Jul 17, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Radio and social change

In the preface of the “Community Radio Handbook” written by UNESCO in 2001, the authors state that “Community Radio catalyzes the development efforts of rural folk and the underprivileged segments of urban societies, given its exceptional ability to share timely and relevant information on development issues, opportunities, experiences, life skills and public interests”. That is a fine explanation of what they believe radio could offer as a tool to development, but as is the case with most things related to media, hard to evaluate and measure.

I was reading recently a report on community radio experiences by UNESCO in Mozambique and found myself intrigued by the many references to “social change” as a goal of the programs that implement them. What is the” social change” that can be achieved by such programs? What could be the indicators of success? What do they consider to be “social change”? And perhaps more importantly, how can community radios be linked to other development efforts so that it can be a better tool for the change they aspire?

I believe community radio does provide great channels for public/political participation. It is an alternative path to file complaints that in certain political environments would otherwise not be heard. It offers an avenue to voice demands from the bottom up, some of which might be missing from initiatives stemming from the top down. Particularly given the constraints to traditional media in Mozambique, as I discussed previously, community radio can be an important component of any work that aims to foster demand for better governance – although it alone can only achieve so much.

Brigitte Jallov, a communications expert with large experience in community radio assessment, states that “in quantitative terms the basis for creating impact can be measured by the number of media, their frequency, circulation and availability. This is a basis for and increases the likelihood of an increased impact, but does not automatically secure it. Impact has to do with relevance and concrete usefulness of the content to the media users, the target groups.”

Impact, of course, requires a qualitative approach, and according the Jallov, the difficulties of this kind of evaluation have made most experts simply give up on conducting it. But UNESCO did develop an assessment model for Mozambique, based on a three-tier research: a) to ensure that the radio works effectively as an institution, basing itself on principles of access and participation (evaluated by check lists and measurements of public participation); b) to ensure that the programmes responded effectively to the needs and interests of the community (based mostly on interviews); and c) to ensure that the community radio in the longer term actually would manage to create some sort of desired basic social change in the community.

This last tier seems to be the most difficult one. First of all, it would be necessary to specify clearly before the program is implemented what kind of “social change” is aimed and how to define it. Then there would have to be an evaluation of possible changes within a reasonable amount of time. After that there would be the problem of isolating other alternative explanations for the changes verified. Still, without hoping for anything extreme, there were some interesting results from the UNESCO research, according to Jallov. Eight new community radios were evaluated in Mozambique and the findings suggest that the public felt much more informed and there was behavioral change. For example, after a particularly strong radio campaign, people started putting chlorine in the drinking water during a cholera epidemic. More important to our discussion was that several communities demonstrated increased level of transparency in the public administration and higher participation of women in the public life.

“The community radio can become efficient local knowledge centres, empower communities and individuals by reinforcing existing local capacity and changing – to the democratically better – the local dynamics, helping uncover experience and knowledge earlier not visible – including providing a space for and voice to communities earlier marginalized from the public life, including women”, concludes Jallov.

Although it is difficult to isolate the exact impact of community radio in a community, it is hard to deny the benefits that can stem from a well implemented program in the medium term. In a country like Mozambique, where it seems so hard to challenge the political status quo in the national arena, the radio assumes an even more important role as a tool for empowering local communities. I don’t know if it is too ambitious to hope that the change that begins locally has consequences nationally in the longer term. But it seems like a good start.

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1 Comment

  • I agree that it’s a very good start. In particular, call-in talk shows which highlight local issues are a great way to get people more involved in governing and raise pressure on politicians to solve exigent local problems.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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