75% of radio stations in West African survey produce digitally, says new report

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A new report from the Panos Institute of West Africa includes a survey of radio stations in seven West African countries about their use of ICT for reporting, production, transmission and interaction with their listeners. The survey clearly shows the existence of a “two-track” Africa in radio broadcasting with countries like Ghana and Senegal in the “fast track” with others like Niger and Sierra Leone falling well behind. Russell Southwood pulls out the key findings.

The countries surveyed in the report include: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. These represent a good cross section of countries but the absence of Nigeria is striking. Results were obtained from 220 radio stations, which 20 were public radio stations, 73 commercial, 108 community and 19 religious. Overall, the number of responses represents about a third of the radio stations in the countries surveyed, enough to be statistically significant. The level of responses were as follow: Benin (20), Burkina Faso (26), Ghana (31), Niger (32), Senegal (29), Sierra Leone (30) and Mali (52).

Whilst overall the results of the survey make fascinating reading, the report does not explain very well why it might necessary for radio stations to use ICT: it is assumed that it is a “good thing” and the reasons tend to emerge implicitly from the comments made by the radio stations. For example, it does not explain clearly that tapeless production is probably cheaper, or that programme material can be exchanged by e-mail or that ICT offers new ways for stations to interact with the audiences.

However, nearly three-quarters of the radio stations surveyed are now using some form of digital production. 40.67% of respondents mix analogue and digital, 22.97% were completely digital and 33.36% were still doing analogue production. The number using analogue production rises to 65.6% in Niger whereas almost the same proportion (62.2%) in Ghana were using digital production, largely in the commercial sector. The liberalisation of broadcasting clearly attracts investment in driving innovation.

Only 33.3% were using satellite to receive audio programmes, a clear signal that the take-up of services like World Space have yet to make a significant impact in this field. In transmission terms, only 2.8% used satellite and the majority of these were public broadcast stations meeting national coverage obligations. In the commercial sector, only Radio Walfadjiri in Senegal offers satellite transmission.

Although mobile phones are now widely dispersed, a surprisingly small number of stations made them part of the reporting process. Only 15% said they always used them and only 40% regularly. Mobiles should be an essential part of the reporting process for as Radio Golf in Benin said:”It’s the most useful and practical tool for reporters” as it allows them to report in real-time on events happening. The only drawback is the 25-30% of most countries without GSM coverage. In terms of audience response, SMS was used by 83.4% of respondent stations. It would have been interesting to get information on the level of SMSs sent to different stations.

The use of computers in radio stations is still very low: Only 14% of respondents had 10+ computers, 12% 6-10, 20% 3-5, 33% 1-2 and 21% no computers. Access to the Internet at radio stations again reflects the split identified earlier. With almost national Internet access, 89.7% of radio stations survey in Senegal had Internet access compare with 93.5% in Ghana. But only 20% had it in Sierra Leone and 25% in Niger. But 92% of connected stations in Senegal had an ADSL broadband connection because the cost is the lowest in West Africa.

There are three barriers to Internet connectivity for radio stations with Internet: slowness of connection (49.5%), cost (39%) and power outages (36.2%). For those without, the barriers are: cost (72.5%), the absence of a telephone line (57.8%) and no or not enough computers (47.1%). 96.3% of Ghanaian radio stations complained about the slowness of the connection and this in a country that is connected by the SAT3 international fibre.

Ghanaian community station Radio Tongu in Sogakope struck a deal with a new ISP in the area to share the costs of erecting a tower in exchange for free Internet access. Radio Ada tried a similar approach but the ISP went out of business.

Only 23% have web sites but 28% have discontinued their web sites. Cost was the main reason given for discontinuing them: for example, rural radio in Kayes said it cost FCFA120,000 a month. Only 9% updated them between daily and once a month. 12.5% were streaming programmes but 23.4% no longer were doing so. Ghana and Senegal were the pioneers with 41.7% and 33.3% respectively. Streaming provides an effective way of connecting with diaspora audiences. Only 5 radio stations reported creating podcasts.

There is no doubt about what will help radio stations adopt ICT: cheaper and more accessible broadband (often using wireless); taking import tax off ICT equipment and rolling out GSM coverage to near national levels. The use of SMS responses is an underestimated income stream that is driving the use of radio by advertisers. The strangest thing is that radio station owners and staff have in their hands the means to persuade Governments to make the changes that would make them more effective.