Mobile Tech in Community Radio: Still Ad-Hoc and One-Off

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Jul 06, 2010.

In 2008, Bruce Girard concluded in a MobileActive.org guest post that the addition of text messaging technology into the community radio toolkit was still in its infancy. SMS use at radio stations was informal, he wrote, and the few cases of more complex use of SMS messages accompanied political crisis or natural disaster and were largely donor financed.

Two years later, we delve once again into the state of SMS and mobile technology at community radio stations, by way of an informal survey. While advances have been made and creative projects have emerged, integration remains an ad-hoc and individual enterprise.

This report summarizes existing projects and success stories, highlighting the most popular uses of mobile technology. It concludes with a discussion of the challenges that community radio stations face in adopting SMS and mobile technology.

 Mobile Technology Integration in Community Radio Stations is an “Ad-Hoc” Enterprise

To summarize the current state of SMS and mobile technology is to suggest that despite being used in a multitude of ways by community radio stations, integration remains a somewhat ad-hoc and highly individual enterprise. Aaditeshwar Seth, a 2008 Knight News Challenge Winner who works with community radio in India, wrote in an e-mail to MobileActive.org that, “Stations do need SMS. Right now they just do it in an ad-hoc manner with people sending messages to cellphones of different station staff and volunteers.”

Though a growing number of community radio stations are adapting SMS and mobile technology in ways unique to their listening community, there is no established or singular documentation, process or tool for radio stations to turn to. By this note, there is also no outstanding account of the challenges and barriers inherent with mobile integration. Interestingly, there are many “getting started” manuals and lists of resources available to help start and run a community radio station, but few go into depth on how to incorporate mobile technology.

While this report does not attempt to provide such a toolkit, it does fill a void by shedding light on the state of SMS and mobile technology in community radio, including why it is being done, how it is being done, and perhaps most importantly, whether or not it is working.

 Statistics Demonstrate the Complementary Potential

Radio is a popular source of information in many countries, especially in areas that lack reliable access to Internet. Coupled with the ubiquity of handsets, mobile technology is a natural inclusion in a community radio station’s essential toolkit. Statistics demonstrate the complementary potential of mobile integration with radio communication. For example, according to 2008 data from AudienceScapes.org, radio is “by far” the most accessible and used communication medium in Sierra Leone.

 Community versus Commercial

SMS and mobile technology is used differently by a commercial radio station than it is by a community station, and it is important not to conflate the two types of stations. Community radio can be defined in multiple ways and, in fact, the UNESCO Community Radio Handbook explains that there is a “somewhat confusing situation regarding what constitutes true community radio.”

A conversation on the New Tactics in Human Rights website asked, “how do you define community radio?” One post suggested that, “the ‘pure’ version of a community radio is a radio station of, by, for, and about the community it serves,” though meeting all of these conditions is often difficult. Both UNESCO and the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters(AMARC) have multiple definitions of community radio.

The various definitions of community radio do, however, share several themes: it has a participatory essence, it reflects the special interests and needs of the community, it is managed by the community it also serves, it promotes accessible information, and it is non-profit, non-partisan, and non-sectarian.

While mobile integration at community stations is in the early stages of development, commercial stations have been adapting mobile technology for years, as evidenced in this Reuters/Billboard article from 2007:

“It’s happened to everyone. You’re cruising in your car, cranking the tunes, when the radio DJ announces a promotion awarding tickets for a sold-out show to the first fan who correctly answers a trivia question. Answer in hand, you call in, only to get a busy signal — again, again and again. Soon, that scenario will be as antiquated as dial knobs on TVs. Radio stations nationwide slowly are incorporating mobile text-messaging systems that let listeners respond to promotional campaigns, request songs and interact with advertisers from the keypad of their mobile phone.”

India’s 94.3 Radio One, for example, launched in May an SMS-based “any time music” program. If a listener texts “song” to a designated short code, he or she will be sent an SMS with details on the song that is currently playing. A listener can also text “mysong” to the same number and choose from a list of song titles. After this, the listener will receive an SMS message a few minutes before that song is scheduled to play. Services like this are commonplace at popular commercial stations around the world. The question becomes how best to translate the success of commercial SMS integration to smaller, more remote community radio stations.

A 2008 study for Panos Institute West Africa looked at ICT and radio stations (public, community, commercial, and religious) in seven African countries (Ghana, Benin, Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, and Niger). The results revealed that access to Internet by the radio stations varied greatly according to country and type of radio. The study also suggests that the strong mobile phone penetration on the continent allows stations to use handsets as an indispensable reporting and communication tool and contributes to a large number of radio listeners. Mobile value-added services, SMS in particular, was found to be used by nearly 84 percent of stations surveyed.

 Four Ways Mobile Phones can Help Community Radio Stations

The integration of mobile phone technology at community radio stations is done in many ways and for many reasons; but it is exactly this versatility that makes mobile technology a natural fit among diverse community radio stations. Mobile phones can be used in conjunction with radio to report news and information, to listen to radio programs, to generate revenue, and to foster participation in a community.

1) Mobile phones as a recording tool

Mobile phones can be used to record audio material for broadcast. (See also the Mobile Media Toolkit and a how-to guide on Mobile Audio Recording in the Field for more information on how mobile handsets can be used for voice or data-based audio production.) Mobile media has emerged as a powerful form of citizen journalism and many phones allow for audio capture which can be disseminated to community radio stations.

An article in Americas Quarterly discusses SMS contributions to radio stations in Guatemala:

“The reality of Guatemala’s telecom advantage is starting to influence the way people, organizations and government institutions get and provide information. News organizations like Emisoras Unidas, Radio Sonora, El Periódico, and others provide breaking news via text or SMS alerts and ask listeners to contribute news, comments and traffic reports that are often then read on-air. During a major four-hour electrical blackout that affected 17 departments in October 2009, people texted updates to radio stations that then shared breaking news over the airwave and with listeners who had bought their $10 cell phones at the local market.”

The developed telecom industry in Guatemala inspired Kara Andrade to develop HablaCentro, a collection of news hubs where local citizens share information through computer, email, and text messaging. HablaCentro utilizes two Android applications: HablaCentro gateway and HablaRadio. HablaRadio is almost like a self-supporting community radio station in that it is an open repository where anyone who has the application can access what everyone else has recorded. The problem, however, is that it requires exactly that: the Android application. The cost of the Android phones, which were released in Guatemala in May, remains too high for many and thus penetration is low. One of the next steps for Andrade is to secure cheap or donated Android phones for shared use at 22 “hubs” throughout Guatemala to encourage use by the community.

Andrade said that architecturally, the operating premise of HablaRadio is that a mobile phone is the only thing you need to record, send, and listen to audio, as long as you have an Internet connection. It’s an idea that could work well in other places with a high penetration of both Android phones and Internet access. “Anything we create for HablaCentro we create with the mindset that it is replicable,” Andrade said.

In India, mobile phones circumvent a radio news ban and allow people to both access news and record information. Only the government-run All India Radio is authorized to broadcast news on FM and there are no local news or community stations in a country with an otherwise “lively and booming” media landscape.  The Committee to Protect Journalists suggests two reasons for the ban. One is that the Indian government wants to maintain control over radio to cut down on irresponsible programming which could fuel religious tensions. Another reason is that authorities have simply been slow to dismantle a government monopoly on radio. Regardless, a newly launched service called CGNet Swara uses mobile phones to get around this ban and provides a way for a large illiterate population to receive and record independent news.

CGNet uses integrated voice response (IVR), a replicable technology that can be used to record radio content (see also the Mobile Media Glossary). A video on NDTV explains how IVR is used at CGNet Swara in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh to help tribals create radio content in their own language. Local residents can dial a number from their handset and are prompted to either listen to the news or record news in any language and dialect. The information is then verified, translated, and disseminated via SMS messages and the CGNet website. Through this, CGNet Swara uses IVR to “combat ignorance, isolation and apathetic governance among the rural poor.

2) Mobile phones as a listening device

Mobile phones provide a way for many to listen to the radio sans physical unit (like a transistor radio). One area to watch is a current push to incorporate FM radio receivers in “virtually all” mobile phones. An article on the website Radio Heard Here argues for the inclusion of FM radio transmitters in handsets and suggests that, “such a move helps to perpetuate the ubiquitous nature of radio and to provide a communication lifeline during times of crisis or natural disaster.”

Although many mobile devices already have radio access through Internet connections, “when radio is needed most it’s least likely to be available through an internet connection,” such as when phone infrastructure or Internet access is incapacitated (like during times of crisis or natural disaster). Some private sector companies have produced integrated circuit devices that combine WiFi, Bluetooth, and FM receiver technologies all on a single chip, making it easier to integrate the FM functionality. According to the article, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile offer FM radio-capable mobile phones and the “radio industry is working on getting Apple on board as well.”

Call-in listening services, where individuals listen to the news by dialing a local number on their handsets, are also being used for those without FM receivers, Internet access, or certain smartphone applications. CGNet Swara, mentioned above, uses IVR to accomplish this.

Mobile phone applications for listening to radio content are popular as well. In the Netherlands, the MobileWeb radio application was recently voted as one of the ten best Android applications in the country. It can be used to listen to both popular music stations and local radio stations.

Where one does not have access to listen to radio, one can often read an alternative SMS version. Gerry Jackson founded SW Radio Africa in the UK to broadcast information to Zimbabwe on shortwave. For two years beginning in 2005 the signal was jammed in many areas of Zimbabwe, but the station has been able to broadcast more openly the past few years because jamming the signal “is something that is very expensive to do,” Jackson wrote in an e-mail to MobileActive.org. Radio podcasts are available on the Internet and the station also started sending SMS news headlines to mobile phones in Zimbabwe, which is proving increasingly popular. SW Radio Africa currently has 30,000 mobile numbers in their database, up from just 2,000 numbers in 2008. To be added, people can send an e-mail to the station or leave their details on a mobile number based in Zimbabwe, which is monitored on a daily basis.

3) Mobile phones as a money-maker

Mobile technology can be used to generate income. Text messaging has an established presence as a tool of business engagement and marketing. Douglas Arellanes of Sourcefabric, a not-for-profit organization that produces open-source tools for media organizations, said that the West Africa Media Development Fund has worked with stations in Ghana to institute premium SMS for dedications and messages.

“Anything that can allow the station to keep operating but at the same time not venture too far from their community roots is ideal. For that reason I see the strategic needs for SMS development,” Arellanes said.

In 2007, an NGO called the Family Alliance for Development and Cooperation (FADECO)launched a radio program in the Karagwe district in Tanzania to help disseminate information to local farmers. Information is shared in many ways. First, anyone living near the radio station can walk in to ask questions or report problems related to farming. Second, farmers can listen over the radio, a popular medium for information sharing in the area. Third, the station has evolved a system of SMS messages to both send and receive information.

Joseph Sekiku, who works with the FADECO station, said he initially received SMS messages directly from farmers and listeners on his Nokia phone. In 2008, the radio program partnered with SMS management company Push Mobile to help manage the incoming messages. The SMS messages are delivered to a computer via a web-based platform, where someone can then print off and respond to the message. Typical incoming messages include questions, comments about improvements, acknowledgements, greetings to friends, news, adverts, or announcements.

Through this, the station was able to step away from a one-to-one scale of communication. It was also able to incorporate premium SMS as a form of revenue for the station. Sekiku explained that Push Mobile allocated a short code number and for every SMS received, the station receives 50 Tanzania Shillings.

2009 Internews publication addresses the challenge of how to make community media financially sustainable around the world. Though the document does not go in depth on mobile technology as a revenue source, it does discuss the incorporation of other new technologies, including online platforms and alternative energy.

4) Mobile phones as a catalyst for dialogue

Mobile phones and SMS messaging can foster participation and reach targeted listeners. UNICEF in Nepal teamed up with a popular Nepali youth radio program called Saathi Sanga Man Ka Kura (SSMK) to launch a campaign that allows young listeners to take an active role in a conversation, all via SMS. Every week on the program, the radio production team frames a question and invites the listeners to respond to it via a free text message to an established four-digit short code.The responses are then posted on the Voices of Youth website and are intended to shape future programs at the station. SSMK has received over 33,000 messages since the launch this year. Through the campaign, SMS not only provides young listeners with a platform from which to speak about important issues, but also connects the listeners to an online discussion forum to read what others are saying about a particular topic.

In Haiti, where “radio, along with church, is one of the most trusted sources of information,” Internews produces a 15-minute news program called Enfomasyon Nou Dwe Konnen (News You Can Use) that is broadcast on 25 radio stations. The program reports critical information about water distribution, displaced persons camps, public health, education, and culture and invites direct feedback from listeners in the form of SMS messages. The participatory messages, in turn, help keep the broadcast current, according to the website.

Also, when calls overwhelm the phone lines at a radio station, SMS can be used to circumvent a busy or jammed line such as during a live program or in the midst of a crisis.

 Radio Kit Developers are Building Features, Making Advances

Organizations are providing tools and technology to tap into the emerging needs of community radio stations. Some organizations provide “plug-and-play” radio kits or servers to help community radio stations get off the ground. Gram Vaani, a social development organization based in India, produces a server called Gramin Radio Inter-Networking System (GRINS).  In a published white paper, the GRINS group documented the use of SMS at Radio Bundelkhand, a community station that supports the village of Orchha in the Bundelkhand region of India. According to the paper, Radio Bundelkhand used SMS to help count votes as part of a months-long singing contest called “Bundeli Idol,” but found that one challenge was the time-consuming nature of SMS:

“It is hard for the station to keep track of votes. They have to read each SMS and tally votes for each participant manually, which is time consuming and error prone. The approach is unscalable for the future where polls may be required for other types of programs too. Further, it was decided not to accept votes over phone calls because this would require one staff member to attend to the calls throughout the day. Automated solutions to accept and process SMS messages, and interactive voice response systems are much needed to smoothen out this process.”  In light of the findings in the white paper, GRINS developers are “currently building features for telephony and SMS support.”

Another example is Sourcefabric, which produces a free, open source suite that enables live broadcast and scheduling for analog, digital, or online radio stations. Arellanes, with Sourcefabric in Prague, explains that mobile technology is important in the area of radio, but the feature set “isn’t there.” One reason why is that “donors don’t like to fund open source development projects.”

SMS integration remains on a list of features the group hopes to develop in the future.

 Barriers, Issues, and Challenges

In summary, the integration of SMS and mobile technology at community radio stations is being adapted in creative but highly individual ways. While this approach is often well-suited to the unique nature and audience of the radio station, it is not without challenges and barriers. Recognized challenges include time, training, and funding.

Time

Because SMS integration is often undertaken by an individual or small group at a radio station, one common barrier is the time spent reading or sending individual SMS messages. The GRINS group (in its white paper), for example, found that Radio Bundelkhand approach to SMS integration was time consuming, error prone, and unscalable for future uses.

The UNICEF Nepal SMS campaign also requires significant support time, according to our interviews. The SMS messages sent by listeners are compiled in a database and individually monitored before they are posted on the VOY website. Another challenge facing the campaign is potential abuse of the free short code. The process is still being streamlined so that respondents do not misuse the free aspect of the service.

Training

Lack of training is another barrier. The Panos Institue West Africa researchers found that 84 percent of stations used SMS, but concluded that ICT training for mobile technologies was not done regularly. A quarter of the stations surveyed said their employers never followed training. Researchers also observed confusion between free and proprietary software and even about what kind of Internet connection the radio station had.

Having complementary technologies or processes is another challenge for many stations. The FADECO radio program in Tanzania, for example, began this year to use FrontlineSMS to send bulk text messages but, Sekiku said, they have not yet been able to figure out how to receive SMS via this method. Often, without training or formal processes to integrate multiple systems, stations create individualized “work-around” solutions to problems which may add time to the overall process.

Costs and Funding

Another issue is a lack of financial support to develop, launch, and maintain mobile processes. SW Radio Africa, for example, receives hundreds of new requests for SMS headlines that sit idle due to lack of funding (and the high cost of SMS), according to our interviews with them. The station regularly broadcasts on its shortwave service the fact that they cannot add numbers, yet they continue to receive hundreds of requests each month. Funding problems have also resulted in SMS news headlines being sent two times a week, down from three updates a week.

Lack of funding and technology prevents other potential avenues of aid. For instance, SW Radio Africa lacks the facilities and staff to be able to respond to individual messages or questions. Jackson said the SMS headlines are the most popular initiative they have introduced.

“We hear that at meetings in Zim[babwe] you can suddenly hear everyone’s phone ring and the meeting briefly stops while everyone checks,” Jackson wrote. Often, “one person sends an e-mail saying they did not receive the SMS last night. It’s important to respond in some way but at the same time it is difficult and time consuming.”

 The Outlook for the Community Radio Stations

Commercial radio stations often rely on the private sector for assistance. In setting up their SMS music service, for example, Radio One in India partnered with international software providers 2egro and RCS. But, where funding falls short or Internet access is limited, such partnerships may be difficult, if not impossible, for community radio stations.

Turning to organizations or communicating with other community radio stations is one potential route for successful development. For example, as organizations begin to develop radio kits that incorporate SMS and mobile technologies, we may witness a greater ease of adoption.

Many other projects not mentioned here have launched in the past year. The integration of SMS and mobile technology with community radio seems to be at a nascent yet promising stage, ripe for proper documentation and development of global tools and processes. For now, integration remains an ad-hoc and highly individual enterprise.

As distribution systems of news and information to mobile phones becomes more common and less expensive, technologies will spread in the developing world. It is important to continue to document and share successes and failures to better enable successful adoption of mobile phone technology by community radio stations.

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