An Internews community radio listener in Nasir, South Sudan. (Credit: A. Romeo) JUBA, South Sudan — In 2005, after 2 million deaths and nearly four decades of civil war, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement started the process that created the new nation of South Sudan. But peace did not bring an end to conflict, suffering and poverty; all conditions exacerbated by a lack of community media.
To fill this void, the international non-profit agency Internews, backed by start-up funding from the United States Agency for International Development, established five community FM radio stations in this region. Internews is a non-governmental organization that builds communities by fostering the growth of local independent media. In South Sudan, it has focused on radio broadcasting — the most cost-effective and immediate way to connect people in poverty-stricken, war-torn regions.
“The concept was to bring news, education and community content in local languages into remote areas that have only had access to word-of-mouth and a few international shortwave stations,” said Deborah Ensor, Internews’ vice president for Africa, Health and Humanitarian Media. “Infrastructure conditions in rural South Sudan are so underdeveloped, it is like building on the moon. But this is precisely where people need community radio most.” The Approach Before building its FM community stations, Internews surveyed South Sudan to determine the most effective way to cover the largest amount of territory, to reach a potential audience of 1.7 million. Having done this and subsequently selected appropriate building sites, the NGO hired local people to staff the stations.
Listening To Naath FM In Nasir, South Sudan (Credit: A. Romeo)
The basic station building is made of local bricks and materials, approximately in a six-meter by six-meter layout. There are usually three to four rooms per station, to allow enough space for an on-air studio, production room, offices and meeting spaces.
The operational facilities at Internews’ South Sudanese stations are an interesting mix of old and new technologies. Each station is computerized with P Squared Myriad mixing and playout software, using either a desktop or laptop computer in the studio. In addition to the Myriad system, operators have access to analog cassette tape decks, to play out locally recorded music. Cassettes are very much alive in sub-Saharan Africa.
The station’s journalists — all local residents — are equipped with Zoom H1 and H2 digital audio recorders with built-in microphones. These units allow Internews’ reporters to gather audio in the field, then download the files directly onto the station’s computer system for editing and playout.
John Musa, a journalist at Voice of Community Radio, on air in the studio. (Credit: Internews)
“Reporters record interviews, vox pops, performances, drama, speeches, press briefings and other material for broadcasting,” said Tusiime W. Romeo (Akiiki), radio production trainer with Internews South Sudan’s Community Radio Network. “The Zoom recorders can be easily operated and are portable,” he said. “They are easy to navigate because they have well-lit LCDs, which display the functions and content for the user to see. Information or data on Zoom recorders can easily be erased and the memory card can be replaced when it gets full or damaged.”
To get the signals out, each station is equipped with a 70-meter transmission mast, 2 kW FM transmitter and a diesel generator. All electricity in rural South Sudan is diesel-generated on a local basis. As a result, the stations generally broadcast between six to seven hours during the day, to conserve their fuel reserves while reaching the largest possible audiences.
How do people listen? With batteries being expensive and main power scarce, many South Sudanese use wind-up and solar-powered radio receivers to tune in, such as the rugged Prime Lifeline Radios given to communities by NGOs. Internews’ South Sudan Community Radio Network is all about rebuilding society. As a result, the programming aired on its stations — all produced and broadcast by locally trained residents — is heavily focused on civic education. Although much of the stations’ programming is talk-based, there are also performances by local musicians, coverage of major community events on location and even radio dramas.
“The presenters cover local news, education, health, safe birthing practices, preventing malaria, how to register to vote, addressing violence against women and how to get clean water,” Ensor said. “At times of conflict, our stations play a big role in reconnecting displaced people and their families. And there are many community announcements about a variety of everyday things; we do a lot of announcements about lost cows.”
Reporters from Naath FM in Leer on air in the studio with their colleagues from Nhomlaau FM in Malualkon, during an exchange visit to foster cultural collaboration. (Credit: Internews)
Internews’ South Sudanese stations have been on air for at least six years, long enough for the NGO to assess their impact on listeners’ lives. Based on a survey of 750 listeners across all five stations, 90 percent of those surveyed listen to Internews community FM radio.
According to the survey, radio was the most popular (63.1 percent of respondents) and trusted (70.3 percent) source of information in South Sudan, followed by word-of-mouth (48.6 percent) and churches/mosques (48.3 percent). Of available radio sources, 84.1 percent of respondents rated the locally run Internews stations as their most important information source, followed by the BBC at 46.2 percent. Approximately 94 percent of the people surveyed said that radio has increased their understanding of South Sudan’s political process, and 88.2 percent believe that people in their communities have become more respectful toward each other as a result of what they have heard on local radio.
The most telling metric: When asked to respond to the statement “radio is an essential source of information in my community,” 79.8 percent of those surveyed chose the most positive response option, “strongly agree.”
A boy is interviewed on air for a radio program on Voice of Community FM. (Credit: Internews)
Clearly, Internews’ community radio stations are making a difference in South Sudan. But the future isn’t all smooth sailing. To date, the stations are still being funded by charitable grants funneled through Internews. “We have our eye to the future, trying to figure out how to keep these stations going when this funding ceases,” said Ensor. “In South Sudan, advertiser-supported radio isn’t immediately practical in these remote places. It will take time.”
This said, Ensor and Internews are buoyed by community radio’s role in helping South Sudanese society recover after decades of civil war. “It’s been a real honor to help build media in a brand new country and to see it make such a difference in improving people’s lives,” she said.
James Careless reports on the industry for Radio World from Ottawa, Canada.