Radio is possibly the most efficient way to communicate with the poor and illiterate. Radio provides citizens with access to information, conduits to decision makers, opportunities to build local capacity, and can promote community empowerment. Grassroots radio stations often reach larger audiences in developing countries than do traditional radio stations, informing the poor and providing them a voice in public discourse, while helping communities organize on local issues. On April 30th, organizers of an initiative to support community radio came to the World Bank to discuss developing a manual for integrating community radio in World Bank-supported operations, as well as development of pilot projects.
William Reuben, the Coordinator of the World Bank s NGO s and Civil Society network, opened the discussion by noting a workshop had been held earlier in the week about using community radio to promote civic engagement. Alfonso Gumucio, a communications consultant working with community radio networks globally, gave the opening presentation. Gumucio said the two main models of communications for development were vertical and participatory. Vertical evolved from marketing and advertising practices of the industrialized world and emphasize behavioral changes. Gumucio said many communication experts from the developing world, including himself, ending up rejecting this model, though recent developments with social marketing suggest an evolution even within this approach. The participatory model is horizontal and calls upon people to create social change. The participatory model suggests there are structural causes to poverty such as inequality rather than simply a lack of information. Vertical uses mass media which is expensive and unsustainable. Participatory is more process oriented and seeks to empower people. The first is short term, and the other is long term. One emphasizes approaching the individual while the other reaches for the community. Gumucio noted that while many communication projects are donor driven, not enough time is spent trying learn or understand community needs. It is becoming increasingly clear that community access to media is not enough, he said. Communities need to have ownership as well. With the advent of social marketing, there are instances of commonality between the two model Gumucio described.
Steve Buckley, president of "AMARC", the World Association of Community Radios, said working in the developing world reveals sizeable challenges. In Nepal, only 15 percent of the population has electricity. The vast majority of the people live in the countryside who view a modern village as one with self-sufficient schools and commercial areas. But he noted there are radio stations that make this medium unique as a communication tool. Buckley said the concept of community radio was 50 years old and had started in Bolivia among the tin mining communities when they needed a format to discuss the issues in their day to day lives. Now the concept has spread worldwide, though development in different regions remains uneven. In Latin America, there is much diversity in the types of noncommercial radio stations, which may focus on education, indigenous people, gender, rural or urban issues. Community based radio stations spread rapidly in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. More than 100 community stations exist today in Mali. With current trends toward empowerment and civic participation, the role of community radio is taking on increased importance, both in the developing and donor worlds. One of the strengths of community radio, Buckley said, was the participants do not need to know how to read or write. Legal, regulatory and policy environments in some countries, however, make community radio difficult. He cited Bangladesh as an example where the regulatory framework worked against the demands of the population. He characterized the current discussions with the World Bank as a key moment. Buckley believes the concept of community radio is ready to be scaled up in numerous countries, but some governments still need to be pushed. He said that it has only been recently that this type of communication has entered into the mainstream thinking, which runs counter to the notion by some development experts that the donor community should be wiring every village possible to the Internet. He hoped the World Bank would make careful and strategic investments to nurture grassroots developments in community radio.
Soule Issiaka of the Africa Bureau of Radio Netherlands, quoted Marshal McLuhen s famous phrase that the "medium is the message." In Africa, radio is a cultural medium. He suggested some in the donor community do not understand why community radio is so popular. He said it is because it was not derived from donor aid or development projects, but rather is a product of the local culture. Issiaka received a Development Marketplace grant in 2002 for work in Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, and Ghana to develop a community radio network. Issiaka made it clear, community radio is a means for community empowerment, not simply communications. He also noted Africa, while having much illiteracy, has an oral tradition. Issiaka said community radio works well in the countryside, but has yet to penetrate the continent s urban areas. He suggested this is because the politically powerful control the cities and want to maintain tight control there, but vest little time, attention, and resources in the rural areas.
Loty Salazar of the World Bank s East Asia and Pacific region has been working on community radio in East Timor since 2000. Training was provided to rural reporters to support the national radio system, and acquisition of small scale equipment. She suggested residents needed an outlet to express themselves, which had been made more difficult because of the recent conflict. The World Bank launched a project which sought to promote community radio. Potential radio stations were identified by surveying demand. Proposals were put together by hopeful recipients. Technical assistance is to be provided by a central community radio network. In fact, there was evidence that community radio initiatives received some support from government officials, which had not been traditionally the case. Salazar said one lesson learned from the project was the need to establish ownership by the local population from the beginning. A bottom-up consultation process with the communities, while slow, proved invaluable as well, she said. Also important was taking advantage of existing networks and infrastructure. She closed by noting the East Timorese are using radio to promote reconciliation, solidarity, and local development planning in the post-conflict period.