This year radioinfo’s Steve Ahern finds himself in Liberia on World Radio Day, 13th February 2017.
Liberia has had its ups and downs in recent decades, but one thing has remained constant… the power of radio.
Towards the end of twentieth century, a 14 year civil war began that destroyed infrastructure, closed schools, and left the country in a disastrous economic position. Then, soon after peace was restored and things were getting back to normal, the Ebola epidemic struck, plunging the country back into economic and social decline.
With the help of the international community, the small West African country of only 4 million people is trying to restore basic services such as roads, health, agriculture and education, to rebuild the foundations of society. It is working. After a sharp Ebola related decline in the economy, the last two years have shown steady GDP regrowth. If things continue to improve, the future for Liberia will be brighter than previous decades.
After 14 years of civil war, where children could not go to school, and many were conscripted as child soldiers, there is a big literacy gap, with 40% of the population unable to read or write. With peace restored and schools open again, the current generation of children are getting an education, but their parents and grandparents, who can’t read newspapers, have to rely on other ways to stay informed about what is going on in their country.
That’s where radio comes in.
Even if you can’t read, you can listen.
I was talking to the CEO of one of the big radio networks here last week, who told me, “Liberia is a listening population,” explaining why radio is so important. Even more so when the electricity supply is intermittent, cell phone service is poor and televisions and smartphones are expensive. That will change eventually, but for now radio rules.
There are nearly 200 radio stations operating across the country, many of which have just opened in the past year or so. Radio is everywhere.
The quality of broadcasts is mixed. The national broadcaster and the major networks have strong clear signals, but some of the smaller, less well equipped stations operate from small premises and their transmissions are often distorted and over modulated. But it doesn’t stop broadcasters and listeners using the airwaves to engage in enthusiastic discussions about everything from cooking to politics.
Last week most small shopkeepers closed their doors in a snap protest at the rising exchange rate of the Liberian dollar against the US currency. That morning, driving to the office, I was wondering why the streets were so empty… I listened to the radio and soon found out, with shopkeepers calling in to air their grievances and radio hosts contacting politicians and officials to explain what could be done about the unfavourable exchange rate. As I discussed the problem during the day I found out that most people had first heard about the shopkeepers’ strike on the radio that morning.
Liberia is located on the corner of the western part of Africa. Its climate is tropical, with beaches stretching across its western shores and jungle inland. The country was founded by repatriated former American slaves. Unlike many other countries in Africa, it was not previously a colony of any of the European powers. People have more in common with America than they do with Britain, France and other former colonial countries. They play basketball not cricket and have adopted an American style Presidential system of government.
Liberia currently has a female president, the first women president in Africa. She has been in power for two terms, the maximum time allowed by the constitution, similar to the American system. The country will vote for a new President and House of Representatives in October this year.
Some of the work I am doing here is developing and piloting new training courses for journalists who will cover the election.
Reporters have a lot to think about during an election, it’s not just academic, it’s far more important than that, it can sometimes literally be a matter of life or death. They need to research well and air all sides of an issue, but they also need to be aware of the risk of people using the media to stir up conflict, destabilise the election or trigger a killing spree. Such things have happened in South Sudan, Kenya and elsewhere in this continent as a result of people using media to stir up deep seated rivalries, so it is something that everyone here are acutely aware of.
In this election year, most radio stations are trying to stay balanced, although some that have launched recently are owned by politicians, and their position is not so neutral.
In countries like this, the media has many roles to play, including a watchdog function in elections, exposing corruption and malpractices and bringing it to the attention of authorities. Media is also important in encouraging people to vote, helping them understand the political process, and giving them confidence in the result. It’s not just radio, all media have this role to play, but in this “listening population,” radio’s role is paramount.
I am working with the Liberia Media Centre to develop a new range of courses that will help the media develop further. The courses will train more journalists, presenters, producers, media sales people, marketers, copywriters, videographers, programmers, and more, so that, as the country develops, so too will the media.
A successful and profitable media plays an important role in the future of any country, and here, that growth will be led by radio.
Happy World Radio Day from Monrovia, Liberia.
See coverage of international World Radio Day events on our sister site AsiaRadioToday.