In the developed world, radio is a more or less dying medium. In the age of iPods, who needs to switch on a radio to listen to music? Much less to listen to political talk, which you get anywhere from your local newspaper (preferably online) to cable television (also online, of course). Nevertheless, radio has a curious position in the political realm, in particular in developing countries, and to some extent also in the Western world.
Politics junkies in the U.S. can get their daily fill on NPR or through the rantings of radio pundits left (on, for instance Air America Radio) and right (The Rush Limbaugh Show). In many African countries radio is the only medium through which political information can reach citizens.
In the United States, Rush Limbaugh's conservative talk radio is a fascinating example for political incorrectness that seems almost acceptable - maybe because it's "only radio"? But it's not "only radio," quite the opposite. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication have shown that intense politically biased messages on political talk radio enforce radical political positions (most strongly so for Rush Limbaugh listeners, as compared to other conservative and liberal talk radio hosts). In a survey carried out in 1996, Joseph Cappella and his colleagues found that Limbaugh listeners had distorted perceptions of President Clinton's position on various political issues. In a brand new book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the conservative media establishment, Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson describe how conservative political talk radio shields listeners from alternative sources of information and promotes strongly negative attitudes toward political opponents.
In developing countries, political (in)correctness is not quite the issue. In the face of widespread illiteracy and a serious lack of reliable media infrastructure, radio is one of the few media that can reach a larger audience. Paul Collier writes in his book The Bottom Billion: Why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it: "I think that in most bottom-billion countries television is still too limited to be the key medium; it is more likely to be radio." The World Bank supports many projects in, for instance, African countries, promoting community radio as instrument for social accountability and social inclusion. Through digital radio technology political information reaches remote rural areas and allows citizens to be a part of the political life of their communities and countries - which would otherwise be far out of their reach. Since radio builds on Africa's strong tradition of oral knowledge, the medium can be a powerful instrument for educating and empowering citizens, and for holding public officials accountable. After all, promoting democracy can only be successful if citizens have access to the democratic public sphere where they can make their voices heard. The general principle isn't so different between the global South and North - it's about equal access to information and opinion, no matter which political couleur.
Photo credits: Flickr user verhoogen.be