The Queen of Information

Jean-​​Paul Marthoz © Les Voies de la liberté

“The United Nations security council convened again yesterday evening in New York to discuss Syria….”  “The Mormon candidate Mitt Romney beat his rival Newt Gingrich in Florida yesterday.”
Every morning, everywhere in the world, the radio is the wake-up call.  Forget television, tablets, and computers, the day almost always starts with titles or snip-its of spoken news.  Whether it sputters or sizzles, radio is the first place for information. 

Advances and changes in information aren’t comparable to advances and changes in transportation. While the car has displaced all previous forms of transport, the declaration of the death of radio, to paraphrase Mark Twain, "was largely premature." Television, Web, Facebook, and tablets have all failed to relegate to the attic of rusty technologies a media that continues to do and say the news.

Instead, radio has appropriated new information technology and communication to boost its audience. With podcasts, radio is no longer overwhelmed by its ephemeral fate.  One can now listen to a program that one could previously not hear or pick up, thus giving the media a certain kind of perennial life.

The radiophonic planet

New technologies, intended to displace the radio, in fact universalized it. Today, without having to have sophisticated equipment, it suffices to just open your computer to listen to the most local or most remote radio stations. The radiophonic planet is just a computer click away and only the linguistic tower of Babel limits its use.

Comfortably seated in front of one’s laptop or Ipad, the listening citizen of Brussels can tune in to Amy Goodman and her New York show Democracy Now!, follow the radio news of the radio Cooperativa in Santiago, Chile or plug in to FM Radio Sen in Dakar.

Radio has survived because it has remained one of the cheapest and most accessible technologies.  Building a radio or setting up a studio is most often within the range of possibility of poor and isolated communities and the cost of a receiver is not comparable with that of a TV or computer.

But even more so and just as significantly, the radio has survived all media upheavals because it has successfully demonstrated its usefulness again and always. In many countries, radio stations, particularly those within the public service, have maintained a respectable space for information and democratic debate.

At key times of the day, especially in the morning, the radio "is the opinion" - that is to say, it provides facts and ideas that will mark the day. In the evening, when large audiences are plugged into the television, radio takes the time to tune into the world, communities, and people. It is nestled in niches of information, exchange, culture and entertainment, offering a real diversity where television most often has, as sung by Bruce Springsteen, "57 channels and nothin’ on.”

Creator of Social Bonds

In the poorest countries, the radio does not only inform people of the news of the day. It is also a lever of development, respect for human rights, and citizen participation. Community radio stations create social bonds, teach and educate, inform and form. This role makes radio a crucial element in the fabric of societies.

"Radio,” notes Mohamed Keita, head of sub-Saharan Africa to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), NY, “is the medium that has the highest penetration rates in Africa. Community radio in particular has emancipated local voices otherwise marginalized by corporate commercial media."

The values that drive radio teams can determine the fate of nations and peoples. It's partly due to the radio that Hitler had such power of subjugation and subjection over the masses.  It is also through radio that mass crimes and genocide have been fueled. Hate-radios such as RTLM (Television Radio of the Mille Collines) in Rwanda in 1994 demonstrated their devastating capabilities in societies fractured by murderous identities.

But radio stations have also promoted peace and united communities. Based on impartial information and pluralism, the "peace radios" of the UN in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo have offered a particularly exemplary counter-model.  "During humanitarian crises or disturbances,” says Mohamed Keita, “radio stations have often been used to help people find members of their families or to provide information on security conditions and where to get help. In eastern Congo, women journalists have used the radio to give voice to victims of sexual violence. The radio soap operas also help to reconcile communities and build peace. "

Broadcasting Freedom

The issue of broadcasting freedom is therefore essential, due to the fact that the role of radio can only actually be optimized when the journalists who work there can work without fear or favor. However, authoritarian governments have consistently controlled and censured radios that provide information on their abuses and excesses due to the fact that they know the weight of this “popular” media. They are not content to just close radio stations and disturb or harass journalists. They also try to jam the airwaves that jump over hurdles to deliver independent information to populations subjected to state censorship.

World Radio Day is a beautiful tribute to a flexible and rust-resistant medium that has adapted to the changing world. This day should also be one of celebration of the freedom of radio journalism, because it is through this freedom that radio is the queen of info.

Jean-Paul Marthoz

 

Jean-Paul Marthoz authorizes radios and other users to use some or all of this article to celebrate World Radio Day.

The designations employed in this paper and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO and do not in any way commit the Organization.

Jean-Paul Marthoz

Advisor to the Committee to Protect Journalists (New York), international political columnist for Le Soir (Brussels) and Vice-Chairman of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, Jean-Paul Marthoz teaches international journalism at the UCL (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium) and the ethics of information at IHECS (Brussels, Belgium).  He is also the author of numerous books on journalism and international politics, including "And now the world at a glance", "The media and the new world disorder" (GRIP, 2006), "International Journalism" (De Boeck University Press 2008) and "Covering migration" (Oxford University Press, 2011). He was project director at the International Federation of Journalists and European Director of Information at Human Rights Watch.

Back to top