Supporting radio journalism in the time of COVID-19

Microphones mounted on poles. Handwashing stations at the entrance to the studio. Switching to telephone interviews. These are all precautions radio broadcasters across Africa, and indeed around the world, are taking when it comes to COVID-19. 

They’re important adjustments, especially to keep broadcasters safe, but they’re not the only ones these journalists are making. In countries with fragile health systems, largely informal economies, and in rural communities where even basic healthcare is sometimes hard to reach, the reality of COVID-19 is stark. 

But broadcasters across the continent are stepping up to the plate. Radio is responding to the crisis by filling the airwaves in Africa with information about COVID-19. 

“Since the announcement of the coronavirus in our country, radios are now selling like hotcakes because there is a need for information. The people of the villages have only the radio to inform themselves,” says Théophile Nébié, the head of programs at Radio Loudon, in Sapouy, Burkina Faso. He’s not the only one to notice this. 

For many in the communities rural broadcasters serve, radio is the only source of information. And, like the rest of us, broadcasters are adapting to a new reality under the threat of COVID-19. 

Answers to questions about symptoms, transmission, and how to prevent the coronavirus are critical. For Farm Radio International’s partner broadcasters, it’s equally important to consider how to adapt this information for rural Africans, many of whom face a different reality than those who live in the city.

That’s where Farm Radio International comes in. Supporting broadcasters in reaching rural audiences has always been our bread and butter. In light of COVID-19, we’ve re-directed our work to better serve broadcasters as they serve their rural audiences, who face their own unique challenges under the threat of COVID-19.

We’re doing this in five main ways: supporting radio broadcasters with how-to guides and other resources; developing a call in service for African journalists; connecting broadcasters to share experiences; getting support where it is needed through a rapid COVID-19 emergency fund; and adapting our current programming and projects to meet the needs of communities affected by COVID-19. 

Trusted sources of information

Even for those with smartphones and internet access, it can sometimes prove difficult to sort fact from fiction. At the best of times, we rely on media sources to bring us details that we can trust – rather than relying simply on our Facebook feeds. 

In communities in rural Africa, this becomes doubly true. Not only are radio broadcasters a trusted source of information, they’re often the only source of information.

Reliable, consistent, and comforting, radio is a platform where trusted voices can convey important messages from sources people have perhaps never heard from before. After all, now household names, like Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Anthony Fauci, were completely unknown to those in North America mere months ago.

When Ebola broke out in Liberia in 2015, Jefferson Massah and his team at Radio Gbarnga, joined the social mobilization team for the local Ebola task force. Receiving updates on the situation to inform their broadcasts, the team conducted call-in shows, interviews with international organizations and local health authorities – even Ebola survivors – to combat myths about the virus. 

Because Jefferson himself was already a trusted voice in the community, his listeners trusted the information he brought them. He dug into myths about the disease, and challenged the belief that health centres were a place where individuals went to die, by interviewing an Ebola survivor himself.

Like with Ebola, when it comes to COVID-19, oftentimes the only way people will believe new information is if a trusted source shares it. That’s why we’re working with well-known broadcasters to react to the needs created by the current situation — whether that’s adjusting programming we already have on air, or supporting broadcasters as they develop new programming.

Broadcaster How-tos

Like all of us, African broadcasters are left adjusting to what feels like a new world. Most are not medical experts. Many have little or no formal training. Very few have ever dealt with a pandemic before. 

We’ve already adjusted our Broadcaster How-to Guide on Broadcasting in Emergencies to address the unique challenges faced by COVID-19, and we’re in the process of developing guides and information packs for radio broadcasters to use — from how to stay safe themselves, to how to address the needs of their communities — as this situation continues. 

For rural communities, that might mean anything from how to farm and stay food secure despite global market disruptions, on how to continue educating children now that they are home from school, or even gendered topics — like addressing rising rates of violence or forced marriages as girls no longer attend school and families are now stuck at home during quarantine. 

Above all, it’s important to note that rural realities are often different than urban ones. Well intentioned curfews — otherwise important in cities — might make it impossible for farmers to do their work in the cool of the day. Bans on gathering — essential in an age of physical distancing — might punish a vendor for selling their wares as they try to earn enough money to feed their families.

It’s important to emphasize safety for communities over the airwaves, magnifying messages about hand washing and physical distancing, but also to address the very real concerns that rural people have. Our resources, as we develop them with local journalists on the ground and subject experts, will help broadcasters do just that. 

Combating fake news about COVID-19 through community connections

On places like WhatsApp, and in communities themselves, rumours about the disease can be persistent and pervasive. 

We moderate Whatsapp groups for broadcasters in 12 countries. In them, broadcasters share information, stories, tips and solutions to covering the disease. But we’ve also seen rumours and fake news come across our screens. We’ve seen rumours like helicopters spraying acid to try and prevent the disease, or local serums being touted as cures. These ideas are not only untrue, but could be dangerous if broadcast further. Our team, alongside partner broadcasters, are busy checking this information alongside trusted sources of data — and supporting their colleagues in doing the same through the Whatsapp groups themselves. 

Through these groups and through our website, we’re also sharing the resources, tips and guidelines we’ve developed for broadcasters to use as they create more informational programming. Great resources are being created daily around the world, and these platforms allow us to reach the people who need them most. Even broadcasters themselves are sharing jingles and radio spots and shows they’ve created to help their peers — and checking in with each other about what they’ve done to adjust. 

A community of peers is important in helping make good, ethical decisions — and to stay sane — during one of the toughest assignments many have had to face. 

Questions about COVID-19? Just call

Still, we know written resources can only go so far. Sometimes access to internet is limited, or broadcasters don’t have computers or printers making online resources trickier to access. 

That’s why our digital innovation team is developing a broadcaster rapid response call in service. Connecting radio broadcasters to health experts who can answer the questions they have about COVID-19 is key. As we all know, the right information in a timely manner is key to addressing broadcaster’s concerns.

An interactive voice response system, where broadcasters can call in and interact with recorded messages addressing myths and providing good health advice, will allow broadcasters to find the answers to frequently asked questions. A space to record their own question will be included on the end, which health care experts can then respond to directly through SMS.

We are also developing a chatbot in Facebook Messenger and Telegram to enable broadcasters to quickly get the answers they need. Questions can be answered, facts can be checked, connections can be made, and resources can be accessed through this digital service. And we can track in real time what is important to rural communities as they face COVID-19. 

It’s important to emphasize that there are already so many great services that allow people to ask questions about and fact check myths about COVID-19. Our goal is to create a service that is specifically tailored to broadcasters, and to broadcasters serving rural audiences, so that they are best equipped to respond to the needs of their listeners in languages that they speak. 

Emergency Funding

It’s important to note that all of the work we are doing above relies on a single idea: radio broadcasters are an essential service, especially in times of crisis. 

And yet, many of these broadcasters are facing higher and higher hurdles in ensuring they serve the needs of their listening audiences. Some are sleeping in their studios to keep their stations on the air in light of curfews. Others are losing essential ad revenue that keeps their stations running. Still others lack the basic tools necessary to keep themselves safe, poles to mount their microphones on, sanitation supplies for their offices, important internet and phone credit that allow them to conduct interviews from the safety of their studio. 

In the coming days we’ll be launching an emergency fund to support broadcasters and radio stations as they develop exceptional communication efforts to underserved communities. With the goal of keeping stations on the air, and providing support and encouragement during the pandemic, we’ll be inviting radio stations to apply to this fund to collaborate with us on delivering accurate, reliable and impactful programming in response to COVID-19. 

Adapting our current programming

As we all know, it’s not business as usual right now. Farm Radio International is always in the midst of working with our radio partners to build and deliver programming on a variety of topics — from gender, to climate change, farming practices, to health and nutrition. 

We’ve already worked with our teams broadcasting ongoing programs to figure out how they can continue their still important programming — but at a distance. For some, that might mean recording radio dramas outside, maintaining physical distancing. For others it might mean doing more callouts, rather than visiting communities on their own. For us it means rather than providing stipends for travel to communities, we provide important credit to use on cell phones for phone calls. It also means pausing community listening group meetings to allow communities to maintain physical distance.

For our staff, it might mean taking our usual face-to-face training online and lengthening them, to allow for important consultations to take place. It might mean cancelling focus group discussions conducted by our Knowledge Management teams and instead conducting phone surveys, or more key informant interviews. 

With certain programming, like those focused on gender or health, we’ve worked with broadcasters to change the theme of our programming to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Their programming is now oriented on how and when to reach community health centres, and how to keep themselves and their communities safe and healthy during this hardship. 

It also means that programming focused on agriculture extension and distance schooling is even more important, as now, more than ever, it’s one of the few ways people trapped at home can continue to feed their families or learn to improve their lives.  

It’s an extreme adjustment to our work, but radio is an important source of not only information, but entertainment. Good radio on the airwaves mean people stuck at their homes have something to occupy their time. 

Broadcasting: An essential service during COVID-19

We can’t acknowledge enough the essential work broadcasters are doing during this crisis. Our colleagues across the continent tell us that as families are stuck at home, often without TV or internet, they’re turning on their radios. 

It’s our hope that the services we provide will continue to help broadcaster weather this storm, and continue to provide what is essential information to so many. 

Want to help us as we continue our work to support rural communities and broadcasters as they adjust to COVID-19.

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