Radios vs. Mobile

One of the most frequent responses I hear, generally from the likes of media experts at UNESCO, when I submit with growing evidence that mobile phones are the first and only device used by millions of people to get information and increasingly access email and the web, is that radios by far outnumber mobile phones in the developing world.

This basis is then used to downplay the importance of mobile phones as a mechanism of information production and dissemination amongst ‘poor’ and rural communities in particular. Radios, I am told, are far more effective because they cost less than mobiles, have a lower TCO (total cost of ownership), run of cheap and replaceable batteries, are free to use once bought and by far have the greatest number of people tuned in. The arguments generally come from those who have been responsible for setting up what a decade or two ago were forward thinking community radio stations, at least in principle. They never took off in countries like Sri Lanka. As Nalaka Gunewardene notes,

Meanwhile, community groups are not being issued broadcast licenses. Senior officials have privately explained that they fear airwaves will be misused for anti-social or political purposes. They have not, strangely enough, voiced such concerns about profit-making companies, some of whose channels are openly-aligned with political parties. A globally persistent myth holds that community radio has been thriving in Sri Lanka for two decades. In reality, these broadcasters are nothing more than rural transmissions of the fully state-owned and state-controlled Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). Yes, these stations are located in remote areas, involve local people in programme production and broadcast to a predominantly rural audience. But the bureaucracy in Colombo tightly-controls content: nothing remotely critical of the government in office is permitted.

Lirneasia now gives us the best evidence that these aging experts are behind the curve.

phones over radio jpg

This graph from their research is pretty self-explantory and bloody interesting. It suggest that in India, there are already more phones than radios. In every single country surveyed, there were more TV’s in BOP households that radios. Pretty much destroys some shibboleths.

One thought on “Radios vs. Mobile

  1. I suspect that it’s a regional thing. In South Asia real community radio never has taken off. The governments have been to afraid of what people might say. And for what ever reason, regulation has been effective at keeping unlicensed radios off the air. Probably it’s due to lack of a good example. Nobody in the region has seen how powerful stations are, so they don’t fight to keep unlicensed stations broadcasting.

    Take Brazil for example, they’ve got about 8000 unlicensed stations operating in the country. These are illegal and unregulated stations which broadcast only local content, with some syndication of programs between them. There’s an interesting balance, the stations in bolivia get shutdown a lot, but they also do outreach to let politicians get some voice, it’s the only way to reach the people, so they sometimes leave the stations on the air. In poor communities, the stations are run by community associations protected and funded by gangs. These gangs also run local libraries, child care centers, health clinics, etc.. They are free from state intervention because they are armed. It’s not to say that the it’s a great system, but the people do really control their own media.

    In Bolivia they build their stations in to bunkers, the studio is in the basement of a building and there are heavy steel doors. If the police try and shut down a station, they have to come in armed and fight off the whole community.

    Sure, mobile phones are taking off in a massive way in both places. But the cost of broadcast sms for example makes it very very hard to replace community radio. For one to one, or some to some communication, for narrow casted stuff, then it’s quite powerful.

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