West Africa is one of the most turbulent regions in the world. Geopolitical chaos has wrecked the nations of Liberia and the Côte d’Ivoire, while neighboring Nigeria has been forced to deal with frequent waves of inter-religious rioting. But a new project is using a novel approach for this war-torn region: Launching a radio service using tools usually reserved for blogs and online music to promote democracy and open society.
Launched by George Soros’ Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), West Africa Democracy Radio is a French- and English-language radio service that broadcasts in Dakar, Senegal and distributes content to more than 30 partner community stations throughout West Africa via satellite and CD. Local field offices operate in Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. According to OSIWA press materials (PDF), the network was founded in 2005 to "promote and defend the ideals of democratic, open, and transparent societies in West Africa."
The content on West Africa Democracy Radio is not too different from NPR or the BBC, but with a distinctly local twist. The OSIWA intentionally focuses on airing regional news rather than stories specific to the country in which a particular program airs. Stories range from investigative pieces on cocoa smugglers to detailed reporting on the recent political troubles in Liberia and the Côte d’Ivoire.
The network’s content, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, includes four hours daily of live news and 27 specialized magazine shows on specialized topics such as sports, politics, or youth culture. In order to get their stories on the air, West Africa Democracy Radio uses two open source software services produced by Czech firm Sourcefabric, Newscoop and Airtime, along with the cloud-based German audio service SoundCloud. Both Newscoop and SoundCloud are designed for use by blog-styled news sources and web audio content; their use for terrestrial radio is an ingenious hack of existing technology.
The use of SoundCloud for radio content is something new for the service; SoundCloud is best known for hosting music and podcasts. For West Africa Democracy Radio, the major challenge is using web tools to reach as large an audience as possible. While Internet access is widespread throughout the region’s sprawling cities, rural regions face numerous obstacles in securing broadband connections. But radios are much more common; to reach the most people WADR has to use modern technology to reach into the past.
According to Sourcefabric’s Adam Thomas, the software package allows bilingual services to be delivered to listeners on a limited budget. Newscoop allows reporters to post stories online without the services of a webmaster, while a custom-designed SoundCloud plug-in at the radio network lets journalists quickly attach audio to web rebroadcasts of their story while still in the field. Meanwhile, Airtime handles conventional radio station duties such as scheduling shows and file management.
Airtime and Newscoop also automatically post radio content to social media and auto-produce podcasts, which is a necessity due to the massive West African diaspora that West Africa Democracy Radio considers to be part of their target audience.
Ultimately, the major concern for West Africa Democracy Radio is the same challenge that faces other modestly funded radio stations in the global south: Maintaining an audience in a politically uncertain environment while operating on a shoestring budget. If the adoption of tools normally used by Western music geeks and bloggers help them operate in a challenging media environment, then that’s extremely good news for them.