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On the Air, Feet on the Ground: Democracy, Development, and FM Radio in Niger

Antonio Lambino's picture

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a viewing and panel discussion of a documentary film entitled Magic Radio: The FM Revolution in Niger at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.  Mainly about the contribution of private FM radio toward enhancing grassroots democracy, the film also illustrates radio’s efficacy in publicly promoting development issues, particularly in the areas of health, education, and gender. The subsequent panel featured Mark Nelson, Tia Duer, and Ajay Tejasvi of The World Bank Institute (WBI), who expanded the scope of discussion to include the following points: the importance of carrying out technocratic and communication interventions simultaneously; the special capacity of community radio stations in empowering people locally; and broadcast radio’s relatively low barriers to entry in terms of access, technology, and literacy.
According to a WBI brief on radio in Niger, more than 100 private radio stations have sprung up in the country since the introduction of democracy in 1990, and “defy the previous monopoly of the state media”. It is worth noting that the film provides simple, down-to-earth examples of the ways in which media, democracy, and development can be inherently linked and mutually supportive.  For instance, the film shows radio station employees making imaginative use of limited infrastructure in order to achieve higher production values, enhancing broadcasting quality with negligible marginal cost.  In one scene, a radio station employee is shown opening a window.  Perhaps to let some sunshine in and the mustiness out of the room, I thought. The film then cuts to an outdoor shot showing him lowering a microphone from a second floor window with a long cable – for use in live person-on-the-street interviews on the day’s pressing issues. In a world where wireless technologies facilitate transmission of live audio and video streams across oceans and continents, we must applaud these radio employees in Niger who, with old technology and a "traditional medium", find a way to broadcast live actuality, presenting important and timely issues in a more entertaining and interactive manner to their listeners.
      The film also features mainstream development communication themes: radio shows on education, health, and gender issues. For education, the film depicts a studio jam-packed with excited kids of primary school age, being quizzed on basic things they need to know in order to function well in society, such as how many days there are in a year and what the twelve months are in the proper sequence. This again demonstrates the juxtaposition of making do with meager media infrastructure (the room was bursting with kids!) toward attaining development outcomes (better informed children). For health, a radio host talks about a common disease and shares tips for preventing transmission. On gender, two women are shown broadcasting their views on gender inequality and the devastating impact of child marriage on women. Also gender related, a group of men argue animatedly about whom one of their listeners, who wrote a letter seeking their advice, should marry, bringing to the fore underlying generational and ideological tensions.
Of equal importance, images of listeners are interspersed throughout the film. People are shown listening to the radio while going about their everyday lives: alone and in groups; while walking on the street and visiting a friend; driving cars or trucks; and even while playing board games with neighbors. In this developing country context, radio’s widespread diffusion makes clear its democratizing and developmental potential.
What struck me most about Magic Radio is the way in which it seamlessly weaves together aspects of media development, often linked to democracy promotion, and communication for development, which emphasizes human and socioeconomic development. For those who are familiar with the argument that media development and communication for development intersect only tangentially, and should therefore be separate domains, it is noteworthy that this film, without explicitly saying it, treats them as mutually dependent and reciprocally reinforcing in Niger’s ongoing struggle toward a better future. Ubiquitous media access and widespread dissemination of human and socioeconomic issues make for a powerful combination in promoting both democracy and development.
Of course, not all media are geared toward development, much less democratic objectives. Conversely, development initiatives do not always require media components. Nonetheless, as radio in Niger demonstrates, the combined potential can be instrumental toward improving the lives of a large number of people, especially among the most vulnerable groups. Perhaps the positive experiences of radio in Niger underscore the idea that when we find ourselves in situations of extreme scarcity, expending resources on specialization makes much less sense than adding value to connections that already exist.


Submitted by Mela on
Excellent point about media development and communication for development as being two ideas that aren't mutually exclusive! This reminds me of a film that Amy Jordan showed at Penn called "The World According to Sesame Street," which talks about efforts to bring the show to conflict-ridden areas, such as Kosovo, and places where educational TV hasn't been developed as much, like Bangladesh and South Africa. And surprisingly (or is it unsurprising?), it appears that Sesame Street has done a lot to develop the media for purposes of education in those areas, at the same time that it has contributed to the improvement of understanding of important issues that may have once been taboo to the children of those areas.

Submitted by Antonio on
Thanks for posting, Mela! I think it's unfortunate that development communication researchers and practitioners are not as focused on education as they were a few decades ago. I remember chatting about this with Prof. Bob Hornik, one of the world's leading scholars in this area (and an incredible teacher, I might add) and he said that empirical evidence supporting demonstrable gains in this area had been found in past evaluation work. I hope education makes a comeback!

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