Liberia: End of civil war has changed media landscape forever

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Liberia is only a few years out of civil war and only has a population of 3 million people. Yet it has a vibrant broadcast sector without any state television company. Except for a small part of the downtown area, there is no power grid. Everything is run on individual generators. It is hard to imagine a less promising soil in which the future of African media might grow but young shoots are beginning to turn into strong plants. Just back from a visit to Monrovia, Russell Southwood looks at what might be learnt from what is happening in Liberia.

Liberia’s capital Monrovia is dotted with “hole-in-the-wall” DVD outlets selling pirated films and TV series. Each costs about US$8 for between 7-10 items. The quality’s not very good but it’s “watchable”. A new release like Casino Royale will be put together with old action films from the likes of Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal.

TV series like 24 are extremely popular and command attention. Prior to the opening of a computer lab at the University of Liberia by President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a mobile rang out with the distinctive tone of the phone ringtone in 24’s Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU). Nollywood films are also widely available, including the topically titled The Coming Election.

Pay-TV is available from the Consolidated Group, a company that combines selling TV content, running cyber-cafes and offering VSAT installations. It sells the Dstv and Multichoice service bouquets. The basic package goes for US$30 a month but installation of the required equipment costs over $300. Although numbers are hard to come by, it seems that the majority of the local market is to be found in the city’s eating houses and its small number of hotels. The company has a near monopoly on certain types of content – particularly sport – but collective viewing in bars and pirated content provide the most obvious competition.

Like most Africans, Liberians are football mad and particularly enjoy inter-African matches and UK Premiership events. Over the week of my visit, there were at least three matches that drew huge crowds, whooping and roaring, around the smallest of TVs. Interestingly, one person estimated that at least 40% of these viewers are women.

Converged content is in its infancy with local mobile provider Comium working with an external “value-added” content provider. This provider offers local users horoscopes, ringtones and logos but there are only around 3,000 users for all of these services and they offer only a very modest income stream. Nevertheless the data upgrade “arms race” has already begun amongst the country’s four mobile providers and by the end of the year all will be offering some form of developed data services.

In the absence of a state TV broadcaster, a number of radio and TV groups have grown up including Clare TV (linked to Kings FM); Power TV (with Power FM), Love TV (with Love FM) and Truth TV (with Truth FM). However, their signal strength is fairly limited, reaching only the Monrovia metro area which has around 1 million of the country’s 3 million population.

There is almost no local content except news. These channels relay content from other international stations and some Nollywood films. There is advertising but it is fairly limited. However, local observers are convinced that as the economy takes off and there is more advertising, local content will begin to be made.

In a country where 90-95% of the population are illiterate, radio and TV dominate the media landscape. There is also a flourishing radio sector including six commercial FM stations, the state-funded LRBC FM and 44 community radio stations that can be found in almost every one of the larger communities, particularly outside of the capital. LRBC’s signal only covers up to 40 miles outside the capital and local listeners say the quality is currently rather poor. Commercial radio stations dominate the capital’s airwaves with a mixture of lively music and talk radio. There are also two donor funded radio stations, the Catholic Radio Vertitas and Star Radio supported by a Dutch donor.

Community radio stations survive with a combination of one of three things: donor funding, the patronage of locally wealthy individuals or community support. Typical of the latter are two stations both in Nimba County. Radio Nimba has a 500W transmitter that covers the whole of the County as well as parts of neighbouring Guinea. Its audience is largely young people and its reach is somewhere between 5-10,000 people. The station gets its power from a local businessman who supports the station. A smaller station in the same County is Radio Karn that found the money to set up from donations in the local community. By contrast with Radio Nimba, it only has a 50W transmitter with a 10 mile reach that gets out to a potential audience of 2000 people.

Other support is provided by local mobile provider Cellcom that gives power from its base station generators to some of these local community stations. There is also a small amount of local “announcement-type” advertising and this will undoubtedly grow as the economy begins to move again outside the capital.

Some radio programming is provided by organisations like Search for Common Ground that has a local operation in Monrovia. Started in 1997, the local operation employs 28 people and runs its own production studio, Talking Drum. Programmes concentrate on four themes: corruption, leadership, youth engagement and reconstruction. It provides programmes to 36 radio stations that it has signed MOUs with and also gives modest amounts of financial support in the form of things like fuel.

A typical programme looked at how the Government’s Management Plan of Action sought to put in place processes that would make it easier to fight corruption. This was followed by “vox pop” interviews with people in several different Counties about their attitude to corruption. It also has a three-times weekly soap opera that also airs the issues it covers and runs focus groups amongst its audiences to fine tune its programming. It is currently training local producers who will initiate be able to direct local content.

Currently the country is run by a combination of the elected Government (in office for just over a year) and UNMIL, which as its name implies is a UN peacekeeping mission designed to create security and act in support of the civil power. The end of the civil war has attracted a range of support from donors that will undoubtedly tail off once the economy gets moving and the UNMIL mission is declared complete.

In these circumstances, some of the current large number of radio stations will either have to find their own feet financially or go out of business, That said, those that have found a genuine audience niche for themselves will probably survive and thrive as the economy picks up. The market for Pay-TV is ripe for a lower price competitive offer to Dstv, although the numbers who can afford it are unlikely to exceed 100,00 at present. But again this may change if there is both improved education and rising economic prospects.

The biggest challenge – and this is one for most African countries – is posed by the pirated market where 1-2 hours of programming (admittedly of fairly poor quality) is going for around US80 cents. There is much to learn from the pirated market and the DVD distributor that can actually deliver low-price content into these channels stands every chance of creating something approaching a mass market.