The Importance of Radio in the 21st Century

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CC BY | Alan Levine
Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Advances in technology have given people more ways to access an increasing amount of information. Local and international news can be read in the newspaper, listened to on radio, watched on television and found on cell-phones or online. For those with access to these options, a wealth of information is always readily available. In countries where free expression is suppressed, access to technology is expensive or illiteracy rates are high, radio continues to play an important role in information sharing.

Reporting over international airwaves

Radio broadcasts can provide real-time information, broadcasted 24 hours a day to provide the most recent updates to listeners. Stations have the ability to reach across borders and become a source of information where reliable news is scarce. When access to the internet is blocked and phone lines are cut, people can still search the airwaves for trustworthy sources. Even electricity is not a necessity for battery operated and hand-cranked radios.

Radio Free Europe (RFE) was originally started during the Cold War with a single broadcast to communist Czechoslovakia out of New York City in 1950. Now, 60 years later, they broadcast in 21 countries using 28 different languages. Working in countries where an independent press has either been banned by the government or not well-established, RFE provides uncensored news to its listeners. Developments in radio technology continue to increase the range and clarity of broadcasts over farther distances, allowing listeners to tune in to stations in different countries and continents. Technological growth also means that the cost of broadcasting is lower, and the number of radio stations is increasing internationally.

The Economist reported in 2010 that world news stations such as the BBC have steadily been losing listeners as competition increases. In the 12 months prior to the August article, the BBC had lost eight million listeners. Other large news agencies such as Al Jazeera are moving into new markets and attracting listeners. However, large news agencies must compete with an increasing number of local stations. Community radio has the ability to provide news tailored to a smaller population, reporting on local issues that would not make international headlines.

BROADCASTING AT THE LOCAL LEVEL

According to Farm Radio International, a charitable organization which supports rural radio broadcasters in 39 African countries, radio remains one of the best communication tools for the rural poor. It is ideal for low-income populations and sparsely-populated areas since radios are affordable and broadcasts can reach a wide audience. In countries where access to the internet is limited and illiteracy rates are high, radio stations play a major role in sharing news and educational information.

The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in radio stations across Africa, especially locally-run community stations. While new technologies such as satellite, online and cell-phone radio are increasing, none have reached the simplicity and effectiveness of traditional radio. According to a 2010 survey by AudienceScapes, in Kenya 87% of those surveyed had radios at home, 71% had a phone and only 11% could access the internet at home.

Radio journalists at risk

Radio journalists are at risk of harassment, intimidation and physical threats for their work. Stations around the world have had their signals blocked, their licenses to broadcast revoked and have been the target of attacks. Violations such as those below demonstrate that radio remains a powerful tool in disseminating information and are perceived as threats by some governments. Somalia and China are examples of countries where the authorities have taken steps to silence radio broadcasts.

Radio station continues to operate amid internal strife in Somalia

CJFE ranked Somalia as the deadliest country in Africa for journalists in 2010. Three journalists were killed in Somalia that year alone, and all worked for radio stations. In a country that has not had a stable government since 1991, there is ongoing violence between militias and the transitional federal government.

In the midst of this, independent media Radio Shabelle continues to operate under dangerous conditions. The station’s journalists and staff are routinely harassed, arrested and killed. Five journalists and staff have been killed since October 2007. Other Radio Shabelle journalists have been threatened for reporting on corruption at a Mogadishu port and assaulted for attempting to cover a football ceremony. In March 2011, the station’s editor Abdi Mohamed Ismael and director Abdirashid Omar Qase were arrested for four days for allegedly broadcasting false reports and helping terrorists. The station had aired a report about security concerns in a region controlled by government and African Union forces. The Interior Ministry also ordered the station to sign a letter agreeing not to broadcast negative reporting about the government. Radio Shabelle refused.

Chinese pressure results in arrests in Vietnam and Indonesia

Two Vietnamese radio operators were arrested in June 2010 for broadcasting programming from Vietnam into China about Falun Gong, a spiritual movement which has been banned by the Chinese government since 1999. The trial for Vu Duc Trung and Le Van Thanh, who are both Falun Gong members, was due to begin on April 8, 2011, but has been postponed. Reporters Without Borders found that their arrests came after pressure from the Chinese government. They were initially charged for operating without a permit but criminal charges were added later and they could face jail time of up to five years if convicted. Their lawyers have argued that the charges should not stand since Falun Gong is not banned in Vietnam.

In Indonesia, the manager of a Falun Gong-affiliated station, Radio Era Baru, was arrested and tried in late March. Gatot Machali is currently awaiting the court’s decision on charges of "broadcasting without authorization and disrupting neighbouring frequencies," a violation of the Telecommunications Law which carries a maximum sentence of six-years’ imprisonment. The station broadcasts stories about human rights abuses against Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans and Uighurs in mandarin. Reporters Without Bordersbelieves that his arrest is also a result of pressure from the Chinese government. The Jakarta Post reported that the Chinese embassy in Indonesia has repeatedly pressured local authorities to take action against the station.

Despite the fact that radio broadcasting puts both journalists and the stations they work for at risk, they continue to exist because there is a readership that values their news and information. Radio continues to be a widely used medium for reporting both local and international news. Advances in technology may have led to the emergence of a broad range of media outlets and platforms, but it has also made the radio more accessible for populations that lack access to other means of information technology, which is why it is still very much relevant today.

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