World Radio Day: Looking back and looking forward

It’s almost World Radio Day, and this year we’re celebrating 100+ years of radio. At Farm Radio International, we’re proud to have been part of nearly 45 years of radio history.

From that day in 1979 when Farm Radio was launched by mailing scripts to broadcasters, to today when we’re reaching 60 million listeners through our projects, this over 100-year old technology is as useful as ever (though how we’ve used it has changed).

Here’s why we’re still using radio today and why we think it’s as powerful as ever.

Radio and Farm Radio International: A love story

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The history of Farm Radio International goes something like this: Back in 1975, the Canadian farm radio broadcaster George Atkins was visiting Zambia to deliver a broadcasting workshop. When he asked his African colleagues about the radio shows they had created recently, he was surprised to learn they were covering topics like maintaining tractors — even though very few African farmers owned tractors. It turned out that African farm broadcasters had little access to information relevant for the majority of their audiences: small-scale farmers.

George had a simple, but really good idea: use the world’s most accessible communication device (radio) to share low-cost solutions that made sense for small-scale farmers. He travelled the world in search of ideas to help small-scale farmers and rural broadcasters alike.

When George returned to Canada, he established the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (now known as Farm Radio International) and worked on producing radio resources to send overseas. On May 1, 1979, he and his family mailed the first package of scripts and tapes to 34 broadcasters in 26 countries.

Today, we send radio resources electronically instead of by mail, we’ve integrated mobile phones and other technologies, and we don’t just talk about farming, but the basic idea still holds: use radio to share simple solutions relevant to rural communities.

Expanding how we use radio

Radio has changed a lot over the years, and we’ve changed along with it. One of the achievements we’re most proud of is developing a tool called Uliza Interactive. This digital suite of services allows listeners to communicate and exchange information with their radio station quickly, easily and free of charge. Using their mobile phone, listeners can participate in polls, leave voice recordings, ask questions, receive agricultural tips and weather information, and more. In 2021-22, for the first time, we recorded nearly 2 million mobile phone-based interactions between listeners and their radio station (1,936,591 interactions, to be precise).

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Uliza is the foundation for a new type of program that we’ve developed, called On Air Dialogues, which use radio and mobile phones to gather the perspectives of thousands of rural people on key issues that affect them, from food systems to climate change. It’s also why we like to call our particular brand of radio interactive radio.

“Listening to people talking, telling stories, and sharing wisdom and experiences, is a big part of the human experience. Broadcasting these sounds over the airwaves — whether digital or analog, whether to radio sets or to mobile phones and tablets — is such a powerful way to move people toward common understanding and action. It will never go away. And it can always be better.”

Kevin Perkins, executive director, Farm Radio International

Over the years, we’ve pioneered other radio program approaches as well, like Participatory Radio Campaigns, which are outcome-oriented radio campaigns designed to boost the uptake of a specific farming practice or method. Another example is the Green Leaf Radio Magazine, a popular radio program format that has multiple segments, including a section for sponsor advertisements to ensure a continuous source of revenue for the radio station.

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We’ve developed services for broadcasters as well, including Uliza Log, a web-based application where broadcasters can upload recordings of episodes and receive feedback on their programs, and radio station coverage maps to help stations learn about their audience. And we’ve expanded our library of radio resources to include new African languages and types of resources, like FAQs and suggested interview questions.

Our staff and broadcaster partners have increasingly turned to social media platforms and the messaging app WhatsApp to communicate with listeners and with each other. For example, our Radio Network team runs regional WhatsApp groups to share information relevant to broadcasters in a specific region. WhatsApp came particularly in handy in our project about COVID-19 prevention and vaccination, in which we ran 68 e-discussions between broadcasters and health experts so that broadcasters could get their questions answered and provide accurate information to their listeners.

We’ve come a long way since George and his family first mailed those script packages. Even over the past five years, we’ve seen significant growth in the scope of our work.

Here are just a few highlights:

  • The total number of listeners covered by our radio programs increased from 43 million in 2018-19 to 60 million in 2022-23.
  • The number of radio stations in our network increased from 882 in 2018-19 to 1,332 in 2022-23. 
  • The number of broadcasters that we trained in station increased from 162 in 2018-19 to 778 in 2022-23. In 2022-23, those broadcasters included 321 women.

Why we use radio

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The question of why we use radio comes up fairly often, but the answer bears repeating. Radio can be found practically everywhere, even in the most remote villages across Africa. It remains the primary source of information on the continent. Though internet access is on the rise in sub-Saharan Africa, only 45 per cent of mobile phone owners have access to the internet on their phone, and only 28 per cent have a computer in their household. 

Programs are broadcast in local languages and reach everyone — men and women, young and old — whether or not they can read or write. Radio reaches people where they live and work and enables them to multitask, tuning in while they cook dinner, do housework or tend to their garden.

Radio is a cost-effective way to share information with a large audience and is capable of delivering information quickly, which is especially useful in emergency situations. And, as we’ve established, radio is now a two-way communication tool that allows listeners to ask questions, provide feedback and amplify their voices over the airwaves. 

Most importantly, radio works! We see this in our projects: in 2022-23, 4.8 million listeners were inspired to try a new practice related to farming, health or nutrition.

The next century of radio

Here at Farm Radio, we know that radio will keep evolving to remain relevant and integrate with new technologies. Here are just a few of the exciting ways we’re developing radio to ensure this technology keeps getting better. We look forward to sharing more details with you in the years to come.

  1. Developing new strategies for engaging youth in our programming. This might look like using social media and podcasting platforms to share content, hosting youth discussion groups at schools, or running radio programs about important topics like mental health and sexual and reproductive health and rights. Learn more in our youth brief.
  2. Using artificial intelligence (AI) to transcribe voice recordings from listeners. Through our On Air Dialogue process, radio stations often receive more voice recordings than our team has the capacity to transcribe manually. We’re currently testing the use of automatic speech recognition to transcribe voice recordings in Luganda. As the tool improves, we plan to expand to other African languages to enable our team to do thorough analysis of listener responses and act upon their feedback.
  3. Using radio to help rural communities respond to climate change. Through our project about Nature-based Solutions to climate change, we’ve been training African broadcasters on producing radio documentaries so they can share communities’ climate solutions across the continent. We’re also reflecting on how we can best help radio stations prepare for emergencies and natural disasters, which will only become more frequent and severe as the climate changes.

At Farm Radio, we can’t wait to see what the next century of radio will bring. If you also believe in the power of radio, we encourage you to make a donation this World Radio Day.

To support our work expanding the capabilities and reach of radio, donate now.

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