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Radio Broadcasting and the Internet:
Converging for development and democracy (1)

Bruce Girard

Girard was founding director of the Agencia Informativa Púlsar, an Internet-based radio news agency in Latin America. He was organiser and co-chair (with Sucharita Eashwar) of Converging Responsibility: Broadcasting and the Internet in Developing Countries, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, September 1999.

While the benefits offered by the Internet are many, its dependence on a telecom infrastructure means that they are only available to a few. Radio is much more pervasive, accessible and affordable. Blending the two could be an ideal way of ensuring that the benefits accruing from the Internet have wider reach.

More than eighty years after the world's first station was founded, radio is still the most pervasive, accessible, affordable, and flexible mass medium available, especially in the developing world.

Low production and distribution costs have made it possible for radio to focus on local issues, to interpret the world from local perspectives, and to speak in local languages (2). In Latin America, for example, while most radio is produced locally or nationally, only 30% of television programming comes from the region; with 62% produced in the United States (3). Quechua, a language spoken by some 10 million people in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, is all but absent from the region's television screens, but in Peru alone an estimated 180 radio stations regularly offer programmes in the language.

Radio also has a developed infrastructure that must be the envy of any developing country telecom operator. In Sri Lanka, one person in 500 has access to the Internet, but virtually everyone has access to a radio. Bolivia had fewer than five telephone lines per hundred people in 1996, but more than 57 radio receivers per hundred. With per capita GNPs of $800 and $970 respectively, we should not expect that the North American model of individual access to telecommunications will enable a substantial percentage of Bolivians or Sri Lankans to gain access to the global knowledge infrastructure in the near future.

Radio has a special importance for rural and marginalised urban communities. In addition to being the only accessible mass medium, it also fulfils a role as a "community telephone" with several hours a day reserved for broadcasting personal messages, birth and death announcements, invitations to parties, ordering food and supplies from the store in the next village, calling for emergency medical assistance and even for receiving personal medical advice from the local doctor. In many rural areas radio is the only source of information about market prices for crops, and thus the only defence against speculators. It is used in agricultural extension programmes, is a vehicle for both formal and informal education, and plays an important role in the preservation of local language and culture.

While in some parts of the world we take radio for granted, seeing it as little more than an accessory for an automobile, in others it fulfils a variety of roles: it is the only mass medium that most people have access to; it is a "personal" communication medium fulfilling the function of a community telephone; and it is a school, the community's first point of contact with the global knowledge infrastructure.


Relevant, interesting and interactive radio enables neglected communities to be heard and to participate in the democratic process

The medium offers tremendous potential to promote development and democracy and while many stations have squandered this potential, the contribution that has been made is significant. Relevant, interesting and interactive radio enables neglected communities to be heard and to participate in the democratic process. And having a say in decisions that shape their lives ultimately improves their living standards.

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Telecommunication and participation

Probably the three most important characteristics contributing to radio’s strength as a medium for development are its pervasiveness, its local nature and its ability to involve communities in an interactive communication process.

The Internet is also characterised by its interactivity, and, technically, its potential in this area is far greater than radio’s. However, if, as many believe, better access to information, education, and knowledge would be the best stimulant for development, the Internet’s primary development potential is as a point of access to the global knowledge infrastructure. The danger, now widely recognised, is that access to this infrastructure continues to require a telecom infrastructure that is inaccessible to the poor with the result that the development is increasingly a slower process in the places where it is most needed.

The excluded far outnumber the connected and even while the Internet is bringing about profound changes to the world, the vast majority of the world's population has no direct access to it (much less any influence over the nature of the changes it brings with it). Of an estimated 179 million people with access to the Internet (barely 3% of the world's population), more than 80% are in North America or Europe, home to 10% of the world's population (4). In most developing countries less than 1% of the population has direct access to the technology that is changing the world. With the growth of the global knowledge economy there is a very real danger that the ever-widening gap between the info-rich and the info-poor may obliterate any chance of a more equitable world order.

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Diversity and Concentration

Switching our focus back to the media we can see that this sector is also experiencing a series of disturbing changes, many of them brought on by the same set of factors that are behind the rise of telecom – liberalisation, privatisation and technological change. However, the nature of the changes is significantly different. While liberalisation and privatisation have created new opportunities for new players in the telecom sector, for radio the increased competition often simply means a larger number of stations chasing after the same number of potential listeners, and the same slice of the national advertising expenditure pie. There may be new players, but there are no new markets.


In many broadcast markets the drive to reduce or rationalise expenses has led to increased concentration of ownership and control

Thus, while for telecom operators the solution has been to expand into new markets and offer new services, for broadcasters the only obvious option is to reduce expenses by producing cheaper programming or by sharing production costs over a network, at the expense of local content and alternative perspectives.

In many broadcast markets the drive to reduce or rationalise expenses has led to increased concentration of ownership and control. Seeking to spread production costs over an ever greater number of stations, larger networks buy up independent stations and smaller networks and then use relatively inexpensive digital satellite technologies to link them all together. In the United States, for example, this tendency has been so marked that even the Federal Communications Commission has expressed concern (5).

In South America, hundreds of radio stations that began broadcasting when the sector was liberalised in the early years of this decade have since become part of national and even international networks. In Peru, for example, three satellite networks, broadcasting from the capital via repeater stations throughout the country, have more audience share in the provinces than the forty largest provincial stations put together (6). In Argentina and Brazil the national multimedia empires of El Clarin and O Globo have built satellite radio networks that have transformed hundreds of independent local radio stations into repeater stations offering programmes produced in the national capital. The economies of scale enjoyed by these networks mean that the programming is of high technical quality, but the cost is the loss of choice, of local information and of alternative perspectives.

It is ironic that the convergence, liberalisation and privatisation that were expected to open the broadcast spectrum to competition and a greater diversity of voices, are in fact bringing about a broadcast environment increasingly characterised by concentration of ownership and control in fewer hands and the exclusion of local and alternative voices.

At the same time, the benefits offered by the Internet are only available to a few. As valuable as they are, no telecentre or call centre will ever be able to reach so many so easily as radio can. If radio continues its decline, and the Internet continues to rise, the gap between those who have knowledge and information and those who do not will grow.

By way of example, local radio stations in rural communities often broadcast the prices paid in various national markets for agricultural products produced in the community. This enables farmers to grow the crops that will provide them with the best return, to sell them crops in markets that pay well, and to avoid being defrauded by wholesale buyers and speculators. If the local radio station's programming is replaced by network programming from the capital, the need for price information for local crops may be ignored. At the same time, there are a number of well-intentioned donor-supported projects to put this information on the Internet. Since speculators from the city are far more likely to have access to the technology, the end result might be better informed speculators, and more vulnerable farmers.

However, if the local radio station has access to the Internet, and thus to a cheap way of gathering information about prices in national markets, then it will be able to make sure the information gets to the farmers. In this case, radio is the best way of covering the last mile of the telecom infrastructure.

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Blending radio with Internet

None of this is to take away from the value of the internet and the necessity of expanding it in whatever way possible – direct connection from home or office, telecentres and commercial call centres offering email access are essential.

Over the past few years a number of experiments have begun to develop ways of blending independent local radio and the Internet. These were presented and discussed at a conference Converging Responsibility: Broadcasting and the Internet in Developing Countries, held in Kuala Lumpur in September, 1999.

Some of these projects have sought to introduce more diversity and a democratic environment into radio programming by using the Internet as a distribution network among independent broadcasters for news and programmes. Examples of this type of experiment include: two projects in Indonesia, Kantor Berita Radio 68H and Local Radio Meeting Point; the Panos Institute's Banque de Programmes On Line, located in Mali with correspondents in twenty francophone African countries; and Latin America's Agencia Informativa Púlsar.

Others, such as Sri Lanka's Kotmale Community Radio, seek to address the problem of the growing gap between the info-rich and info-poor by providing collective access to the knowledge resources available on the Internet -- using the radio as a sort of people's gateway making the Internet's resources available to rural and marginalised communities.

The articles in this section (7) look at how radio and the Internet can be used together to enhance the social use of independent, local and community radio. They are reproduced here with permission of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Links to various sites and articles concerned with broadcasting and the Internet in developing countries can be found at http://www.comunica.org/kl/docsnlinks.htm.

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(1) Originally published in the journal Voices, Vol. 3, No. 3, December 1999, Bangalore, India. This article is part of a Voices feature based on the results of the conference Converging Responsibility: Broadcasting and the Internet in Developing Countries, Kuala Lumpur, September 1999. Links to information about many of the projects spoken of here can be found at http://www.comunica.org/kl/docsnlinks.htm

(2) While there is a trend toward centralisation of production in national and regional centres, most radio programming remains local with very little from outside Latin America itself.

(3) UNDP Human Development Report 1999, p. 34.

(4) Source - NUA Internet Surveys, June 1999 http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/index.html . Estimates of the number of people with access to the Internet vary widely. A recent UNESCO report puts the figure at 76 million at the end of 1998 (Tawfik, Mohsen, Is The World Wide Web Really Worldwide?, 1999 http://www.unesco.org/webworld/points_of_views/tawfik_1.html ). NUA's figures, based on a compilation of dozens of individual surveys, attempt to measure the number of people who accessed the Internet at least once in the previous three months.

(5) In 1999 the FCC introduced a new class of low power FM radio stations (100 watts) and requested comment on the possibility of establishing a "microradio" class (1-10 watts). In its request for comments on the proposal, the FCC wrote, "The Commission's goals are to provide new opportunities for community-oriented radio broadcasting, foster opportunities for new radio broadcast ownership and promote additional diversity in radio voices and program services…" The National Association of Broadcasters responded with what FCC Chairman William Kennard called "a systematic campaign of misinformation and scare tactics" that, as of March 2000, looked as if it would result in a Congressional challenge to the FCC decision.

(6) From a survey by the Organizaci'on Peruana de Radio (OPERA). It remains to be seen what will happen in the newly liberalisd broadcast sectors of some Asian and African countries, but in at least some cases the tendency appears to be similar to Latin America, with an initial boom followed by consolidation.

(7) This was the lead article in a Voices special feature section on broadcasting and the Internet. The other articles in the section were: New Forms of Governance: Roles of the state by Rohan Samarajiva, Democratisation or Liberalisation: The politics of ICT use by Nitya Jacob, Radio Network: Ensuring people's right to information by Santoso, Linking Rural Sri Lanka to the Internet by Chulie Kirtisinghe De Silva and Combining Radio with Cable and the Internet by Arun Mehta.

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Friedrich Ebert StiftungMixed Media/Medios Enteros - Broadcasting and the Internet in Latin America and the Caribbean is sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and organised by Comunica.