Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Radio Liberia

Radio in Liberia is quite different than in the US. According to Building Markets [LINK] "40% of Liberia’s population of about 5 million people are illiterate. In a national survey conducted in 2008, less than a quarter of Liberians said they read a newspaper or watched TV even weekly. But 91% said they listened to the radio weekly." In the US, radio only optimistically reaches 59 percent of the country’s population. As you might imagine in the US the trend is moving away from radio and toward PC and mobile platforms. More here. If you are trying to reach people in Liberia, radio is the way to go.

The republic of Liberia at 43,000 square miles is about the size of the U.S. state of Virginia. Virginia (for reference) has about 580 radio stations including AM and FM, Liberia has less than 100. But it's difficult to tell. Wikipedia keeps a list but notes the list is incomplete. Liberia does have an an equivalent to our FCC, the Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA). But it was only created in 2007. They do not maintain an online database. Liberia suffered a civil war in 1990 and 2003 both of which shut down much communications and regulatory infrastructure. More here.

But those approximately 80 stations are a great success story in Western Africa. According to researcher Bruce Girard in 1988, there were only ten independent radio stations in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. In that era and earlier, almost all radio was owned by the state. The book Broadcasting in Africa by Sydney Head published in 1974 a more promising scenario noting  that "Liberia houses the largest concentration of radio-transmitters power relative to it's size of any country in Africa." Sadly it's immediate examples were for ELWA and Christian missionary radio, VOA and the BBC. But in 1988 this was all still under the Bureau of Radio Frequencies Regulation, which had formerly been the Ministry of Posts and telecommunications founded in 1977. The book Liberia Communication by Sam Watkins is a great source on this info.

But radio staged a recovery after the civil wars. In 2016 the Liberian Observer counted 70 radio stations and reported good news from BBC African Media Development Initiatives research. They state  "...across 17 sub-Saharan countries, found that local commercial radio grew by an average of 360 percent between 2000 and 2006 and that community radio grew on average by a striking 1,386 percent over the same period." (Please note the term Sub Saharan Africa includes 46-48 of Africa's 54 countries. [LINK] The term is so broad as to be almost meaningless in the context of media. I use the term her only because it's unavoidable in the academic literature.)

Radio in Liberia began in 1949 as the hobby of an American doctor (S. Head opted not to name him) who broadcast from his residence in Monrovia. ELWA debuted in 1954. Ham radio experienced a small boom as a hobby. In 1959 the first state-owned broadcaster was founded, the LBC, the Liberian Broadcasting Corporation. The British firm Radiodiffusion was contracted to build and operate the station. It's call letters were ELBC. The short wave relay station of the Voice of America was built in 1962. More here. But that was over 50 years ago. The first truly private station, 92.1 Radio Monrovia only signed on in 1991. Things progressed quickly.

Only a few weeks ago the Wallstreet journal wrote up an article on a Liberian radio tradition of call-in programs discussing their lunches on air. Elbow Benji asks about callers lunches at Truth Radio 96.1 in Monrovia.  Cyrus Watson, on 101.1 FM is host of “Lunch Time.”  Big Nat hosts "Lunch Time on LPR TV. Already Liberian broadcasting is developing a culture of it's own.