By Abdul Samba Brima |When I hear Franz Kruger, Head of Wits Radio Academy, talk about people using community radio for everything, it reminds me of my time working as community radio trainer/mentor in rural Sierra Leone. At the time working as mentor for grassroots radio stations sounded very interesting for a fresh university graduate who had just been employed by the UK’s development charity BBC Media Action.

For a period of six months, I would work in a BBC Media Action’s partner community radio station delivering basic journalism training, radio production and presentation skills, community mobilization and financial sustainability techniques. After serving in this capacity for two years, I gathered lots of knowledge about the power of community radios not only in promoting local participation, but also how marginalized people can use radio to hold leaders to account and identify a common sense of purpose.

As we observe day three of Radio Days Africa (RDA), with the focus on local voices-community radio in Africa, I would like to share my experiences working with radio stations across rural Sierra Leone. After working as radio trainer for two years, it is easy to see that information gap regarding how to stay safe and where to access care in a health crisis like COVID-19 can be brutally fatal. But, I also know that community radio stations can be powerful avenues to galvanizing grassroots support in responding to the current health crisis.

Local radios have the power to promote indigenous languages, thereby encouraging rural voices, instituting a sense of confidence  and identity. They help to cater for the needs of audiences who are often left behind from the national conversation. Thabang Pusoyabone, Secretary of National Community Radio Forum, was one of the guests of day three of this year’s RDA. He summarizes the power of community radios in his opening address. Community radios, he said promote “multiplicity of voices, solidify democracy and gives voice to the voiceless. It must be participatory. It must be rooted in the community themselves and must be serving an active audience that must be able to participate in the decision making process of that organization.”  

Thabang’s point echoes an important part of what my job as radio trainer/mentor entailed. As Thabang said, promoting rural voices and social and economic issues that characterized community concerns were my priorities. I soon figured that there is always multitude of ways to responding to these problems. First thing is to have the board members to reflect every sector of the community; from the local leaders to market women and from youth representatives to heads of religious bodies etc. This way, it is easy to cater for the various views that constitute the community. But, there is more to it than meets the eyes. As Thabang mentioned, the staffing equally has to be reflective of the community. In all the five or six radio stations I mentored, I always ensured that presenters were from within communities that hosted the radios. This way, the locals felt belonged, appreciated the potentials of their own people and became interested to not only participate in programmes, but also supported the development of the stations. Director at Media Expertise, Jean –Luc Mootoosamy, another panelist in day three of RDA’s discussion captures this point succinctly. 

“Voice of communities is what community radios are. They should speak about the realities of communities that are not always taken on the national scene. This is what makes them special.” Jean makes a really useful point here. The very fact that the stations are located within the communities lends some form of credibility and trust in what is reflected as contents. Audiences know the managers, they know the presenters and other staffers; the programmes are presented in languages that locals understand and the voices reflect community concerns. Everyone; from the local leaders to the market women and from the youths to the elderly, see the station as main channel through which their grievances are expressed. They recognize that the radio is there to serve them and therefore are willing to support its day-to-day functionality and long term sustainability.

At typical example of how community radios quickly improvise to address concerns of their people is highlighted by Franz Kruzer when he mentioned that a community radio station had to develop WhatsApp channel and used it to help bridge information gap across rural Kenya. This is an important insight from Franz. I saw how community radios used innovative solutions to address the plights of their people without having to wait on the national government to fix their problems. I worked with radio stations that developed health programmes to raise awareness about and address the prevalence of malaria among their people. Others developed programmes that helped to address rising political violence and promoted agriculture and other community development agendas.

In one radio station, Radio Konke, in northern Sierra Leone, it was interesting to see how community people had to come together to raise money to buy a transmitter for the station that had been off air because its previous transmitter had been burnt. This is what we are talking about; we are talking about that sense of unity and shared interest! The success stories can go on, but one important lesson I have learnt is that community radios have the power to not only highlight problems, but also promote unique solutions to local problems.

However, the sense of diversity and critical democratic functions that community radios play is seriously threatened by the lack of resources. They remain inundated with lots of challenges, but the major one is funding. The lack of money to run some of these stations serves as key predicament for continuity and sustainability of stations. It also significantly undermines their editorial integrity and independence. More worrisome is that some of these radio stations are established and owned by either politicians or business people. This leaves them vulnerable to abuse. In Sierra Leone, for example, we have seen situations where community radios had to close because some influential people decided to withdraw funding support.

In these realities, staff and management can easily compromise professionalism in order to remain on air. As Thabang said, “running a community radio station comes with resources. You need resources to service the studios, you need transport to go into communities and collect news to provide quality content.” A similar point is emphasized by Jean, who stresses that funding is one of the things that is necessary to run a community radio. “We are talking about community radios working for communities, but without money, it is difficult and a huge issue,” he said.