UNESCO Turns On the Radio


By A.D.McKenzie

PARIS, Nov 11 , 2011 (IPS) -

"Radio is cheap, portable and has enormous potential for local and national growth," says Mirta Lourenço, chief of the media development section of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).  The Paris-based agency this week approved a proposal from Spain to proclaim an annual World Radio Day set for Feb. 13 which will be observed in a variety of ways by UNESCO’s 195 member states. 

"The aim is to promote community radio and also to celebrate the service radio provides," Lourenço told IPS. "It was felt that radio had not been adequately recognised for its many services to humankind."  During the organisation’s two-week General Conference, which ended Thursday, member states agreed on goals that that included raising awareness about the continued relevance of radio especially for "marginalised groups", and encouraging the creation of new channels by indigenous and community organisations. UNESCO says that about one billion people (or one in seven of the world’s population) still do not have access to radio. 

"We need to expand access because in a way radio is irreplaceable. Once you buy your radio set, you have it for life and the information you receive can make a big difference especially in rural communities," Lourenço said.  World Radio Day would also be used to highlight the need to "empower civil society on the right to communicate," UNESCO says. It should help as well to "enhance networking among broadcasters" and to promote human and citizens’ rights. 

Radio has been used negatively for propaganda during both world wars, and also to incite violence, as in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. But UNESCO points out that it also has a specific role in emergency communication, disaster relief and other areas. The agency has drawn up an ambitious programme, supported by Sweden, to strengthen radio in rural areas in Africa so that broadcasters can produce quality programmes about local concerns including agriculture and healthcare. 

Stations run by rural women would be part of the project as well as education on how to use new communication technologies such as texting to reach audiences who could then text back questions or comments. "From what I’ve seen in many developing countries, radio is generally the cheapest form of media for people who may not be able to buy a newspaper every day or afford television," says Jamion Knight, a Paris-based former radio journalist who worked in the Caribbean. 

"Having access to radio allows you to get information not only on what is happening in your community but also on what is happening around the world, and people are able to share information, which makes for a powerful tool," he told IPS. Knight used radio to highlight issues such as post-partum depression, a condition that had not been discussed much by media in the region. Such reports can give women the support needed to address their feelings. 

Radio can also be used to help rehabilitate offenders, UNESCO says. One creative project was the development of "prison radio" in Jamaica, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. Both inmates and correctional officers were trained to produce and broadcast programmes in a scheme supported by UNESCO and the Canadian International Development Agency. One of the aims was to prepare prisoners for reintegration into society. It is not clear, however, whether these and other initiatives will be at risk in the funding crisis that UNESCO currently faces. 

On Thursday, at the closing session of the General Conference, the agency’s director-general Irina Bokova launched an Emergency Multi-Donor Fund to help fill a shortfall resulting from United States’ withholding of dues following the admission of Palestine to UNESCO on Oct. 31. 
The U.S. funding cuts, based on laws dating from the 1990s, leave UNESCO with an immediate deficit of 65 million dollars to the end of 2011, and a further gap of 22 percent in its 653 million dollar budget for 2012-2013, according to the agency. 

To cover the funding gap to the end of 2011, Bokova told the General Conference that the organisation had already begun a thorough review of all of its activities planned for November and December. "I have temporarily interrupted certain activities to revise their costs," Bokova said. 

Meanwhile, the government of Gabon has announced a donation of two million dollars, and UNESCO has set up a site where the general public can make donations online.  Whatever the outcome of the funding debacle, World Radio Day should still be a boost to broadcasters, who will see their medium celebrated globally for its positive aspects. The date commemorates the establishment of U.N. Radio in 1946 and was proposed by Bokova after discussion in which several countries suggested days that were linked to national developers of radio. 

These pioneers included Canadian-American Reginald Fessenden, the "inventor" of audio broadcasting who was born on Oct. 6, and Italian Guglielmo Marconi, who is believed to have made the first wireless transmission of morse code on Jul. 27, 1896.  Oct. 30, the day when Orson Welles first broadcast ‘The War of the Worlds’ radio play in the United States in 1938, was also proposed but ultimately rejected. The play caused panic among some listeners who believed that Martians were invading Earth.  Welles’ broadcast showed the power of radio, and the impact it could have on communities. With World Radio Day, UNESCO says it wants to highlight and promote that capability, but for development and social change. (END)