Radio breathes new life to the airwaves in the digital age

The great Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, introduced the world to wireless communication technology in 1901 when he beamed a signal from Cornwall, England to St. John’s Newfoundland.

Radio was born. Talk about a “disruptive technology”.

Marconi’s discovery meant people could communicate instantly around the world. No more waiting weeks for printed information to be sent by train, sleigh or canoe.

Radio became vitally important for almost everyone – especially farmers. Living in remote communities, far from universities, research centres and government departments, farmers relied on radio for agricultural advice, news and market information. In the Canadian prairies, after the dust bowl in the 1930s, crop scientist Dr. Lawrence E. Kirk developed drought tolerant varieties of crested wheat grass that could help farmers recover. But it was the CBC’s farm broadcasts that taught them how to benefit from such innovations.

Radio has been just as important for farmers in Africa – more important, in fact. Broadcast in multiple languages, radio is understood by all farmers regardless of literacy levels. Radios are now so inexpensive that almost everyone can afford one. And, since the airwaves were liberalized in the 1990s, community and commercial FM stations have flourished.

These are the reasons why Farm Radio International was created in the late 1970s – to help African radio broadcasters produce regular, reliable and relevant programs.



A farmer in Arusha, Tanzania talks on his mobile phone.

But hasn’t radio been “disrupted” by television and the Internet? Won’t the mobile phone stab a knife in the heart of radio? Mobile phone ownership is rapidly spreading in Africa. In many countries, more than half the rural population carry cellphones. Crop prices, weather forecasts and agricultural tips are now in the palm of their hands. Radio is so last century, right? Wrong. Fused with modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), radio is being re-born as the coolest, most powerful communication tool going. Here’s why:

Conventional radio was mostly a one-way ticket. Broadcasters spoke. Audiences listened.

But communication is more effective when it’s interactive – when people converse with each other and are content generators.

With conventional radio, if you missed a program … you missed the program. There was no “PVR” with radio. No “radio on demand.”  And that’s a problem for busy African farmers who don’t wear watches.

Don’t get me wrong – modern ICTs have been disruptive. But they haven’t disrupted radio per se – they’ve disrupted conventional radio, giving birth to interactive radio – what we at FRI like to call “Radio 2.0.”

Mobile phones allow farmers to call in during programs to ask questions and share experiences. They also allow broadcasters to “call-out” to interesting people without travelling long distances.

And yes, modern ICTs are creating “radio on demand.” We’ve helped dozens of stations take advantage of Interactive Voice Response technology. Broadcasters record snippets of their programs on voicemail boxes, and listeners can tune in whenever they want by calling in. Press one for tomorrow’s weather forecast and two for cassava prices. Press three to hear yesterday’s farmer program and four to leave a message.

Old one-way radio has been disrupted by new technology – but radio signals have not been disrupted. Not at all – they have been enhanced, enriched and given new life. In short, it’s a radio renaissance. Marconi would be proud!

Kevin Perkins, Executive Director

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1 Comment

  1. Salvatore Chester on June 1, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Dear Kevin,
    Great post. Today technology is shifting quite fast. Basic mobile phones in hundreds of millions come with multiple functions : phone, radio, flashlight, internet access. I fully agree with you about the new ICT connectivity. On the other hand, old radios – with their expensive and polluting batteries – need to be displaced soonest, with clean modern means, supported by free micro solar energy. Let’s then promote clean modern radios for our rural communities.


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