Radio for development is the strategic use of this medium to effect social changes beneficial to a community, nation, or region. Within the study and practice of communication for national development and social change, radio has claimed a prominent place for a variety of reasons. As an aural medium, radio obviates the need for a literate audience, making it an attractive medium for states and agencies working with impoverished populations that lack access to schools or other forms of literacy training. In addition, radio is an inexpensive medium for its audience, and therefore enjoys a wide range of diffusion even among rural people with scant resources for material not directly related to their basic needs. Finally, radio is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute, making it an attractive medium for donor agencies concerned with per capita costs for reaching underdeveloped audiences with pro-social messages. Indeed, among all communication media (print, film, telephone, television, and new media), radio consistently enjoys the highest rates of diffusion and use in the developing world.
Early Theories and Methods
Along with the broad use of radio for development, a wide range of approaches and methods has emerged with its evolution and deployment. In the early years of development communication (the 1950s through the 1960s), which were dominated by modernization theories, the focus of scholars and practitioners was both on the mere exposure to radio and on the diffusion of “good information”. For modernization theorists, radio, along with other mass media, was considered an “index of development.” Indeed, in the early 1960s, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization issued standards for media sufficiency that identified the per capita requirement of five radios per 100 inhabitants as a measure of minimal development. As the primary, transnational organization conducting research into communication and development at the time, UNESCO reflected the assumptions of scholars that radio and other media functioned as “magic multipliers” of development and as the gateways to “empathy” and social mobility needed in the transition away from traditional values and beliefs. Many social surveys at the time demonstrated correlations between media exposure and wider economic and political participation.
During this period, however, neither radio nor other mass media generally were seen as a simple panacea for underdevelopment, as is sometimes erroneously asserted by some scholars. Rather, radio was to be combined with information relevant to development objectives in a process of diffusion aimed at attitude and behavior change. Early development efforts were often guided and assessed by the theoretical propositions delineated in Rogers’s Diffusion of innovations (1962), which prescribed messages aimed at achieving attitude changes among individuals considered to be early adopters of new technologies and practices. By the time his book was first published, Rogers had documented some 5,000 diffusion projects, many of them using radio in the development process. These early approaches to radio for development are often represented in the shorthand phrase “the dominant paradigm of communication,” which generally conceptualizes media use as a one-way, top-down spread of information from experts to beneficiaries.
The dominant paradigm of radio for development was challenged in both theory and practice in the 1970s when there was a confluence of intellectual and social factors. Many of the leading theories and practices emerged from Latin America, including: (1) Paolo Freire’s work on dialogic pedagogy; (2) dependency theory’s critique of capitalism; and (3) liberation theology’s option for the poor. All of these movements reacted against the top-down model of development and called for communication practices that relied on the participation of grassroots communities, which were viewed as crucial partners in efforts to design and implement particular projects.
The social and political context of this movement reinforced its direction. Within Latin America, a turn toward authoritarian government spurred a strong call to return to civilian rule, which accompanied democratic models of communication. On the global stage, former colonies from Africa and Asia took their place within international organizations, such as UNESCO, and pushed agendas such as the call for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). Indeed, in 1977 UNESCO published what has become known as the “Belgrade Document,” which had a strong impact on radio for development. In it, UNESCO identified the goals of access, participation, and self-management for radio development projects.
Actually, the practice of grassroots radio in Latin America preceded the theory. As far back as 1947, Radio Sutatenza, established by a Roman Catholic priest in Colombia, began using a community model of radio for development. The station’s success at promoting community participation in radio for development stimulated numerous other broadcast projects that ultimately led to the formation of the Latin American Association of Radio Education (ALER). Since then, hundreds, if not thousands, of small community radio stations have taken root around the world. They tend to define development broadly and rely on various means of support including educational institutions, international aid organizations, churches, listener contributions, and even advertising. Successful models of participatory radio for development include: listening clubs, where people meet to discuss programs and then ask questions and offer responses to broadcasters either in writing or on tape; cassette forums, where local populations submit opinions, suggestions, and questions to broadcasters serving rural populations; “people’s reporters,” who are representatives elected by communities to act as local journalists and submit news to radio stations; and community centers that broadcast cultural events and public affairs programs. Regardless of their particular practices, most participatory uses of radio tend to work with existing nongovernmental organizations and other civil society groups to increase their impact in achieving development objectives and goals.
Participatory approaches have been so successful that virtually all radio for development projects today make blanket claims to incorporate access and dialogue into their activities. This has led to vigorous theoretical debates attempting to refine this robust concept. At one end of the theoretical debates, scholars have identified approaches that conceptualize participation merely as a means to an end, or as the practical necessity of identifying salient topics, concepts, language, and actors to most effectively deliver media products such as radio dramas, public service announcements, or songs with pro-social messages. At the other end of the debates is a school that posits participation as an end in and of itself. This approach understands participation as practically a moral mandate wherein the beneficiaries of any program should be directly involved at every stage of production. Deep participation in the communication process is thought to contribute to multiple outcomes ranging from material gains to psychological empowerment.
Reforming Early Approaches
In a move stemming from these theoretical debates, some clear descendents of the dominant paradigm approach to radio for development have undergone rigorous reformulation since the 1990s. Two complementary approaches in particular stand out as robust methods of implementing radio for development projects: social marketing and entertainment education. Social marketing traces its roots to the advertising industry and adopts the industry’s primary objective of persuading individuals to change their attitudes and behaviors. Drawing on research and methods from consumer behavior, social marketing attaches pro-social messages to industry techniques of influencing market segments through radio advertising, announcements, and programs.
Similarly, entertainment education borrows techniques prevalent within various media industries and aimed at mass audiences. As indicated in its name, this approach designs projects that use media strategically both to entertain and to educate audiences about development issues, with the aim of changing attitudes and behavior (Singhal 2004). Entertainment education programs are founded on Albert Bandura’s social learning theory and create programming with characters that model pro-social beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.
A recent review of 14 cases of radio dramas from Latin America, Africa, and south Asia demonstrated the contemporary strength and influence of Bandura’s social learning theory and the entertainment education approaches to radio for development (Myers 2002). Like social marketing projects, entertainment education radio programs rely on formative research of audience segments, consisting largely of focus groups and surveys. This formative research is vital to shaping pro-social messages that are largely determined in advance by donor agencies. At this time, the most commonly funded programs focus on family planning and AIDS prevention. They are sometimes evaluated through survey techniques that measure message retention, attitudes, and reported behavior changes. Social marketing and entertainment education share a clear lineage from dominant paradigm approaches in their top-down transmission orientation to communication that focuses on individual attitudes and behaviors.
Future Directions for Radio
As with all development communication projects, the future of radio for development will be shaped by a combination of technological advances and the agendas of donor agencies, international organizations, and communication scholars. In the mid-1990s, radio for development was given renewed life by the advent of wind-up or “clockwork” radios that operated without the need for electricity or batteries. Despite their sustainable qualities and relative affordability, the wind-up sets have generally been beyond the means of many of the world’s poorest people. New developments in solar-powered sets, however, are once again trying to place radios in the hands of individuals who do not have access to electricity or batteries.
Aside from technological challenges, the agendas of donor agencies vary by region, which will shape future uses of radio for development. US programs, such as the Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prefer programs that reflect the dominant paradigm tradition. These sorts of programs reach mass audiences and generate quantitative data, such as ratings points and attitude measures, that are demanded by donor agencies in their evaluation requirements. European foundations and religious organizations, however, have been more supportive traditionally of community radio approaches that strive for local participation and control of communication. This approach to radio for development is also supported by international organizations such as the United Nations Development Program and UNESCO, which currently are focused on promoting democracy locally, nationally, and internationally. These institutions have identified corporate media as an impediment to democratic communication practices, while noting the rise of civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations in the regulation of societies. This emphasis on democratizing communication will provide support and encouragement for more participatory and community radio for development projects.
Finally, scholars continue to debate theoretical questions in development communication and will influence radio for development practices in the future. The notion of participation has been the most robust concept in the field of development communication over the past quarter century, but scholars have adopted it in complex and nuanced ways. Many scholars continue to devote energy to democratic theories of radio as well as social marketing and entertainment education approaches to the medium. Both approaches to radio for development will continue to have adherents, proponents, and defenders in the long term.
- Adam, G., & Harford, N. (1998). Health on air: A guide to creative radio for development. London: Health Unlimited.
- Fisher, H. A. (1990). Community radio as a tool for development. Media Development, 4, 19–24.
- Gumucio Dagron, A. (2001). Making waves: Stories of participatory communication for social change: A report to the Rockefeller Foundation. New York: Rockefeller Foundation.
- Katz, E., & Wedell, G. (1977). Broadcasting in the third world: Promise and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Mody, B. (1991). Designing messages for development communication: An audience participatorybased approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Myers, M. (2002). Institutional review of educational radio dramas. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- O’Sullivan-Ryan, J., & Kaplún, M. (1978). Communication methods to promote grass-roots participation: A summary of research findings from Latin America, and an annotated bibliography. Paris: UNESCO.
- Rogers, E. (1962). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.
- Singhal, A. (2004). Entertainment-education and social change: History, research, and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Vargas, L. (1995). Social uses and radio practices: The use of participatory radio by ethnic minorities in Mexico. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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