Reaching the next generation through radio

On Feb. 13, FRI’s executive director Kevin Perkins is speaking at the World Radio Day symposium in the United Kingdom, hosted by the University of London. This year, World Radio Day is celebrating youth and innovation in radio. Read why Kevin knows radio can have a huge impact on youth.
For the crew at Farm Radio International, the time leading up to World Radio Day is like October 30 to a child — pretty darned exciting. It is a day we can join with millions around the world in celebrating the wonders of radio.
The only thing that threatens to put a damper on the day is the occasional killjoy who says “calm yourself grandpa — isn’t radio yesterday’s technology? Isn’t it time to toss it on the pile with fax machines, pagers, 8 track cassette players, and rotary dial telephones?”
To which I say, as emphatically as possible . . . “NOT SO!” Radio (and its cousin the podcast) is more popular than ever, and not just for boomers and gen X’ers (and people like me who straddle the two), and not just to listen to music. Young people are getting hooked on radio shows too, and they are learning from them, contributing to them, telling their stories, and making themselves heard. Consider Serial, a podcast Sarah Koenig’s spinoff from This American Life. It attracted over 2 million listeners — mostly youth — for each weekly episode.
That is one of the reasons that the focus of World Radio Day 2015 is youth. There are many examples of radio by and for youth that are creative, intelligent, fun, and transformative. Let me tell you about two projects of Farm Radio International and its partners that have involved youth from the ground up, and have provided youth with the space they need to have their own issues discussed and amplified.
FarmQuest was a reality radio show that we created in Mali in 2013. It featured six Malian youth who grew up on a farm but then moved to towns or mines to make their fortunes at the jobs they thought they’d find there. FarmQuest challenged them to give farming a fresh chance. The youth were partnered with an experienced mentor and an agricultural advisor. They were tracked over the course of 12 weeks as they put their farm business into effect. Every week, audience members could interact with the contestants — sending SMS messages to the radio station, voting on weekly questions with their phones, and so on. In the end, one of the participants was voted “best new farmer” by the audience.
A follow-up survey revealed that about 50% of youth aged 15-30 listened to FarmQuest, and 40% of them listened to all or most episodes. That’s an audience share that would make the producers of the Game of Thrones jealous. The same survey confirmed that listening to FarmQuest had a big impact on knowledge: youth who never listened to FarmQuest scored an average of 13% on a 10-question quiz — youth who did listen to FarmQuest scored 48% on the same quiz. It resulted in youth having a better understanding of the potential risks and rewards of farming, and helped them decide whether it was an occupation they would like to pursue.
My second example is an integrated mental health program that we are implementing in Malawi and Tanzania with funding from Grand Challenges Canada. In both countries, we worked with youth to design and produce interactive radio dramas and radio talk shows about the issue of adolescent mental health. Both shows have been hugely popular because they feature young people talking about their own issues in their own way. The radio drama in Tanzania features a group of secondary school students as they wade through the normal challenges of adolescence — best friends, break-ups, troubles with teachers, troubles with parents, music, value clashes, pressures to succeed, love, drugs, sex, heroism and tyranny. Some characters go through hard times and the inevitable strain and anguish of growing up, others encounter a mental illness called major depression, despite living what appears to be a “perfect life.” Dramas are followed by panel discussions, phone-in shows, interviews with teens in their communities. It’s the very first time most listeners have heard youth issues discussed by youth, openly and honestly without labels or judging. Both programs are immensely popular with young people and are having a measurable impact on knowledge and attitudes about mental health in these countries.
So, on World Radio Day, when ill-informed cynics are curling their lips at “outdated” radio, we will be proudly joining hands with our partners, colleagues and fellow audiophiles across this beautiful planet in shouting out “Long Live Radio!”

Kevin Perkins, Executive Director

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