Community radio – sometimes a life-saver, but not always

by Angela Gillian Rose on October 19, 2013

NepalInterviewIs radio making a comeback?  Far from being left behind and overlooked in the internet age, recent events have  reminded us of its importance in areas of the world prone to natural disasters and where the population is poor.

When Cyclone Phailin hit India in October 2013, 400,000 people left their homes to find shelter. They knew where to go and when to go because of a massive effort by the media. Community Radio played a major part in this operation.   Eight local stations were on high alert with a back-up of an additional 28 stations. With power out in great swathes of the area, ham radio operators were brought in to send out messages.  The National Institute of Amateur Radio (NIAR) which was set up in 1983 by Rajiv Gandhi, marshaled its forces  to ensure that what happened 14 years ago when a strong cyclone killed more than 10,000 people would not happen again.

When disaster strikes, it is almost impossible to contact people living  miles from urban areas who cannot be reached by telephone. Alerting them to a disaster over the radio is perhaps the only way of sounding the alarm. In this way radio has been used to rally the population both for its salvation and also, as we saw in the case of Rwanda, for its destruction.

In some parts of the world, community radio is on the increase. In Bangladesh for example, they hope to have 60 new community radio stations established by the end of 2013 with more than 400 nationwide by 2021.

Local radio has also grown in importance in Indonesia where, in 2008, a study took place to help develop programming that would increase awareness and preparedness for disasters. The Disaster Mitigation Preparedness (DMP) project took place in Aceh province.  The role of radio was evaluated during and after the 2004 tsunami and survivors from Banda Aceh were interviewed. It was agreed that a system warning of disaster needed to be in place and that community radio would play a crucial role in the future.

The Wall Street Journal and Live Mint had a headline back in June 2013 that said that the “Uttarakhand crisis underlined  community radio’s importance.” (  Reporting on floods in Uttarakhand in the Himalayas proved a wake-up call to the region about the dangers of these flash floods after heavy rains.  “The role of community radio is tremendous in natural calamities. A public radio station with a reach of 15-20 km becomes highly powerful with the integration of mobile telephony in real time.  This particular region had three community radios and they had been broadcasting non stop about the situation,” said the report.

But there is another use of radio and that is for inciting hate.  After local radio, particularly RTLM Radio, was used to such terrible effect in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 genocide, it was thought that this could not happen again. And yet in December 2007 during the presidential elections in Kenya, many media monitors and human rights organizations blamed local radio for inciting violence.  Between 1200 and 1500 people died after demonstrations about the elections led to an escalation of violence that seemed to have been organized.  After the 2002 elections, there had been a rapid expansion of FM radio stations and some of these stations clearly took sides.  Those criticized in particular were Kass FM, Lake Victoria, Kameme, and Inooro radio whose broadcasts were described as ‘hate filled.’ But the UN-linked IRIN news agency reported that “inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on vernacular radio stations . . . all contributed to post-election violence.” The agency cited Caesar Handa of Strategic Public Relations Research Ltd, who carried out media monitoring for UNDP, as saying that “ there‘s been a lot of hate speech, sometimes thinly-veiled. The vernacular radio stations have perfected the art.” (

Radio networks can also have unintended consequences. Advocacy group  Invisible Children  sprang to prominence with its Kony 2012 video and started a community radio network to warn local inhabitants in the Democratic Republic of Congo about the movements of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The problem was that it had the unintentional result of potentially turning villagers into targets.

According to  Radio Netherlands Worldwide report, ( the Early Warning Radio Network uses high frequency radio technology to enable people in some of the most isolated villages in DRC to communicate with each other. “As of March 2012, there are 27 communities linked into the Early Warning Network,” reads the Invisible Children website. The problem is that the army can also plug into the system as can the militia.

 “Army use of the radio system makes it a strategic target for a militia and potentially drags those civilians who make use of it into the armed conflict,” said Claude Bruderlein from the Harvard University International Humanitarian Law Research Initiative. “The system could be exposing Invisible Children staff and premises to reprisal attacks. It might also expose other NGOs in the region who use radio systems.”

Angela Gillian Rose


Cammaerts,B and Carpentier, N (eds) (2007) Reclaiming the media: communication rights and democratic media roles.

© 2011 The Author(s). Disasters © Overseas Development Institute, 2011.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Tove Silveira Wennergren October 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Hi Angela. Thanks for an interesting read with lots of vivid examples. I believe that community media, with radio as one example, might be on the rise, as globalization makes way also for localization. Ellie Rennie writes that “Globalization can create favourable conditions for community renewal in that it can have a ‘push-down’ effect, allowing power at the local level to find expression” (p. 154). The developments you describe above might be an example of that. Internet access can also open oup for radio broadcasting where it is diffucult to get frequencies “on air”. However, access and know-how is not universally distributed. Bruce Girard, director of the Pulsar project in Latin America says in the book Making waves that “We are still a long way from a world where all peoples are offered equitable access to information and to technological resources. New technologies can play an ambiguous role in the pursuit of this goal: they can make a notable contribution to the democratisation of information and communication or, if not mastered, can generate a widening abyss between the information rich and the information poor” (p. 241). You might be interested in my blog post on Bolivian miners´ radios, as well as the comment on the post by Alfonso Gumucio:


Lisa Marie Borrelli October 21, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I have to admit, the apsects of radio as a comunication device, which is still used and also necessary, is a very interesting discussion. I have done some research this year and could find out, that besides the use of radio in countries of development, in olf terms “third world”, is still high and very important, the proliferation of talk radio is also visible in our world, which was suprising for me. The article of Berry and Sobierai (2011) discusses that right wing and conservative talk radio shows are frquently listened to, of course especially by older people or conservative listeners. Nevertheless the quotes rise and radio does not keep the nostalgic old touch it had for a long time. There is still influence and especially during my feld work in Ghana the interviewees during the studies we conducted always listened to radio, even if they did not possess one. In that case they went to eighbours or other family members and if they could afford one, there where more radios within one family. It is great to see, that “old media” can be reused, still has a value and can also be combined with new technology.

Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, 2011. Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio. Online Publication: Cambridge University Press


LinneaE October 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm

As someone who has worked with radio and community radio development, I would of course agree that it is an important medium. (You can read more about that in a different comment, here: Even besides the practical aspects of radio, it is incredibly effective and powerful in the way it penetrates people’s lives, because it is something you can consume while you are doing other things, and it becomes a very personal relationship.

However, I think it is interesting to look at the way in which is now used, and how it is combined with new media in order to create a more participatory medium. For example, I wrote about an essay outlining the network FIRE, which combines mobile phone technology with radio broadcasts all around the world. You can read more about that here:

Do you think that these new mergers will make a positive difference for community media? After all, it will mean that there is more of chance to contradict false or inflammatory statements – but it could also do the opposite, I suppose.

Similarly to FIRE, Linda Nassanga Goretti has written about the way new technology has changed community radio practices in East Africa. She emphasizes how, in order to embrace ‘new parameters for citizen participation’, in which people can be truly involved, we need to first accept a widened definition of “community”: “The concept of community
media initially envisaged a geographical location, but later went on to include interest group–based media as well as faith/religious-based media. A new popular form of programming has emerged in East African radio broadcasting with an increase in public discussion and talk show programs across the private, public, and community media. These involve community/audience participation, and the people who participate in such media/programs are not restricted to the local geographical area, so the “community” is no longer “local.” (2010:51)

This kind of imagined community, however, is still based on the assumption that people are able to use email or phones to become part of the radio programs. Goretti suggets that in order to create a true participatory community radio program, NGOs, governments and other development organizations must first make sure that people in rural areas are given the technology they need.

Goretti Linda Nassanga (2009) An Assessment of the Changing
Community Media Parameters in East Africa, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies,
30:1, 42-57


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