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Why community radio should be like a jukebox, not a lecture


The occasion of UNESCO's second World Radio Day (February 13, 2013) encourages us to reflect on radio as a medium which is celebrated for reaching the widest audience worldwide and is often a primary source of information, even for the most marginalised communities. I'm sure the Airtime community does not need convincing about the power of radio as a low-cost, accessible medium which brings groups together who are united by song tastes, interest in certain issues or simply by virtue of their location. Whatever reason people have for tuning in, the radio community are recognising that radio is changing in nature and the medium no longer serves as just a one way broadcast. Instead, radio is an interactive platform for communities to share ideas.

Working with both the Airtime and FrontlineSMS communities in the radio space, I've seen the number of channels through which that interaction happens. Both of these tools are widening the spectrum of options available to presenters to make radio the truly interactive, multi-platform conversation that it can be. In this post, I explore how digital communications – not just social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter but particularly the use of mobile phones, including SMS and voice - are changing how interactive radio can be, allowing audiences to increasingly control and influence radio content.

While Airtime "lets you take total control of your radio station," I think the slogan urges nuanced exploration of what "control" really means. Airtime is a fantastic interface to support the way a presenter runs a program schedule, enabling access from anywhere via the Internet. But how do presenters decide which songs to play or which discussion topics to cover? In my work with FrontlineSMS – a platform which supports sophisticated applications of text messaging, I am witnessing how radio stations are exploring innovative ways to allow audiences to drive content. Using a spectrum of different options for audience engagement, including harnessing mobile technology, many stations are working to ensure that radio is not a lecture, but a conversation; not a set playlist, but a jukebox. 

In this so-called age of social media, the opening up of channels for participation through Twitter and Facebook is proving the popularity of opportunities to interact with radio stations. As Tweets, Facebook likes, comments and posts trickle into programming, audiences demonstrate their need to feel part of what they hear and assert their ability to respond to content, not just absorb it. But not everyone is online or able to access these social media tools. In these cases, how can presenters lower barriers for audience contributions? With 3.2 billion unique mobile subscribers globally (source GSMA), it's important to remember the ubiquity of mobile, including mobiles without a data connection, as a method to reach the otherwise unreachable. Traditional voice calls are incredibly powerful on a medium fundamentally based on audio and storytelling, but a station may be able to air only a limited number of calls like this. Enter another contender for the win: the humble text message (SMS).

Better FM | Photo credit Florence Brisset

Better FM | Photo credit Florence Brisset

Because SMS is digital, there's virtually no limit to the number of contributors, as long as you have the right analysis tools. Presenters can work asynchronously, scanning and prepping messages to read aloud in real time. Structured polling allows for even wider reach, allowing presenters to readily respond to their listeners and FrontlineSMS contains some cool graphing visualizations which can help automate this. Moreover, people can send SMS on the move, and it is an extremely intimate and immediate way of communicating. SMS is the most dominant form of interactivity in many radio stations (at least in the US and certainly in other contexts) and in many ways, SMS is showing us the way forward by reaching more people and changing the types of conversation radio stations are having with their audiences. We've even seen station presenters build out on these lessons about becoming more personal and more responsive, and applying them to an increasing number of channels, including Twitter and Facebook. Even the mighty Facebook doesn't threaten the ever popular SMS – as Jared Newman from Time Tech argues, Internet-based messaging apps require a conscious decision not to use reliable, less complicated, traditional SMS. 

In my work with FrontlineSMS, where I focus on radio applications, I have learnt how radio audiences around the world see feedback as critically important. Audiences want more than an opportunity to express a voice; they also want to feel heard or to see that they can make a difference. By integrating SMS feedback, audiences know they are not just listening to the preferences of one presenter, but that content is immediately responsive and reflective of audience opinions. Even if these opinions aren't their own, they come from their community of people interested in similar things and represent how "normal people just like me" can have a say on an (often) wide reaching platform. For example, Breeze FM in Zambia invites suggestions for topics on their "Issue of the Day" talk show and in this way it is the community who set the agenda. Meanwhile, at Better FM in Uganda, the audience is invited to submit questions to posit to decision-makers on air, offering an opportunity to hold community or government leaders accountable. In turn, this feedback loop further incentivises future interaction, as hearing from others stimulates dialogue and listeners are inspired by successful opportunities to contribute or take ownership of programming direction. I'm not forgetting the value in selecting song choices either: ever since the jukebox, the ability to hear songs you like makes the listening experience ever more personal. Radio's purpose for entertainment is often much deeper as music creates a meeting point which then allows space for more meaningful and relevant discussion.

Pamoja | Photo credit Emil Graesholm

Pamoja | Photo credit Emil Graesholm

The great thing about opening up opportunities for listener contributions is that presenters' jobs are made easier and they have to do less guesswork about what listeners want to hear. Gathering information about preferences over time allows presenters and producers to make data-driven decisions about program content. Putting the listeners in control actually generates programming which is localized and responsive, which in turn increases relevance and drives listenership as people hear more of what they want. With tools like Airtime, presenters have access to a simple, efficient interface that lets them focus on editing and changing content to respond in real time, rather than worrying about technical details. (I've always wondered what all the buttons in a radio studio really do...) Coupling this efficiency with multichannel options for listener feedback – including FrontlineSMS to capture incoming text messages – has significant potential to open up new frontiers for two-way engagement.

Airtime and FrontlineSMS share more than a user-friendly interface. Both are free and open source (essentially anyone can access and tinker with/modify our code). This underlies our commitment to collaborative and creative thinking which we're keen to explore. Speaking with the folks at Sourcefabric, I know many Airtime users are exploring interactive options to allow listeners to engage via communications platforms with which they are already familiar. Some of the questions which intrigue me include: how do presenters make radio programming interactive and responsive? What communications channels do audiences use which radio stations could harness to reach them in ways otherwise unexplored? What technology or toolsets do radio stations use which have complementary functions? Who really controls the content? As I see it, when it comes to the tools radio stations use to manage both content scheduling and audience interaction, the next step we should be considering is how to make sure these tools are as multi-platform as the conversations happening around them. 

  • The Airtime Community and Sourcefabric are celebrating World Radio Day on February 13, 2013. Find out more details about all the events we are hosting here on our Facebook page