Community media and SMS text messages

SMSAt first glance text messages would seem like a natural for inclusion in a community radio station’s essential toolkit. messages are inexpensive and easy-to-use and in recent years the phones that are needed for sending and receiving them have become ubiquitous. However, a survey of recent projects indicates that use of messages among community media in the developing world is still at an early stage. In most stations use is informal. The few cases identified of community stations making more complex use of messages have accompanied political crises or natural disasters and have inevitably been donor financed. There are few, if any, experiences of complex uses of by community media without external funding and technical support, even though the financial and technical resources required are minimal.

Download a Spanish-language version of this article

When the GSM mobile telephone standard was developed engineers included the ability to send short text messages, up to 160 characters, between phones. Operators were sceptical about the service’s ability to interest customers or to generate revenue, but consumers massively took it up as a convenient and inexpensive alternative to voice calls.  With time applications and services were developed enabling, for example, broadcast messages, mobile payments, polling and information services. In 2007 global revenue from SMS messages was more than $50 billion with more than 1 trillion messages sent.(1)

As mobile phones become increasingly common, SMS messages are being used by community media in a variety of ways.

At its simplest, announcers and journalists announce their phone mumbers over the air and invite listeners to send messages with comments on the news, questions, greetings, song requests… Some of these are then used on-air. In some cases, stations have devised ways of generating feedback via mobiles without the listeners having to pay even the cost of an SMS message. For example, Xtreme FM, a community-oriented pirate station in the UK, has a mobile permanently in the studio:

“It vibrates every few seconds like a faulty alarm clock, as listeners call and text. Scrolling through its inbox, I notice scores of “missed calls”. Big N explains that this is how pirates gauge a record’s popularity. If listeners like a tune, they call in and then ring off, so the studio mobile registers a “missed call”. This costs callers nothing. If Xtreme receives over 20 missed calls from different numbers before a track ends, the DJs play it again. This is why teenagers listen to pirate radio: it’s interactive in ways legal stations can’t match.”(2)

Another example is Interactive Radio for Justice, a radio programme in Ituri, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that answers listeners’ questions about justice issues sent by SMS. Ethan Zuckerman points out that sending questions via SMS allows for anonymity, an important point when your question is: “Are soldiers allowed to stay at my house and eat my food without paying for it?”

Desktop software and web-based services allow stations to do more. International broadcasters such as the BBC make extensive use of these tools as do some commercial stations. However, there are few examples of local and community radio using them, even though they offer a low-cost and relatively simple way of stimulating participation and interaction.

There are various software and service packages available. Among them is FrontlineSMS(3), a programme that runs on a computer connected by a cable to an ordinary mobile phone. Unlike most other programs and services, FrontlineSMS does not require a connection to the internet – messages are composed, stored and processed on the computer and sent and received on the mobile. There are a variety of tools available with different capabilities and pricing.(4) Basic services useful for community media include:

  • – Broadcast messages to dozens or even thousands of mobiles advising them of a special programme or an important community activity
  • – Keyword response – when a listener sends the word “ocio” the station replies with a text message listing activities while “noticias” is answered with current headlines and “Colectivo a Lima” is answered with the departure times of the next six buses to the capital

Experiencies combining SMS services and broadcast radio can be found in moments of political crisis and natural disasters. For example, SMS and radio were used to help monitor the 2000 presidential elections in Ghana:

[V]oters who were prevented from voting used mobile phones to report their experience to call-in shows on local radio stations. The stations broadcast the reports, prompting police to respond to the accusations of voter intimidation. Had voters called the police directly, it’s possible that authorities might not have responded — by making reports public through the radio, voters eliminated the possibility of police announcing that there had been no reports of voter intimidation. Similar techniques have been used in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and even in the United States — American voters used mobile phone cameras and Websites to record reports of voting irregularities during the 2006 congressional elections.(5)

The ongoing political crisis in Zimbabwe provides another example of the complementarity of radio and SMS. Faced with one of the most repressive media environments in the world, Gerry Jackson founded SW Radio located in the UK and broadcasting to Zimbabwe on shortwave. The signal is jammed in urban areas (thanks to Chinese technology, according to Jackson), but gets through to zones. The station also streams it programming on the internet and ara available to the very few connected to the internet from Zimbabwe, but increasingly important are the headlines sent to phones in Zimbabwe using SMS. According to Jackson:

Currently we’re most excited about our latest endeavour – sending SMS news headlines into Zimbabwe, via mobile phones. We generate news headlines on a daily basis anyway – so this is just another way of using what already exists.

It’s nice and cost effective… because there is only the one cost, actually sending the texts. In two months we’ve built up an address database of about 2,000 mobile phone numbers.

Like many, Zimbabweans truly love their mobile phones and of course what we’re banking on is the virus effect. We also get up to 100 requests a day to be added to the service so it’s growing rapidly.(6)

During natural disasters SMS and radio have been used to provide emergency communication, for example an earthquake Yogyakarta and Central Java in Indonesia  killed more than 5,000 people and displaced 1.6 million in May 2006. With support from Internews, a U.S.-based NGO, a radio station and SMS text messaging provided news about relief efforts.

The service was run through an emergency AM radio station, Radio Punokawan, established by the Indonesian Press and Broadcast Society, with support from Internews. In addition to radio broadcasts, important information was sent and received from the newsroom via text messaging. Outgoing messages warned of aftershocks and identified communities that had not yet received government assistance. More than 180 Indonesian journalists distributed and received information through the service.(7)

Some stations have incorporated SMS polling into their programming. During Kenya’s 2007 elections a local radio and television stations and newspapers used SMS to poll listeners on a number of questions. While the  results of the polls were posted on a website and discussed in the local media, the questions were designed to provoke debate about democracy rather than to measure public opinion. Examples included: “Have politicians done enough to fight corruption and mismanagment of public resources?”, “Do you think special seats should be created for women in parliament?”, “Does party politics foster national unity?” and “Do you feel your vote has the power to make a difference?”.

A new project in Grahamstown, South Africa proposes to use SMS to create a network of citizen journalists for a local newspaper. Eighty high school journalists trained as citizen journalists will send their news and views via SMS messages. A selection of the messages will be printed in the newspaper while others will be redistributed via SMS to community members. The project coordinator admits that it will be difficult to fit the news into the 160 characters that an SMS message can have, but they are already thinking of how to overcome the problem.

In the future, Berger hopes that the program will expand and possibly include other technologies like MMS (multimedia) messages. “We want to interface with the newspaper website, and we’re developing open source software to link the two,” he said. Berger said that there would also be research into the effectiveness of the project. “Then we’re also going to research next year the significance of this whole project,” he said. “Is it making a difference? What does it mean for democracy to have a lot of citizen journalism and to have young people contributing to the public opinion?”(8)

Projects combining SMS and radio have been enabled by the rapid takeup of mobile phones. Globally there is one mobile phone for every two people and in many countries of Latin America the majority of poor people now have access to a mobile telephone.(9) Internet connections and fixed line telephones are still out of reach for much of the world’s population, but mobile telephones have spread faster than any other communication technology in history.

“The only technology that compares to the mobile phone in terms of pervasiveness and accessibility in the developing world is the radio. Indeed, considered together, radios and mobile phones can serve as a broad-distribution, participatory media network with some of the same citizen-media dynamics of the Internet, but accessible to a much wider, and non-literate audience.”(10)

A study of mobile telephone use by people from low-income households in seven Latin American and Caribbean countries indicates high level of SMS by the region’s poor, apparently attracted to the technology because of its low-cost.(11)

Lessons learned?

We have not independently evaluated the experiences presented here, relying instead on accounts gathered from various media accounts and websites. As a result we are unable to clearly identify many of the enabling aspects or problems encountered. Certainly the rapid expansion of mobile telephony, the low cost of SMS messages and the aspirations of community radio stations to be accessible and participatory are important factors for enabling SMS messages for encouraging community participation and feedback.

The real question is not what has enabled the projects described here, but why are more community radio stations not making active use of SMS to communicate with their listeners? Certainly the very rapid take up of mobile telephony is one reason. In many countries the number of users has doubled over the past two years or so and it is understanable that radio stations will take some time to devise strategies for using the technology. Other reasons could include the limitations of 160 characters per message and users who do not know how to use SMS.(12)

While there has been some spontaneous use of SMS messages as a way of facilitiating communication with listeners and community members, more complex projects using SMS servers and applications have generally emerged as a response to political crises or natural disasters. There are few, if any, experiences of complex uses of SMS without external funding and technical support, even though the financial and technical resources required are minimal.

A joint research project of AMARC’s Latin America and Caribbean region and ALER, will establish “labs” to experiment with the use of various ICTs in community radio stations in Latin America. Including advanced SMS servers and services in the package of options offered by the labs should provide some information about the appropriateness and potential of this technology for the region’s community media.

Bruce Girard
July 2008
If you know about or are involved in an SMS/community media project, please tell us about it as a reply to this post or by email.  blog2[at]comunica[dot]org


4. MobileActive has evaluated some of these tools and their use in campaigns Also see their comparison of various tools at
5. Ethan Zukerman, Mobile Phones and Social Activism: Why cell phones may be the most important technical innovation of the decade”
6. Texting news to bypass censors,
7. Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs
8. Local news with SMS
9. A study of 7,000 low income households in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago found that in every country except Mexico a majority of respondents had used a mobile phone in the past 3 months. In 4 of the 7 countries a majority of respondents owned their own mobile phones.
10. Ethan Zuckerman
11. A DIRSI study of 7,000 low income households in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, Mexico, Peru, and Trinidad and Tobago found that in every country except Mexico a majority of respondents had used a mobile phone in the past 3 months. In 4 of the 7 countries a majority of respondents owned their own mobile phones.
12. The DIRSI study cited lack of knowledge as the main reason given by people when asked why they did not use SMS. According to the study, this is “not surprising given that most respondents are relatively new users (two years or less). In fact, our results suggest that adoption of services beyond voice increases over time, as users advance along the technical learning curve.”

[Slashdot] [Digg] [Reddit] [] [Facebook] [Technorati] [Google] [StumbleUpon]

4 Responses to “Community media and SMS text messages”

  • Great article! Can we repost on with your permission? You might also want to check out – would love to reference your piece there as well. Let me know whether we have permission, and thanks!


  • Katrin: Please feel free to repost the article. Thanks for telling us about the radio and SMS article on mobileactive. – bg

  • Thanks — done! 🙂


    Dear Sir,


    We are a farmers cooperative society (marketing, welfare and social) based in Western KENYA, with a membership of just under 6,500. WE ARE member to the Kenya National Federation of Cooperatives. Our operational context is a rural set up with a poor road and infrastructure network. But like many rural places in Africa we have a fairly good mobile phone network and ownership.

    In order to reach communicate to our membership we are at conceptual stages of developing a community sms text messaging called Linked up. Essentially there will be a hub – computer software managed, from which all messages will be relayed to the members as text messages on their phones. Members will know in real time key events about events and going ons at their cooperatives, market conditions for their produce, public events of interest, and will have opportunity themselves to send to others similar messages via the hub. This will be a bulk sms service.

    We hope we could get partners out there who maybe willing to discuss with us so that we equally can tap into best technology and successes out there. For us this service if it takes off, will be revolutionary, participatory and cheap compared to other means of communication.

Leave a Reply

You must login to post a comment.