On World Radio Day, 13 February 2012, UNESCO will remind the world that there is a medium which reaches parts that other media can't reach.
Radio is still a vital form of communication because a radio station can be set up much faster, and at much lower cost, than a terrestrial or satellite TV station. Radio is especially useful for reaching remote communities and vulnerable people such as the illiterate, the disabled and the poor. It also provides a platform for such groups to take part in the wider public debate.
Radio also plays a vital role in emergency communication and disaster relief, which was illustrated following the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in December 2004. RNW was able to help several partner stations in Indonesia by sending out “radio stations in a box” – self-contained mobile FM stations providing a temporary studio and transmitter ready to be used by broadcasters whose own facilities had been destroyed.
World Radio Day is intended as a focal point for discussion and debate on the role of radio in supporting the most vulnerable sectors of the worldwide community. Various events have been organised around the world. In London, a mix of practitioners, academics and tools providers are coming together at the School of Oriental and African Studies for a one-day conference on “New Perspectives on Traditional Radio”.
The conference organisers point out that radio is still the world’s most active, localized broadcast technology. Because radio is a free and accessible platform, it plays a crucial role in promoting development, improving livelihoods and supporting access to education. They point out that “you don’t need an app or the internet to access the radio!“
But that doesn’t mean that radio has to stay in a timewarp. It’s easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the transmission platform is the only important element. For example, some shortwave hobbyists – and sometimes even broadcasters themselves – consider that when an international broadcaster stops using expensive, inefficient legacy technology like analogue shortwave, it has somehow ceased to be a proper broadcaster.
The London conference will be looking at how different technologies can serve to change the way in which radio is used as a platform for social engagement.
That’s probably the biggest change in radio during the time I’ve worked in it. When I started listening to radio, it was a passive medium, especially international radio. On some stations, the programmes often consisted of an announcer with a strong accent reading out a poorly translated text on a boring subject, guaranteed to minimise the chances of getting a reaction from the listener.
In fact RNW was one of the first international broadcasters to experiment with the kind of direct listener contact that is now the norm in radio. In the 1980s, before the advent of the internet and handheld devices, I took part in some live phone-ins for the English service, which went out in some of the Saturday transmissions. There were four transmissions to different parts of the world, and we were amazed at how many people were prepared to make an international phone call just to speak to us.
These days, much of our two-way contact with international listeners is done online via Facebook, Twitter, and our websites and blogs. But on local stations, it’s much easier to get involved via the programmes themselves.
When I was at university in the UK in the early 1970s, I experienced at first-hand just how grassroots radio worked. On a sunny day, I walked across the deserted main square to the studio, and I said on the air that it was ideal weather to take a radio outside and sit in the main square listening to us. At the end of my show, I walked back across the square and there were several hundred people, and lots of radios playing our station. Coincidence? I’d like to think not. I believe that, at a very basic level, it demonstrated the power of radio in a small community.
For more details of World Radio Day 2012, and details of events around the world, visit the official website.