For the future of journalism, it is worth observing the roots of radio

Getting invited to the Radio Asia 2019 conference organised by the Asian Pacific Broadcasting Union and hosted by the national broadcaster Bangladesh Betar in Dhaka couldn’t make a radio girl like me happier. Three days of changing ideas with like-minded ‘radio people’, talking about the power of storytelling, the theatre of visualisation and the strength of community building with the theme “Radio all around us, more than just a medium” as a starting point.

The Great Radio Debate opened the second day of the conference. My team defended the opinion ‘radio won’t survive in the digital age’. Obviously, we lost.

What European media organizations can learn from Asia
My main goal of travelling through South East Asia this year is to get a better understanding of what’s happening in the world of media in this region. I’ve attended several conferences, talked to lots of journalists and visited multiple newsrooms in the last ten months, but as I’ve worked in radio most of my career, attending this conference felt like coming home.
I said goodbye to working in radio a few years ago, realizing that the digital age would submerge the medium. In a Western European country like the Netherlands, radio faced a decrease in listeners and a decline in advertising revenue. I focused on digital media strategies because ‘everyone’ owns a mobile phone and decides for themselves when to consume what content. Radio has always been very adaptable to new technologies so shifting my focus didn’t feel unnatural.
But Radio Asia brought me back to the core of what radio is about and showed me how the key elements of the medium are still very relevant in today’s media landscape. Speakers from Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Iran showcased in the conference how radio is literally a lifeline and a huge tool for empowerment in big parts of the world. Not everyone has affordable access to the digital world yet. And even though a country like Bangladesh is starting collaborations with Facebook and Youtube for community radio projects in remote areas where 5G soon will be a new reality, the power of storytelling and audience engagement will still be existing.

What there is to learn from community radio 
Western countries find solutions to the decreasing popularity of radio in producing more entertaining, lighthearted and humorous content, increasing commercial collaborations as compensation for a loss of earnings and creating a strong podcast strategy to serve the mobile audience on demand. Let’s say that the evolution of the medium from a Western perspective doesn’t always go in the direction of in-depth journalism if you ask me.
Speakers from South Asia emphasised the importance of community radio, focusing on social issues, empowering minorities and political impact. I left the conference thinking there is so much to learn from that approach, instead of focusing mainly on digital technology innovations. In order to establish a safe future for the medium and with that for journalism in general, it’s necessary to look at the roots of radio.

Here are my 7 insights from Radio Asia that reminded me of the power of radio: 

  1. Radio can be a forerunner in ethical journalism
    Radio was mentioned multiple times during the conference as one of the most ethical mediums, as it naturally focuses on problem-solving social issues. Radio is lean and mean, cheap, accessible and strongly connected to a community. If it doesn’t serve the community and people don’t trust the medium, it won’t survive. Staying closely to ethical standards and trusted information will also be the only way to fight fake news, as academics of the journalism department of Dhaka University pointed out.
  2. Radio can fight fake news if governments and broadcasters act now
    Those same academics were very critical on how the government and media companies in the country fight fake news, saying none of the government-owned, commercial or community radio organizations take fake news in Bangladesh serious enough yet. The government should bring culprits of fake news to justice and media organizations should take their responsibility in recognizing the seriousness of the problem, in staying away from information that isn’t in the public interest and in doing more in-depth research and report on the fake news incidents. As long as the medium is biased and the contents and format are representing the power structure and reflect the government in power, there is no chance in gathering enough trust from the audience.
  3. Radio can play a big role in spreading media literacy
    Fighting fake news is directly connected to media literacy. UNESCO celebrated prioritizing media literacy at the conference, saying it is a big task for media companies to teach citizens about disinformation and fake news: ‘Every citizen is a creator of information/knowledge and has a message. They must be empowered to access new information/knowledge and to express themselves. Media literacy is for all – women and men equally – and a nexus of human rights’. BBC and France24 both strongly underlined the importance of media literacy. No one disputed the fact that it is a task for media organizations. The fact that radio has a huge reach and is the only mass medium that’s accessible to the biggest part of populations, makes it the ideal medium for media literacy.

    UNESCO’s five laws regarding media and information literacy (MIL).
  4. Radio is a much-needed medium in dealing with the mental health issues of our time
    Radio opens a window of the soul and mind, it targets the theatre of the mind, giving listeners an opportunity to visualize their own images. Emotional statements were given during the conference on this element of the medium. In the digital era we live in, loneliness and depression are real and radio creates a safe space to listen and be heard.
  1. Radio can be the gatekeeper for all the content out there.
    Radio is a content-oriented medium that can curate through the overwhelming amount of news and updates that reach us every day, pointing out what is relevant and what not. Radio already focuses on need-driven content to create space for all minorities in society and gives a voice to the voiceless. The gatekeeper task can make the medium more relevant and trusted.
  2. Radio engaged with an audience long before social media did
    The power of community radio was very present at the conference. As Archana Kapoor showed us in her presentation, community radio is all about being local and personal, engaging with the audience, give them a voice in programming and empower and inspire the listeners. Digital media strategies focus a lot on community building through online platforms. Radio developed those skills already, interacting and engaging with listeners as long as the medium exists. Digital media can learn from those tactics.
  3. Radio is in a position to negotiate for a strong collaboration with the tech giants of this world
    Community radio in Bangladesh already builds partnerships with Youtube and Facebook. With 5G rolling out in remote areas soon, it will change the game. Now is the time to think about how modern technology can support the core of community radio and vice versa. For example, in the case of natural disasters, old fashion radio transmitters survive and radio becomes a lifeline, where the digital connection fails.

Radio Asia in Dhaka brought us, radio people, back to the basics of the medium, we sometimes tend to forget how powerful and yet simple and cheap the production of a good quality program can be. Bangladeshi speakers all pointed out the proud for the father of the nation, Bangabandhu, who led the country to its independence in 1971. A year after the country’s independence he was quoted saying “my life is dedicated for the people. Because I am one of them”. Journalists around the world should copy this motto and make people the focus of their work and be one of them.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (17 March 1920 – 15 August 1975) listening to the radio.