool for community radio, yet it remains relatively expensive or even non-existent in some areas. Cell phones are great but still expensive.
The digital divide is an expression of social and economic inequities. Depending on the policies in place, ICTs can either aggravate or improve these inequities.
The new technologies must be used in a meaningful way, taking into account the local users’ own needs and preferences, including acquiring, exchanging, producing and disseminating information. People involved should be able to choose among a menu of communication tools, from e-mail to electronic lists or the Internet, depending on one’s organizational goals.
There is need for appropriation of the ICT tools in which people absorb, systematize and turn information and new relations into new knowledge that can be communicated to others and applied to solve their concrete needs.
The desire to bridge the digital divide should be the goal of every policy maker. Policies addressing affordability, local content and access should play a key role in bridging this gap. The civil society, private sector and government must work hand in hand to deliver information technologies to those working in community broadcasting and community media.
The comparative advantages of the Internet look good on paper. However, the challenges in making the Internet a useful tool in places where safe water, let alone electricity, are unavailable are many. Wireless technology and the convergence with community radio and video, are already signalling the way. But technology alone may not be the answer if culture and identity are not at the heart of the discussion. When a new technology is introduced to a different social setting, what is transferred is not only the technology itself, but also the social use of it: a set of assumptions and practices that have emerged from another context and other needs. Therefore, support for capacity building and training which goes beyond access and basic applications and addresses personal, institutional and systemic barriers, as well as content development, is important.
The Internet has a better chance to succeed as a tool for development and participation if it is linked to existing communication and information experiences. This remains the challenge for those working in community media.
1. What is community radio? A resource guide. Johannesburg.: Amarc Africa; Panos Southern Africa 1998..