08.02.2013 - UNESCO Office in Dakar

World Radio Day (13 February) : Interview on the history of radio in Africa

Jean-Pierre Ilboudo © UNESCO Dakar

On the occasion of the World Radio Day (13 February), Jean-Pierre Ilboudo, Chief of Section Communication and Information at UNESCO’s Regional Office in Dakar, Senegal, traces the emergence of radio on the African continent and its role in Africa today.

How and when did the radio arrive in Africa?

The first broadcasting stations in sub-Saharan Africa were the results of initiatives taken by either settlers or missionaries’ private projects, or by civil or military officials of the colonial authorities. It was a business between white people. In the regions under the direct authority of European countries, the first stations were mainly used to broadcast European programmes. In English-speaking Africa, the first stations were established between 1926 and 1932.

In the French colonies of West Africa, the radio was established a bit later, between 1931 and 1939.

At that time, radio programmes quickly appeared as a means to strengthen colonization among indigenous officials. The first contacts between Africans and the radio pertain to those who attended schools and missions, not to mention Africans, mainly soldiers and some students, who went to Europe.

The radio was a tool for the administration and promoted also sanitary and agricultural education.

However, at that time, radio receivers were expensive and they often required a battery, which cost too much for the large majority of the native population. The radio was hence an urban object.

What was the impact of radio in Africa?

The radio played a positive role for political awareness-raising as a step towards emancipation. At the end of the colonial period, it contributed to the implementation of an African leadership.

Therefore, very quickly, newly-created States started to use the radio – sometimes even before the independence (1956 in Cameroon, 1957 in Mali, and in English-speaking African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana in 1954) – in order to support economic development through rural radio and educational radio programmes. In Ghana, locallanguages were already used to broadcast radio programs for rural populations.

What are the lessons learned?

First, the establishment of the radio benefited from the predominant oral tradition in Africa.

The radio thus did not jeopardize the traditional information system but rather supports it.

Secondly, the radio started as an urban phenomenon before becoming a rural trend in Africa. Even after the independence, chronicles and other agricultural programmes targeting rural populations (mostly farmers), were broadcasted in French or in English.

A turning point was the consultation of such organizations as FAO and UNESCO that organized two conferences in 1966 in Rwanda for French-speaking Africa and in current Tanzania for English-speaking Africa inspired by the model of radio forums in vogue in Canada in the 1940s.

These conferences promoted the adoption of already functioning radio forums in India in 1951, in Ghana in 1956, and in Niger in 1962. The first agricultural radios were born as a result of these consultations, followed by rural educational radios in 1968-1972. They are the ancestors of community radios that appeared after the 1990s.

Thirdly, power and information are closely linked in Africa because information is a key asset to promote national unity. Censorship was used in the name of state-building and the State used the radio as a tool of personalization of power and political domination in the same way as in the colonial time.

What is the situation today?

Today, the African radio landscape is pluralistic and an independent radio system is progressively emerging, free from the old governmental censorship.

Radio listening on new information technology devices, such as the Internet (webcasting) and mobile phones is very significant in Africa today, especially in rural areas where community radios that broadcast programmes in local languages are the most popular tool to stay informed.

Regarding rural area community radios, there is a major need to review their legal status and regulations and to launch campaigns to increase their value, so as to get away from their status as second-class radios.

Creating specialized vocabulary also remains on the agenda in order to avoid the introduction of a semantic “noise” in radio program broadcasting. With the emergence of new words and concepts such as globalization, MDG, GMO, climate change, and biofuel, community radio presenters tend to use foreign language phrases in local language programs.

What about the radio in the future?

The radio occupies a prominent position in African States’ information systems. Therefore, it has a very important role to play in the development of the continent.

Today, Africa is torn between its aspiration to modernization – whose imported forms are mostly visible in the big cities - and its search for identity defined by a better understanding of its traditions, languages and customs.

The radio is important because of its strong integration into traditional society and as a means to create linkages between rural people and urban audiences.

The radio appears as the most adapted tool to maintain and preserve the oral tradition and the equilibrium between man and nature, which is dangerous to break without knowing exactly how to replace it.

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