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Radio: The universal medium that leaves no one behind

© UNICEF/Seyba Keïta A ninth grade student follows her lessons on the radio in Mali.
 In the age of new communication technologies and social media, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently announced the designation of new FM frequencies to expand radio’s reach in Africa.

To better understand this decision, and on the occasion of World Radio Day on 13 February, which is being celebrated under the theme “Radio and Trust”, UN News spoke to the ITU‘s Director of Radiocommunication, Mario Maniewicz, who began by explaining the medium’s importance in Africa. 

This interview was conducted in French and has been edited and adapted for publication.

Mario Maniewicz: In Africa, Radio broadcasting still reigns supreme over other forms of mass media channels. Radio is a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic discourse. At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium. This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard.

Besides this, radio helps listeners feel less isolated and more connected to their community. In times of emergency and disaster, radio broadcasting is one of the most powerful and effective ways of delivering early warnings. Timely, relevant, and practical information supports effective response measures and saves lives. For people directly affected, it comes as a vital form of humanitarian assistance. As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, radio has kept people connected and entertained, ensured continuity in learning, helped fight misinformation, and disseminated critical health information.

The ITU recently announced the identification of new FM frequencies for Africa. What is the significance?

Mario Maniewicz: Over the years we have seen a steady increase in demand for quality radio broadcasting in Africa. This increase also means there is pressure on the available radio frequencies and especially for FM radio broadcasting. Over the last two years, ITU in collaboration with the African Telecommunications Union and radiocommunication experts have been working on a project to identify new frequencies that would facilitate the expansion of FM radio broadcasting services across the continent.

We have been able to identify over 18,000 frequency assignments that can now be used for FM Broadcasting in Africa without causing or receiving harmful interference. The success of this project helps to secure the long-term sustainability of African radio broadcasting and paves the way for the introduction of digital sound broadcasting in Africa.

There have been a lot of changes in the media landscape in recent years. Where does the ITU think radio is headed?

Mario Maniewicz: This year marks 127 years since the first radio transmission was made by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895 on the Isle of Wight, which led eventually to the signing of the International Radiotelegraph Convention in 1906. Throughout this period, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has played a central role in advancing the medium worldwide, establishing and updating international regulations on the use of the radio-frequency spectrum and satellite orbits. These regulations also prescribe how radio equipment and systems must operate to ensure reliable coexistence among radio services of different administrations and to enable the most efficient utilization of today’s increasingly crowded airwaves.

So, radio is still going strong and at ITU we will continue to serve as the steward of global airwaves, ensuring we can connect safely, sustainably, and innovatively for centuries to come. Accessible and affordable, radio can reach practically everyone, everywhere. Its loyal listeners include people in big cities, those in small towns and villages, those in rural communities, and even those in the most isolated places on the planet.

Part of people’s trust in radio is due to its low cost and ubiquitous nature. Radio remains affordable and can be listened to everywhere, even when electricity or internet connectivity are not reliable. Radio is thereby one of the most popular means of communication, used by an overwhelming majority of people. In my view, radio leaves no one behind.

 Inside an Afghan radio studio, where women’s voices call for democracy and human rights.
UNAMA/Fardin Waezi Inside an Afghan radio studio, where women’s voices call for democracy and human rights.

Do you see traditional radio broadcasting by frequency becoming obsolete and somehow leaving people behind?

Mario Maniewicz: I think there will always be a place for over-the-air radio. Even though more and more people are connecting with other digital platforms, or online, there are still people who are either not connected, or they don’t have electricity, or they are in remote places where these technologies are not easily accessible, or they lack the economic means to use this other platform.

So, I think that broadcast radio is always going to be popular, starting with the fact that it’s completely free.  It’s the only one of all these platforms that is completely free.  For the others, you have to pay for connectivity, you have to pay for special equipment, but here it’s not.  So, I think there will always be a place for it, maybe not in developed countries, or in big cities, but in developing countries, in rural areas, more isolated, where people don’t have very high standards of living, it will always be the most widespread means.

You mentioned the trust that people have in radio, which is the theme for this year’s World Radio Day.  You also said that it is a platform for democracy.  Can you come back to this relationship of trust that people have towards radio?

Mario Maniewicz: Absolutely.  We are in a world where fake news is spread everywhere and causes damage to everyone, but the platforms par excellence for this kind of thing are social networks. Because with social networks, there is no individual responsibility. People can post what they want without being responsible for what they post.

On the other hand, with radio, there is always a person responsible for the radio programme that we are listening to.  So, if you know that you are listening to a serious station, you know that the possibility of bouncing around, of new forms and is very low, or nil, or non-existent. So that’s why I think that broadcast radio is more reliable for people than other online platforms.

I mentioned democracy because, normally, radio stations give space to everyone to express themselves, to all political colours and to all actors of the community.  So, it is a universal tool to communicate and to express themselves to the rest of the population…I think the difference is that radio is more transparent.

Thank you very much Mr. Maniewicz.  Do you have a final message on World Radio Day?

Mario Maniewicz: Well, my message is precisely to take advantage of this means, of this medium, which is the universal medium par excellence and to defend this means, this medium.  Because it is always under attack by new technologies.  Not because they compete — that’s not a problem — but because the availability of radio waves for radio is being increasingly contested by other services.

So, I think it is important for governments and regulators in countries to defend the airwaves that are assigned to radio broadcasting, either analogue or digital.  And it is precisely by going to digital radio that we save spectrum and therefore we can free up more spectrum without killing radio.

13 February 2022


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