Radio + Communication Rights: A story through the decades
By Kevin Perkins, Executive Director
In 1948, Richard Durham created Destination Freedom: a radio program to profile significant African American historical figures and their contributions to American democracy and freedom. The program sought to reclaim a triumphant narrative of African American history and strong and courageous women were a frequent focus of the show. The series profiled prominent African American leaders like Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Harriet Tubman. Durham was proud to profile Tubman’s militant vision and rebellious nature in the episode about her. Destination Freedom was accessible to underserved communities in Chicago, featured the stories of African Americans, as told by African Americans in their own voices, addressed the issues that mattered for them, and spread their music — a gift to us all.
Destination Freedom was a triumph for communication justice and a worthy focus for celebration. It’s example is one we can strive for.
While we work in radio every day, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the important role of radio in helping us enjoy our communication rights.
Communication Rights as a foundation
Yes! Like our rights to life and liberty, freedom from slavery, and right to education, “communication rights” are recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Everyone has the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is correctly seen as recognition of our right to freedom of expression (or speech) and media freedom. But Article 19 is more than that. It says that everyone has the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” In other words, everyone has the right to communicate. This means both gathering information and sharing — or imparting — ideas and knowledge. An extension of this basic right includes having your realities, experiences, culture and stories reflected in the media you consume.
But not everyone can enjoy these rights to the same degree. Frontiers, or barriers, abound — frontiers that are modest inconveniences for some, but towering steel walls for many. The ability to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas is impacted by:
- Your language – to have your voice heard, or to access good information, fluency in a dominant language is often required.
- Literacy – written or text-based information assumes you can read and write.
- Access to communication technologies – like radios, phones, the internet.
- Availability of and access to independent and responsible media – is the information you consume trustworthy?
- Income and wealth – accessing and imparting information can be costly and harder for those with modest or low income.
- Gender – women’s voices, information needs, and perspectives are less likely to be served by media, and harmful stereotypes can be amplified.
- Geography – isolation or residence in places with low or no bandwidth can be a real barrier.
- Ethnoracial identity – the voices, perspectives and needs of ethnoracial minorities can be underserved or misrepresented.
- Prevalence of toxic disinformation and hate media – studies confirm that marginalized communities can be more exposed and vulnerable to fake news.
Making communication rights universally realized requires a commitment to communication justice: the deliberate effort to overcome these barriers so that communication rights are equitably available to all.
Radio’s contribution to communication justice
In 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden and his associates produced the first ever radio broadcast. At the time, the best way to communicate with people outside of your town was by letter, book or newspaper, or relatively quickly, by telegraph. If you were among the lucky few, you might be able to make a phone call.
That all changed when radio became mainstream. Now, people could hear and listen to people who live in communities thousands of kilometers away — shattering some of those barriers discussed above.
There was no longer a need to be literate to access these methods of communication. No need to ask someone to read you the newspaper or a book; when it was being broadcast you could gain the same understanding. Radio also created opportunities for wide scale communication in non-dominant languages — languages that in some cases didn’t have written forms.
Indeed, radio has been a critical lifeline for protecting and advancing threatened Indigenous languages and for serving immigrant communities in Canada.
Radio was — and, now, is even more so — a low-cost way to access information, making it affordable for those with low or modest income.
Radio also serves as a platform to feature conversations and interviews with people who seldom are heard, and, as mentioned at the beginning, to represent underrepresented voices.
Radio still relevant to the hunt for communication justice
More recently, we have seen a similar impact from the widespread availability and affordability of mobile phones. They changed the way we communicate. Today, they marry perfectly with radio to create two way dialogues — a communication tool we call interactive radio. Listeners can engage with their radio programs from their phones by:
- Calling in during phone-in shows;
- Participating in interviews from a distance;
- Participating in polls;
- And even accessing radio program segments by calling an Interactive Voice Response system.
Radio played and continues to play an important role in removing some of the barriers that disproportionately impact certain communities. Indeed, from the perspective of communication justice, radio is arguably one of the best channels for all people to enjoy their rights to seek, acquire and impart information, ideas and representation.
Every day, we continue to celebrate radio in all its forms. From Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom to a tool to promote Indigenous languages in Northern Canada, to the way Farm Radio today uses radio to support underserved communities in rural Africa, radio has proven a key tool in the pursuit of communications justice.
About the author
Kevin Perkins has been the Executive Director of Farm Radio International since 2006 and has been a leader in the field of international and community development for more than 25 years.