Wednesday, World Radio Day, marked the 67th anniversary of the United Nations’s first broadcast—“This is the United Nations calling the peoples of the world”—with two panels of UN officials and journalists on radio’s continuing relevance in Conference Room 6 of the United Nations building.
The first “panel” was really just a series of speeches, from Francisco Javier Sanabria, a member of Spain’s mission to the UN; Philippe Kridelka, director of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s New York office; and Stephane Dujarric, director of the News and Media division of the UN’s Department of Public Information.
The second panel was a discussion among Bill Siemering, an NPR founder who now works with radio stations in Sierra Leone; Lesedi Mogoatlhe, who trains young radio journalists in South Africa; John Dinges, a professor at Columbia’s journalism school specializing in radio; Amy Costello, reporter for the public radio program The World who now does an investigative podcast; and Anne Bennett, executive director of Hirondelle USA, which helps countries transition from war to peace.
Both panels stressed the unique strengths of radio as a medium, especially in the developing world. In short: It’s cheap, it’s easily accessible to both broadcasters and listeners, it’s local, and it’s engaging.
It’s neither cheap nor easy to maintain a printing press, and blogging is only quick and easy with Internet access (and literacy). In much of the world, the panelists agreed, community radio is the medium with the lowest barriers to entry, the cheapest and easiest way to spread information. Dinges estimated that radio reaches 10 times as many people in rural Latin America as newspapers do. The UN realizes this and, according to Kridelka, the creation and maintenance of local community radio stations is an integral part of many UN peacekeeping missions in war-torn regions.
Radio is just as important on a local level. “Radio is not only the most democratic medium, but the most democratizing,” declared Dinges. Mogoatlhe trains young journalists in South Africa to question power and to inform their fellow citizens. This provides an important source of news. It also shows youths that they can have influence over their country’s future.
Radio is also unique among news media in facilitating engagement with listeners. In Siemering’s words, it is a “horizontal” means of communication, rather than a “vertical” one. Listeners can call or text the radio station and get themselves on the air. Other stations will organize programs in which members of the community get together and discuss local problems. Siemering recalled one radio station in Rwanda, a country that experienced the dark side of radio in the 1990s, when “hate radio” encouraged genocide. The station, he explained, tries to head off conflict by holding a live debate about any issues that bother the community. This kind of engagement with local issues just isn’t possible on (generally national) television networks.
An obvious question is whether any of this applies to the United States. Radio may be the most widespread medium in West Africa (according to Siemering), but an estimated 99 percent of households in the United States have access to television. Yet radio survives. Siemering told CJR after the panel that the audience for public radio in the US continues to grow. Like radio in South Sudan and Sierra Leone, radio in the United States excels at telling stories that engage readers. In fact, Siemering suggested, pieces broadcast on the radio are more compelling than those broadcast on television, “because you don’t have those distracting pictures! You can focus on the story.” Radio in the United States also epitomizes horizontal communication. Talk radio and call-in shows provide local community forums similar to the live debates that Siemering witnessed in Sierra Leone.
Responding to predictions that television or the Internet have rendered radio obsolete, Dujarric paraphrased Mark Twain: “The rumors of radio’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” On World Radio Day, it’s worth remembering why that is, and why radio continues to be an important medium in the 21st century.