Radio Okapi eases chaos

African radio stations serve democracy

Elbrich Fennema| December 2003 issue

In Africa, radio plays an important role in the development of communities. Take Radio Okapi in Congo. ‘For many Congolese this radio station is the only good thing that’s happened to them over the past five years,’ writes Le Courrier International (September 4, 2003). ‘Radio Okapi is the only place where Congolese can talk to each other in Congolese without external interference,’ Michel Bonnardeaux, head of the Bukavu and Kalmie radio stations, is quoted as saying. ‘We play Congolese music and invite Congolese personalities. Radio Okapi gives the Congolese a taste of democracy by showing how problems are solved whereby both parties listen to what the other has to say.’

Radio Okapi is run with the support from the United Nations and an organisation of Swiss journalists. It is the first time in Congo’s history that a station has broadcast something other than propaganda to the entire country – with the exception of one province in the northeast due to safety concerns.

Many areas of Congo – which is about the size of Western Europe – are isolated and closed off to the world and from one another. Radio Okapi has united Congo electronically. You hear the jingles everywhere. The journalists are stars and are followed everywhere. Its success is further emphasised by the report from the Congolese representative to the United Nations, Amos Namanga Ngongi: ‘A solution to the chaos in the northeast is to set up a Radio Okapi station there.’

In South Africa, ‘community radio’ is also an important medium, not least of all because it reaches people who cannot read. The predecessor to Bush Radio was an initiative to disseminate (public) information, news and leisure programmes using copied cassette tapes. The underlying philosophy: knowledge is power. It quickly became clear that radio would be the perfect medium for Bush Radio’s objective. The much-needed financial support came from a German foundation that stimulates opportunities to train broadcasters.

The idea of local radio for and by local people caught on. Requests to learn the trade of radio producer at Bush Radio immediately flooded in. The station has since become a training centre for radio producers and ‘mother’ to countless regional radio stations. There are already over 350 African members of the global association for community radio (Amarc).

But community radio is also thriving in other parts of the world. Even in the United States, home to the largest media conglomerates in the world, the number of radio stations ‘narrow-casting’ to local rather than widespread audiences is rising, according to the Columbia Journalism Review (September/October 2003). ‘They are run by civil rights organisations, by environmental activists, by church groups and school districts. They are the voices that have either been pushed out of the radio spectrum or never invited into it, and the appetite for them speaks of a growing need for community in this country,’ according to the American journalism trade journal. ‘People with alternative concerns of all kinds want to speak to their community, they want media that is not mediated by government or by corporate advertisers.’

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