9 February 2001

Top Story

New media change the form in which old media operate. Although the not-for-profit sector in Africa does not have commercial motives, its work can often suggest ways in which new media will develop. The absence of the need for purely financial payback allows it to experiment and to meet the needs of audiences not yet part of the market. This week there has been a cluster of new announcements that focus on bringing together digital content, the internet and radio. WorldSpace Corporation has publicly announced is digital audio broadcast system. Panos’ new Interworld Radio initiative has opened for business. In this issue we look at what this might mean for new media developments in Africa and David Walker of the Commonwealth of Learning describes its "suitcase radio" that can deliver the means to transmit to the remotest of places in digital form.

Digital content - whether sound or text - can be transferred reasonably effectively almost anywhere within African countries provided there is a single delivery point via satellite. The costs are not as high as you might expect. WorldSpace Corporation has been using this means to transmit content across Africa for some time now. However its vision requires a custom-built radio and there are not yet sufficient manufacturers to bring its price down to rock-bottom levels. The report on COL’s project in Uganda shows how its invaluable information can be used in different ways. WorldSpace is the first-of-its-kind and is transmitting a wide array of multilingual radio programming across the entire African continent. Further details:

Panos’s InterWorld Radio is a free source of daily news bulletins and broadcast quality features for radio stations and online listeners. It commissions local journalists all over the world to file reports on issues like economics, human rights, environment, international trade, science and technology. In both Real Audio and MP3 formats, its programmes can be listened to or downloaded from http:// and you can join its features service.

These internet-offered features cover a range of African issues including: under-age drinking (Zimbabwe), gun violence and gangs (South Africa) and health care (Lagos, Nigeria). Inevitably this form of content (development issues journalism?) can sometimes suffer somewhat from its "public announcement" intentions. It has to be well made to carry its message lightly. As film mogul Louis B Meyer used to say: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union". Issue-based categories are not necessarily the form in which people lead their lives. The issues need to form part of a wider diet that includes entertainment. This exists in some places and not in others.

However for all these difficulties, digital sound content is amazingly flexible even in rural settings. You can get programming from elsewhere. You can record your own material and music with fairly cheap technology based at the radio station (or elsewhere). The wider reach of speech and non-English content enables those without literacy to remain a vital component of the audience. And that wider reach could bring people together to create new, locally made digital content. David Walker from the Commonwealth of Learning describes how he thinks the pieces are coming together.


Community radio is an immensely powerful technology for the delivery of education with enormous potential to reach out across Africa. Opening up opportunities for the intended beneficiaries of development to participate in the utilization of this powerful delivery system, will enable disadvantaged groups to engage in evolving a development agenda, which can appropriately and adequately respond to their needs and aspirations.

In order to be truly of service to the underprivileged and rural poor, mass media such as radio must therefore create conditions and mechanisms that can provide people with genuine access to information. Such mechanisms will offer ways in which people can express their sentiments, opinions, views, dreams and aspirations, their fears and insecurities, their strengths and capabilities, as well as their potential for development.

In the last ten years, radio has been greatly enhanced by the emergence of new technologies, which have opened up new opportunities for a variety of forms of delivery and access for both broadcaster and listener. For example, portable, low cost FM transmitting stations have been developed and digital radio systems that transmit via satellite and/or cellular are being implemented in many parts of the globe. Internet streaming audio software technology has emerged recently to allow a global audience to listen the news from a distant country. And windup and solar radios have been developed thus freeing radios from expensive power sources.

But due to national broadcast regulations in many countries, community radio stations have not developed as quickly as the technology has delivered. There is a distinct information gap in the rural corners of some African countries resulting from the lack of service by national broadcasters who in some cases have weak or non-existent signal coverage. To address this problem, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), has deployed portable suitcase sized FM radio stations as part of its project work to provide educational opportunities to disadvantaged groups in rural regions of the Commonwealth. The technology literally fits in a watertight, suitcase-sized carrying case. The station configurations range in price from US$3000-5000 including all elements, antenna, transmitter, console, mixer, microphones and CD and tape decks (Figure 1).The stations can run from 12 V DC or 120/240 AC.

Apac (pronounced Œapatch’), Uganda is located in the northern region of Uganda. This COL project was a co-operative effort with the Minister of State and Tourism, the Right Hon. Akaki, to work with community leaders to implement an FM radio station in the Apac region. The feasibility study revealed several limitations with the electrical infrastructure, which was not reliable.

This was a result of load sharing throughout the country (Apac would not receive power for several days).The power was also not usable for electronic equipment due to the dramatic power fluctuations. Therefore, it was decided that in order to maintain a reliable broadcasting schedule and develop the station as a center point to community activities by different groups, Radio Apac would be operated entirely by solar power.

This would free the project from the constraints of electrical situation and the tariffs associated with it. A configuration was determined, in consultation with a solar distributor in Kampala, to allow the station to stay operational during the eighteen-hour broadcast day. Eleven solar panels and ten deep cycle batteries were installed at the station, which now provides lighting and all the station power requirements for daily broadcasting. A solar system also drives a VHF radio system, and a computer network. The VHF radio system provides a direct live to air device that can be used for interviews and event in the local community.

A second small solar system, which powers the retransmission, is installed 45 kms away from Apac at a high elevation, picking up the main station’s signal on 92.2 FM and retransmitting it on 106.5 FM. Therefore, the station signal now covers a radius of over 100 kms. Planning is underway to extend the station capability to include audio and video production facilities also to be driven by solar. The total potential listening audience is over one million persons. A 64 Kbps data downlink via WorldSpace onto the station’s computer provides health and educational information. Also the service provides meteorological information for farmers in the local community that can be read on the radio after be received via the data downlink. This system is also being used in several development projects throughout Africa.

There is a marriage between the digital and the FM analogue systems that is taking place. The convergence also includes internet streamed audio-based broadcasters that can effectively be employed by the community FM station in a rebroadcast mode. With the many varied formulas for convergence of digital and analogue technology and the vast selection of content and tools to create original, culturally sensitive material for education at the community level, this kind of initiative will make a major difference in development terms.

But will the bodies that regulate frequencies for community radio initiatives reform regulations to reflect the current technological developments and pressing need for mass media to meet the goal for education for all in the next ten years? The next ten should see the harnessing of radio, analogue, and more so digital, as the powerhouse for delivery of education. Governments should be prepared to adjust broadcasting regulations to adhere to technological developments and realities, and also consider community based mass media delivery as an effective solution for improving a nation’s human resource development towards the goal of education for all.

COL has projects models underway in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean and these include computer-based software systems and networks, radio, and video production models. Information concerning these projects can be obtained from: David Walker on .