Walraven: In developing world, radio is more than entertainment – it’s a lifeline

Valentine’s Day is for lovers. The day before is for lovers of radio, who celebrate this longstanding communication tool every year on World Radio Day. But in a world of television, tablets and smart phones, is radio really even that important anymore? Around the world, the answer to this question is a resounding yes.

Cheap and accessible, radio is the medium that reaches the widest audience worldwide in the shortest possible time. It is especially important in developing countries, where many people rely on it exclusively as a source of much-needed information. Radio can reach communities at the very end of the development road, in areas with few phones and little to no electricity. It is the communication tool of choice for the world’s most vulnerable people: the illiterate, the disabled, women, youth, and the poor.

In Canada and other industrialized countries, people tune in to the radio at home, during their commute, and at work, often without even thinking about it. Audio storytelling is also gaining ground through the rise of podcasts, as evidenced by the immense popularity of programs such as Serial and This American Life.

So what are the secrets to radio’s success? One is its ability “to connect with people through the simple effectiveness of hearing someone’s voice,” explains Nora Young of CBC Radio’s Spark. Unlike TV, which provides images and sound, radio engages deeply with its audience by requiring listeners to use their imagination to paint pictures in their mind’s eye. The lack of visual information also limits quick, potentially unfair judgments. In the words of Nick van der Kolk, director of the award-winning podcast Love + Radio, radio listeners are “not biased by the way that something looks or a lot of pre-conceived notions going into a particular interview or story.”

Increasingly, radio is also becoming a means for social change. People who hear tales of injustice are not willing to sit back at the end of a program and do nothing. Tools such as cell phones and the internet are making it possible for audience members to share questions and feedback not only with the creators of radio programs, but also with decision makers more broadly.

Take time to celebrate the all-mighty radio on Feb. 13, from 1 to 2 p.m. ET, with BOOM BOX, a World Radio Day webcast that brings together leaders in radio and podcasting to explore how radio is improving lives around the globe. And share why you love radio by tweeting @farmradio with the hashtag #iloveradio.

Katherine Walraven is a Communications Associate at Farm Radio International.

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