Author: BBC Media Action Insight's Melanie Archer, on February 13 2017 - To mark World Radio Day, Melanie Archer reviews how radio can be a force for inclusion in a changing world, although it is vulnerable to getting co-opted for ideological purposes.

Snapchat’s been grabbing headlines with its decision to become a public company. The messaging app has amassed an impressive 158 million daily users, 39 million of whom are based outside of North America and Europe.

However, there’s only so much scope for Snapchat to grow in certain parts of the world – 75% of African and 58.4% of Arab countries aren’t using the internet and so it’s just not an option for them.

But over three-quarters of homes in the Global South have access to another exciting – though not quite as new – communication platform: radio. Looking at just the BBC, 147 million people around the world listen to its radio news and 94 million people tune in to its non-English radio shows on a weekly basis. Though perhaps less newsworthy than the latest creation from Silicon Valley, radio is worth our attention on the basis of this kind of reach alone.

We also shouldn’t assume that innovation is primarily limited to the tech sector. At a World Radio Day panel discussion held at SOAS in London, Dr Caroline Mitchell guided us through the Radio Garden, an interactive “globe” that lets you listen in live to radio stations everywhere, from Kabul to Kathmandu.

Other creative projects presented by the panel included a song contest to help Guineans move on from Ebola and a UK radio show for refugees to tell their stories. The speakers also shared their insights into the overall state of radio today, here are some highlights:  

Radio can be a real force for inclusion

Radio is a fundamentally inclusive medium. It facilitates communication with people who live in remote areas or don’t have ready access to electricity or are otherwise cut off from rest of the world, perhaps due to conflict or a natural disaster.

Radio costs less to produce than TV or print and an old Nokia handset can let someone listen in, even while it won’t be logging them onto Facebook anytime soon.

And amidst worries that we live in a post-truth world of echo chambers and filter bubbles, radio is uniquely positioned to facilitate genuine, constructive and civil debate between opposing sides.

Radio can help people define their own narratives

Radio can provide a platform for minority groups to put across their own stories, which is especially important when they feel they are being misrepresented in the wider media. Community radio in particular can help people escape from a singular label, such as ‘refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’, and explore positive aspects of their identities. 

The airwaves can also demarcate a safe space for vulnerable groups to speak about their lives. People don’t need to show their faces or use their real names; unlike posting online, it comes with little risk of unwanted exposure to hostile commentary. It can give refugees with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivors of sexual violence alike the level of privacy and intimacy they need to speak about painful experiences. 

But radio can also get co-opted

Yet despite all these positives, there are dangers too. Most notoriously, radio was used to incite violence during the Rwandan genocide.

Looking to the current day, Afghanistan’s media landscape is fractured and almost anyone can set up a radio station if they have the money. As a result, a number of radio stations push narrow agendas that risk fuelling strife and tension through the airwaves.  

Nepal may have more community radio stations per head than any other country but many are being co-opted, making them increasingly likely to serve the interests of local strongmen rather than the public. 

Radio is at its best when it facilitates conversation between those who really do fundamentally disagree with each other. We should be worried if listeners aren’t hearing both sides of today’s debates.  

Melanie Archer is Digital Editor of the Media Action Insight blog; she tweets as @MelanieBArcher

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