The concept of community media is understood as referring to small media institutions, often specifically to radio stations established in the so-called developing countries. These media have become ever more popular in recent years. However, the history of the concept is considerably older and more complicated.
The objective of community media is to create local affinity, and through it, development. The aim is to “give voice to the voiceless.” Community media are established and run by local people, most often by local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or development projects. However, they are often at least partly financed by external sources. Most community media do not use advertising, and in none of them does advertising income cover the costs of running the station.
In this context, local means either geographical “proximity,” that is, people living close to each other, or “locality,” more abstractly referring to people sharing a joint interest in politics, culture, or a hobby. The mode of addressing the public should be participatory. Although the concept of community media today mainly refers to non-industrialized societies in the so-called south, locality as a component for mediated communication does not belong to the southern media alone. Creating community through local media has been a cherished characteristic of mass media since the nineteenth century. However, in broadcasting the focus was predominantly on the national level, especially in Europe, where public service broadcasting was developed. The idea was to include local variation and attention to local minorities within a national frame. On the print side, local and regional newspapers have survived side by side with national papers. They have had their own voice. Some papers devote a few pages each day to particular communities, others offer local attachments, and, most recently, the local axis has been strengthened via net versions focusing on local communities. The aim is to strengthen the links, both with local readers and local advertisers.
Forms of Community Media in Various World Regions
In Mozambique, there are roughly 80 community media centers, and in South Africa there are more than 120 community radio stations. In South Africa, the notion of community media is established by the Constitution. Having both multiplicity of mediascape and “voice to the voiceless” as ideals in the implementation of democracy via media policy, the South African Constitution states that three forms of media should be found in the country: public media, private media, and community media. Also, in countries such as Ghana, Zambia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, community media were established in great numbers during the 1990s. In Mozambique and Sri Lanka, community media have grown into multimedia centers/telecenters, including not only a radio station but also other forms of mediated communication. The development of low-cost technology, such as the simputer (low-cost computer), has made it easier to run community media, because of the decrease in equipment costs.
In the 1970s, another form of community media was very popular, especially in Africa. So-called rural papers were in fact reading material produced to support nationwide literacy campaigns in several sub-Saharan countries, especially in Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia. The papers were produced by teachers, and their content was strongly educational. Later on, some rural papers were developed into so-called village papers, which paid less attention to literacy matters and, in fact, had ideals very similar to the community radio in the 1990s. The rural papers were predominantly financed by foreign donors, and their sustainability was low.
Another form of community media, in the 1970s and 1980s, were the so-called radio forums in several African countries. Educational programs were broadcast by a national radio station, and people in the villages gathered to listen to them. After the program, a discussion forum was established. An extension agent led the discussion. The goal was to bring a national campaign to the local level and, simultaneously, to allow bottom-up reactions to the campaign goals.
In several Indian states, newspapers that have found their urban markets declining or stagnating have recently looked for new markets via local editions. In this “newspaper revolution” of the new millennium, village-level agents and civil society organizations have worked both as development actors and news gatherers in rural communities.
In Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, a movement to re-establish local radio stations emerged, based on ideals similar to the community media movement in the so-called south: to give voice to the voiceless, and to focus more strongly on local communities in all programming. The actors interested in local broadcasting were NGOs, trade unions, and commercial entrepreneurs. In most countries, national regulatory bodies were favorable toward this development and provided local stations with limited frequencies. But only a few local radio stations really became genuine local voices. Most developed into youth stations with very limited programming, mainly relaying international popular music charts to local audiences. In the case of radio and television broadcasting, local advertising markets have also been far weaker than local papers.
Most community radio stations and multimedia centers have an educational policy line. They reserve broadcasting time for campaign and project promotion as well as for talks with educational experts, and they invite local authorities to relay their messages. The dominant programming format is a live talk show or a studio discussion. In the most organized community media systems, such as in South Africa, Mozambique, or Thailand, a system of mini-scale news collection and preparation of news bulletins is organized as well. In some countries, the royalties for the music broadcast by these stations is organized via a system of annual payments to a fund supporting domestic musicians. However, quite often community radio stations break music copyright regulations.
Problems of Organization, Ownership, and Control
In an ideal case, the community media activity is based on volunteer work. Media monitoring studies have shown that community media, for example during election campaigns, have supplied the community with markedly different material than national media. However, local community leadership might not at all be interested in the medium, or there might even be local-level forces that openly oppose the radio when it is considered critical of local governance.
Although the ideal is that community media would promote varied development activities in the community, communities frequently find their stations being taken over by one or a few projects. Sometimes women run the station, sometimes unemployed youth. Quite often senior citizens tend to keep a distance from the station, often due to the type of music played but also due to the topics discussed in the programs: family planning or sensitive political issues may be considered “improper” by them. Thus, the community media rarely offer a genuine solution for development problems, but provide a new tool for the strong ones in local communities.
Throughout the decades, the UN system, and especially UNESCO, has been promoting community media ideology in different parts of the world. Today, international advocacy organs such as AMARC (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters) promote community media, and, on the national level, most countries have councils or organs which try to strengthen the field. In the case of community radio or community television, NGOs acquire a frequency from a public authority, which also sets certain conditions for the license. The reach is most often around 50 kilometers, and the station is allowed to broadcast 12, 16, or 24 hours per day.
Local ownership has been found essential for smooth operation of these stations. The local community has to feel that the station is its own medium, otherwise it does not succeed. Most community radio stations in the developing countries are run by volunteers, although there are some stations that hardly differ from local commercial stations, neither by their output nor by their personnel structures. In South Africa, several such stations are found: for example, the oldest South African community radio station, Bush Radio in Cape Town, and Radio Juzi in Soweto. On the other hand, some community radio stations, especially in West Africa, have kept their strongly educational character. They focus almost entirely on health, agriculture, women’s status, and good governance.
Today, the community media belong to the local favorites of northern funding agencies such as national aid organizations, UNESCO, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), because they have been found useful agents of both development and democracy. In several countries and several elections, the community media have formed a profile different from the national media, whether publicly or privately owned. The community media are closer to the public, and they allow local voices to express themselves. They have been found especially powerful in raising the status of women in communities. In Africa, women produce 80 percent of the continent’s food, but still the economic power has been in men’s hands. The community radio has been a strong supporter of, e.g., village-level miniloans given to women.
Unfortunately, the status of the community media in developing countries is far from stable. Being off-air and again on-air is very usual for community stations. Although the cost of basic radio equipment has gone down, it still must be acquired. In many countries, public authorities provide basic equipment; in some others, foreign NGOs have been active in donating equipment; George Soros and the Open Society Institute have actively promoted the establishment of community media. Some critics have raised the question of whether donated equipment also brings with it regulative ties. All stations have financial problems even after acquiring the equipment, because the running of a radio station requires funding even if the activity is based on volunteer work.
Volunteers tend to leave the stations for salary-based positions as soon as they have gathered basic skills. The great demand for programs has also become obvious. Programs produced and delivered free of charge have been welcomed. “Programs in brown envelopes” are a common phenomenon. So far, such programs have been produced by NGOs, but in principle, such practice also opens an avenue for outside pressures. In some countries, also government organs have started to either produce programs on certain development themes for community radio stations or sponsored the stations to produce programs on developmental issues. Again, concerns about embedded regulation have been raised.
In general, structural policies promoting local communication have been achieved fairly easily although some governmental organs have remained suspicious of the oppositional potential embedded in local media. For example, an early UNESCO-sponsored community radio station in Homa Bay, Kenya was not allowed to operate for more than a few days in the 1970s before being closed down by the national broadcasting company, because it was located in an area known to be in opposition to the government then in power. However, a far more difficult issue is keeping the content focus on the local level. A mass medium, local, regional, or national, engulfs enormous volumes of material, and the production of genuinely local material has often turned out to be impossible. Further, volunteer forces do not have the tolerance and capacity to run local media on a continuous basis, however enthusiastic they are in the beginning. Thus, the establishment of a media institution in a very poor community often appears impossible, although it may be very good for the promotion of the well-being of the community.
Digitization and other forms of new technology enable interactive communication in broadcasting, and the Internet strengthens another form of community: instead of geographic closeness, Interest-based community media can reach to people living far apart, but sharing the same interests in politics, art, music, or sports. Again, a historical equivalent can be found. Several centuries ago, monks in monasteries living far apart from each other exchanged information and knowledge through newsletters written in Latin. The speed of the exchange was counted in months and years, but the idea was the same as the interest-based communities debating via the Internet. In the future, the concept of locality might have a far broader meaning than the one exercised in community media in developing countries.
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- Kasoma, F. (2002). Community radio: Its management and organisation in Zambia. Ndola: Mission Press.
- Rodriguez, C. (2001). Fissures in the mediascape: An international study of citizens’ media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Teer-Tomaselli, R. (2001). Who is the “community” in community radio: A case study of community radio stations in Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. In K. G. Tomaselli & H. Dunn (eds.), Media: Democracy and renewal in southern Africa. Colorado Springs, CO: International Academic Publishers.
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