Spreadable media: When traditional meets digital

“Radio is one sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life […] if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him.”

This incredibly insightful declaration was made in 1932 by German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, and quoted in Jenkins, Ford, and Green’s 2013 book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture in their chapter ‘What constitutes meaningful participation?’

Brecht’s thinking appears to have foreshadowed the digital age with 60 years to spare, and while Jenkins et al. suggest that “Brecht’s conception of a world where listeners become ‘suppliers’ of material for other listeners has been more fully realized in the digital era than radio ever achieved”, I believe there are some excellent examples in international development where radio combined with digital technologies is successfully creating that all-important ‘relationship’.

When employed by ABC International Development (ABC ID) in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2013 I worked with the fantastic people at PNG’s National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) to launch their youth radio station, Tribe 92FM. My time in PNG ended before the official launch, but I have been overjoyed to see the station grow from strength-to-strength with the inclusion of real-world events, a radio drama Beyond Wonga, teen excellence awards, and a highly active Facebook page that engages audiences multiple times a day, encouraging feedback and dialogue about their audiences’ favourite music, live broadcasts, and upcoming shows. The page has over 20,000 likes.

While working through the design of Tribe 92FM, the team looked at other similar projects around the world, the most successful of which was Cambodia’s Loy9, a multimedia initiative for youth civic education funded by UNDP, and supported by BBC Media Action. A 2014 research briefing about the initiative detailed how Loy9 was successfully reaching over two million youth in Cambodia through a combined drama and magazine show broadcast on radio and TV, complemented by an active website and social network pages.

In my previous posts on Creating Connections?, I have advocated for an end to the “inherent bias in the development sector that audiences in the global South only, or must, use new technologies for virtuous or pragmatic ends” and a move away from techno-deterministic approaches to development projects – and while both these projects aim to raise awareness around civic and social issues in youth populations, they both employ traditional and new technologies in tandem to engage their audiences. On the Tribe 92FM Facebook page, conversations are more focused on music and sports, than those of ‘awareness’, though the platform is a natural compliment to the ‘What Say You’ segment as well.

When aid projects examine and study the media context in specific locations, and to specific audiences, it’s not necessarily a case of ‘traditional vs. new’ media, but how to find ways that both approaches can be integrated and complementary. Eight-four years after Brecht made his proclamation the radio can indeed ‘let the listener speak’.


  1. Roberto Carrera

    I loved to read your experience on the field Lisa, that was a fantastic project. I am still reluctant about magnifying the power of digital communications. That´s something I wrote about in my third post, and I wonder how meaningful is the social networks impact beyond the figures. Also, radio may be a one-way media, but it creates a lot of connections and debate among the listeners in real life, in a stronger way than digital platforms can do. But, as you said, “it’s not necessarily a case of ‘traditional vs. new’ media, but how to find ways that both approaches can be integrated and complementary”.

  2. Lisa Smyth

    Thanks Roberto – I believe there is a strong case for digital communications in lots of places, but like any tool or approach in international development it must make sense for that very specific context. I am always eager to see how different projects tackle this challenge.

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