Supporting broadcasters during COVID-19: One year later

A broadcaster from Radio Salama, a recipient of our COVID-19 relief fund, interviews three women wearing sks

In March 2021, the world marked the one year anniversary of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was a time of reflection on the many ways that radio has been able to respond to communities in crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

In times of crisis, rural African communities turn to radio as a trusted source of information. Sometimes, it is the only source. So, as the pandemic dawned, Farm Radio knew that broadcasters would be the key to delivering life-saving, accessible messages at-scale to the vulnerable populations who needed them most. 

Unlike other mediums, radio is not restricted by lockdowns; it is one of few tools that can keep entire communities safe, entirely at-a-distance. 

But, as the pandemic spread farther and wider, it became clear that broadcasters were more in need of support than ever. 

Unlike other mediums, radio is not restricted by lockdowns; it is one of few tools that can keep entire communities safe, entirely at-a-distance. 

By May 2020, and thanks to the generous support of the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada, Farm Radio International’s COVID-19 response project was in full swing, responding to the needs of broadcasters in 12 countries. We used tools old and new to equip broadcasters with the services they needed to offer their listeners accurate, timely, and fact-based information. 

In all, Farm Radio International’s COVID-19 response supported our network of more than 1,000 broadcasting partners in 41 African countries. Months later, a survey of these broadcasting partners revealed that almost 90 per cent of respondents felt that Farm Radio International’s COVID-19 response had helped them increase their capacity to respond to the pandemic.

Our response took aim at five key objectives.

Accurate, timely, and gender-responsive information

Informed by experts and written by African journalists, radio resources — like how-to guides, radio spots, or stories broadcasters can use on air — are a key component of Farm Radio International’s work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our resources helped broadcasters to create high-quality programming about COVID-19, and continue to work safely in the face of new health threats. 

Drawing from verified information and local experts, Farm Radio builds resources to ensure radio programs are accurate, informed, and locally-relevant. These resources often address gender issues and spotlight the voices of women.

In response to the pandemic, Farm Radio International created 43 radio resources addressing urgent COVID-19 needs, including:

Some of the resources created specifically on gender for on air broadcast include:

Making experts accessible

In addition to resources, Farm Radio made information available directly at the source by connecting local and international experts to broadcasters. Using highly accessible channels such as WhatsApp and Telegram, experts were able to share high quality and contextual information about COVID-19, often in local languages. In turn, broadcasters asked questions to address the needs of their listeners and inform future programs.

Over a span of 5 months, experts, along with Farm Radio staff, facilitated more than 116 of these discussions with broadcasting partners in 13 online groups. More than 50,000 messages were shared in these groups, exploring the intersection between COVID-19 and topics such as nutrition, gender, agriculture, fake news, and more.

Networking and coaching in local languages

To support broadcasters’ programming directly, Farm Radio organized a team of 26 “local networkers” — African broadcasters and journalists based in 12 countries involved in our COVID-19 response. These professionals made daily calls to broadcasters in 20 local languages, connecting them to Farm Radio resources and services, providing coaching and support to improve program quality, and gathering feedback on the evolution of broadcasters’ needs over time. 

In just five months, we made more than 17,000 calls to support 3,500 broadcasters in 12 countries. 

For broadcasters and their programs, the impact of Farm Radio networking was concrete. Here’s a piece feedback from a local networker based in Kenya (edited for privacy and clarity):

“I was recently in contact with … a journalist from Koch FM. Since she started using Farm Radio tools and content, this journalist said that listener feedback to Koch FM per show over the past month has increased from an average of 10 texts per show to an average 56 texts and from an average of 15 calls per show to an average of 43 calls.”

Boosting the power of radio with ICTs

To keep up with myths and misinformation, Farm Radio also offered information in real-time. Assisted by the services of Viamo, we operated broadcaster hotlines in 12 countries. Radio broadcasters who called the hotlines heard recorded information about COVID-19, and were given the option to record their questions about the pandemic, which were then answered by local and international health experts. 

The service saw 3,050 interactions in 6 months, with questions on prevention, transmission, and recovery, as well as more specific issues such as vaccines, myths, and infants’ susceptibility to COVID-19.

Supporting broadcasters directly

Faced with falling ad revenue and lack of basic equipment, information just wasn’t enough. That’s why we launched our COVID-19 support fund: to help broadcasters stay on air and support stations’ programming in response to COVID-19 with technology, personal protective equipment, and more. Broadcasters purchased face masks and handwashing supplies, paid for fuel to keep their stations running, bought phone credit to do interviews at a distance, and invested in equipment to make their programs better than ever before. In total, we supported more than 150 radio stations in 12 countries with more than $170,000 CAD of funding.

Into the next phase

This pandemic has proved that radio is a life-line to so many in sub-Saharan Africa. 

We’ve seen how radio can reach millions with verified, nuanced, and in-depth information. We know that radio is the most accessible information medium for rural African communities, offering essential messages in local languages to those who are often the hardest to reach. We understand the power of trusted community leaders’ voices on air, sharing local and contextual messages. And we have seen the real, life-saving impacts of closing the feedback loop between listeners and broadcasters through interactive programming to dispel myths and misinformation on air.

So, as we look back on the year gone by, we also look ahead to the future of the pandemic. Second and third waves, new strains, vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine scarcity pose new and daunting challenges.

That’s why Farm Radio remains committed to using radio, complemented by ICT tools, to respond to the needs of rural Africans in the next phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through our COVID-19 response project, we created and honed so many exciting services and tools. Now that the project has concluded, we will continue to mobilize these tools for broadcasters and the communities who need them most.

Now more than ever, COVID-19 is a central focus of all our work. In everything we do, Farm Radio International is committed to supporting African broadcasters — and through them, millions of listeners — with the information they need to stay safe, prosperous, and well during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. 

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About the author
Hannah Tellier is a resources coordinator for Farm Radio International. A recent graduate of the University of Waterloo, Hannah believes the best classroom is the one we create while exchanging with others.

The work on this project stems from the Scaling Her Voice on Air project, which aims to bring improved interactive radio services to Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal, reaching more than 7 million small-scale farmers to improve food security and gender equality. The Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada, is supporting the project with a grant of $5 million over the five years of the project. With additional funding from Canada, Farm Radio International will support broadcasters across sub-Saharan Africa who provide essential pandemic-related information to remote and rural communities.

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