By Kevin Perkins, Executive Director, Farm Radio International
There has been a great deal of discussion and concern expressed this year about the role of social media in stifling diversity of opinions, perspectives, voices and information. The pendulum has swung from the heady days of 2010, when Facebook and other digital communication platforms were optimistically viewed as a great force for grassroots democracy — bringing the voices of millions or billions of ordinary people to bear on politics and society.
Less than a decade ago, many predicted that social media would contribute to democratic renewal due to its open and collaborative networking characteristics. The Arab Spring was a digital revolution! Who today would say that is what happened?
Now we speak of echo chambers, manipulation, a war on truth, and fake news. Rather than advancing diversity, social media — though arguably open, free, accessible to nearly everyone — is driving polarization, intolerance, a celebration of ignorance, and high social anxiety.
Radio — like the printing press before it — went through a similar cycle of optimism and pessimism. Some dreamers predicted radio would bring an end to war (until it quickly became an instrument of it in World War I — not to mention the medium through which Orson Welles alerted the world to a terrifying Martian invasion!).
At its best, radio shares reliable and useful knowledge, amplifies diverse voices, stimulates important debates, connects people, entertains them, holds powerful people to account, explores ideas, strengthens culture, protects endangered languages, and contributes to social change.
At its worst, radio can drive xenophobia — even genocide — promote hate and intolerance, marginalize minority voices, silence alternative perspectives and uphold totalitarianism.
Like so many human creations, it can be used for good or evil. That is why we must make every effort to help radio play its rightful role as a source of reliable, relevant, fact-checked information, a platform for diverse voices and a variety of content, a source of ideas and connections, and a driver of positive change.
Celebrating and promoting diversity in radio is of critical importance if it is to deliver on its promise of social progress, inclusion, and constructively engaged citizenry.
Unlike social media, radio is planned, produced and curated by humans rather than algorithms.
Also different — radio is broadcast to everyone (rather than narrowcast to tiny slices of consumers whose views and interests have been dissected and analyzed, right down to their preferred colour of socks!).
As a result, radio can be deliberately, intentionally, inclusive and diverse. It can actively bring in various voices — as hosts, but also as interviewees, panelists, or participants in “vox pops”, literally the “voice of the people”. Radio can offer programs in various languages. It can provide a variety of content that is relevant to different parts of the larger audience — content that has been gathered from reliable sources.
This is all possible, and indeed, examples of it can be found across the world … but it is not inevitable.
Radio needs communities of practice, networks, trainers, champions, and partner organizations that can help put diversity at its core.
That’s exactly what we are trying to do through our work at Farm Radio. We bring together radio broadcasters with others in their country, or across Africa, to share their experiences and ideas within communities of practice. We connect broadcasters with professional mentors so they can further develop their skills. We work with partner organizations, from women’s groups to research institutes to make sure the information radio stations are using is up to date, informative and inclusive. We develop content resources and skills-building services that help about 1000 radio stations across Africa offer quality programs about diverse topics. We encourage radio partners to feature the voices of all genders and ages, from broadcasters to interviewees and special guests are heard and shared on air.
On this World Radio Day, let’s join forces with radio managers, producers, hosts and technicians to burnish the role of our favourite medium in offering diverse content from diverse sources to diverse audiences throughout the year!
To broadcasters: let’s support each other to hold our work to the highest standard: to hear from more voices, to bring diversity to the airwaves, and to invite more perspectives and life experiences into our workplaces.
To listeners: let’s show our support to the stations and the organizations we know are committed to upholding these standards of accuracy, inclusion, and diversity.
It is not easy work, but it is daily work — profound and essential.
Happy World Radio Day!
About the author:
Kevin Perkins has been the Executive Director of Farm Radio International since 2006. A leader in the field of international and community development for over 25 years, Kevin has also worked for the Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief (CPAR) in Toronto, the ACCESS Riverdale Community Loan Fund and the Riverdale Community Development Corporation as its first executive director.