World Radio Day

Opinion: Radio remains the most widely accessible form of media - William Bird

The other day it was national beer day, I suspect there is a unicorn day as well- given the number of commemorative days there are, it may be surprising to learn that February the 13th is World Radio Day.

Perhaps of greater consequence is to ask why World Radio Day is worth thinking about.

Radio matters for a range of reasons. For one thing, it remains the most widely accessible form of media for people across the world. It can cross borders and be used to spread information - or disinformation in ways that other media seldom reach or match. It can reach marginalised communities, the poor and the vulnerable.

For those without devices or who cannot afford access to the internet, radio may be their only core information source.

Radio is also able to be in places other media struggle - you can listen while you drive, while on public transport. Sure, you can read, but not while driving.

Listening to the radio can set you up for the day with your favorite music, or ensure you have heard views and news so you know what’s happening. The ability for radio to be there while we do other things like preparing a meal, wake up, wash, dress and party, means that it has been in our personal space long before any digital device.

Indeed some may argue that unlike digital devices, finding the balance between real life and consuming content wasn’t nearly as difficult.

Radio has another strength. As much as people celebrate the notion of the internet and access to information being free and a fundamental right, radio has almost always been freely available.

This is not to suggest that radio hasn’t or isn’t also subject to significant censorship or manipulation. Radio’s power means it has been used for both good and the vilest purposes, from propagating Nazi fascism in the second world war to inciting genocide in Rwanda and seeking to enforce Nationalist propaganda under apartheid. In many instances, the evil was countered by those seeking to expose, from pirate stations to Radio Freedom in South Africa where radio was able to circumvent much of the oppression.

Perhaps radio's greatest strength, however, lies in its ability to create the “theatre of the mind” - using only audio. There are hundreds of examples of where this is done in a serious manner, where radio takes us along a journey, like, This American Life, or the groundbreaking Serial Podcast.

The series was so good a number of others, including a local version was produced. A quick search will reveal a host of audio gems from across the world like this one.

Radio, done well, will be as powerful, as informative as any online piece or any video. Radio can create scenes and scenarios and make the listener feel they are part of the action, they can also introduce the fun and bizarre.

There can be little doubt, that still one of the best examples of how radio was used to convey the surreal nature of war and also use radio to its strengths, was the Goon Show carried on the BBC in the 1950s. The show was the precursor to much of the best British comedy.

We are blessed with some of the most extraordinary stories and storytellers in South Africa, but far too often we seem to forget radio's power.

While we have the talent, more often than not the big stories and detailed breakdowns occur in online or television. This isn’t to say we don’t have people making amazing radio - just try some of our community stations, or listen to Red Cross Radio by and for children. It gives marginalised children a voice.

If you are looking for where those in power are regularly asked the most difficult questions - it is more often than not, on radio. Listen to any of our stations and you are bound to hear a politician or person in power squirm as they are asked for answers on current issues.

So, as we celebrate World Radio Day, next time you listen to the radio take a moment to really listen and to appreciate just how extraordinary it is - that we can have EWN and all our radio personalities with us, in our bathroom, workplace, car or taxi, dinner table and bedroom. And not only are we likely to learn from them, but we are also likely to be joined by personalities, experts, politicians, and analysts, on issues that will make us angry and sad, inspired and irritated, and hopeful to hungry - all with our ears.

William Bird is the Director of Media Monitoring Africa.

The aim of World Radio Day is to celebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information, freedom of expression and youth participation over the airwaves. You can find out more by visiting the World Radio Day website.


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