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Red Cross Radio Serves Millions

Red Cross radio broadcasts provide health and life skills information for vulnerable listeners worldwide

Henry Makiwa,senior media relations officer with the British Red Cross  LONDON — It’s Wednesday afternoon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Local Creole-speaking radio listeners are tuning their dials to “Radyo Kwa Wouj” (“Radio Red Cross” in Creole).
Depending on what’s topical, these Haitians may get up-to-date information about impending storms, health care tips, water and sanitation news, psychosocial support, and ideas about shelter. This is information that is needed in this impoverished country, which still has not fully recovered from the devastating earthquake in 2010.

In studio with “Radyo Kwa Wouj” in Haiti “The idea behind the use of radio in Haiti is firstly to make sure that the public get a range of information on issues that can be quite important to them and, indeed in most cases, life-saving,” said Henry Makiwa, senior media relations officer with the British Red Cross. “It’s also a mechanism for people to call back into the radio station to ask questions about what it is happening generally with the relief effort.”


The Red Cross first began radio broadcasting in 1945, in the wake of World War II. Those early shortwave broadcasts from its headquarters in Geneva included the names of released prisoners of war, official messages from the International Committee of the Red Cross to governments in conflict zones, and informational programs for the general public. The broadcasts came first from the ICRC’s Radio Inter-Croix-Rouge operation, later known as the Red Cross Broadcasting Service.

Although the ICRC sometimes ceased broadcasting for periods due to lack of funds, the broadcasts made a difference. For instance, Radio Inter-Croix-Rouge’s reading of freed prisoners of war names over the air helped to “reunite some of over a half-million POW and displaced persons with loved ones by reading their names over the air,” according to Jerome S. Berg’s book, “Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today” (McFarland & Co., 2008).

“The Red Cross has long been using radio as a means of reaching a wider audience,” said Makiwa. These production efforts soon extended beyond Switzerland to stations in places stricken by natural and manmade disasters. “In countries where literacy levels are low and communication platforms are limited, people often rely on local radio networks for their news and information,” he said.

“Radyo Kwa Wouj” is produced by Haitian Red Cross staff and local volunteers Today, Red Cross radio programs remain vitally important in areas as far-flung as Haiti, Nepal and Tanzania. “In countries like Tanzania, radio is used to teach people about good first aid practices, as this is a key part of the Red Cross’ work in the region,” said Makiwa. “Not only does radio offer the Red Cross the chance to reach a wider audience, but it also means listeners can pose questions by texting or calling the radio station.”

The content offered by Red Cross Radio — produced by the ICRC and carried on stations in the target area — varies depending on the specific needs of each market served.

In Haiti, the two-hour “Radyo Kwa Wouj” program is heard locally in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday afternoons, and nationally on Friday afternoons. Based on the ICRC’s audience research, “Thirty percent of people that we interviewed mentioned that they listened to the radio station,” Makiwa said. “If you extrapolate that to the entire population of Haiti then you’re talking about 3 million.”

Produced by Haitian Red Cross staff and volunteers, the content on “Radyo Kwa Wouj” is always linked to what it feels matters most to Haitians now. “For example, if there is a hurricane approaching, the show can be used to broadcast information about that and what precautions people can take during that time,” said Makiwa. “We also talk about a lot of issues that are related to the recovery; so for instance people’s access to land and finding new accommodation, as well as sanitation and hygiene.”

Nepal Red Cross Radio producer Pushpa Khanal on the board  Halfway around the world in Nepal, the Red Cross broadcasts a weekly 15-minute show every Tuesday evening on 25 radio stations. The show “boasts a wide range of content including Red Cross news and features,” Makiwa said. “It is also used for public service warnings; for example, to let people know when a monsoon is approaching and how they should prepare. Advice is also provided on preparing for disasters and health issues.”

The Nepal Red Cross broadcast reaches about 350,000 people each week. The Red Cross receives about 200 text messages a month related to a broadcast, asking for advice or information. “It is a great way of facilitating contact between the public and the Red Cross and a way of getting our message across to a mass audience,” he said.

In Tanzania, driving safety is a serious issue, as hundreds of people are killed in accidents annually on the country’s roads. To counter this problem, the Red Cross’s Radio “Victory Usalama Wetu” program (Kiswahili for “Our Safety”) broadcasts to thousands of people in northern Tanzania, to educate them on road safety.

As seen through the announcer’s booth: Nepal Red Cross Radio Producer Pushpa Khanal. Credit all: British Red Cross.  That call-in radio show “always has Red Cross experts or officials on, accompanied by local authorities such as policemen, to discuss key issues affecting people on the roads and in their communities,” said Makiwa. “This kind of programming complements what Red Cross volunteers are doing on the ground; teaching courses in bus and motorcycle drivers’ vital life-saving skills to be used in the event of an accident.”

In combination, the “Usalama Wetu” program and the Red Cross’ life-saving courses “have reached thousands of people,” he noted. Their impact is “a factor credited with keeping the death rate stable, despite a huge increase in the number of motorcycles on the roads in recent years.”

With the advent of new technologies such as mobile telephones and the Web, the ICRC is reaching its target audiences in new ways. For instance, the Red Cross has deployed a large-scale SMS alert system in Haiti that connects to the nation’s mobile phones. Known as the “Telephone Kwa Wouj SMS service,” it received 20,000 sign-up calls in its first four days after being launched in May 2012.

The Red Cross knows that radio works, so no matter how much it uses TV, mobile, and the Web, the international aid agency has no intention of abandoning a medium that has served its efforts so well.

“We believe radio will become a standard part of our information dissemination operations in the future; depending on the technological capacity of the organization and the countries we work in,” Makiwa concluded.

James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Ontario.