Memphis-bill-siemering

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Bill Siemering was a founding member of the National Public Radio board of directors and author of the network’s original mission and goals. A MacArthur Fellow and longtime manager of station WHYY in Philadelphia, he is now president of Developing Radio Partners, which he describes below. Siemering planned to attend JTM-Memphis but is tending to an important family matter. (ADDITIONAL BIO INFORMATION)

Dear participants at the JTM-Media Giraffe Project Conference,

By way of introduction I’m the president of Developing Radio Partners, an organization dedicated to bringing information to those who need it most: to people living in rural areas of poor countries where radio is the dominant medium.

DRP creates enduring public radio services, country by country, in regions where radio can have significant impact. We work collaboratively with local stations to strengthen their service to the community, ensure their financial stability, and build overall capacity. Community engagement, citizen journalism, and sustainability are our main themes.

Therefore, we share the mission of the Next Newsroom: to create an informed, engaged public as the best hope for the future of democracy and civic life.

Plato warned that “The price of apathy in public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” Lack of access to reliable information also prevents people from participating intelligently in public affairs.

You may wonder what’s the connection between the goals of your gathering and media in rural Sierra Leone or Outer Mongolia?

In relatively new democracies, media – and particularly radio – plays an active role in shaping civil society: it lobbies for improved government services and offers services that the government does not yet have the capacity to provide; it gathers people together around common interests and community needs; and it broadcasts timely and necessary information about development.

Unlike here, where we are awash with media, in developing countries there is often just one dominant medium for mass communication: radio. Many of these are community stations or for-profit stations with a development mission. You write about ‘healthy journalists’ and we help create healthy stations by investing in station managers and their staff, local journalists, and communities.

Throughout my professional life I’ve always wanted to see radio used to its fullest extent, so I’ve been inspired to see and hear how creatively radio is used in developing countries in ways that change lives and help communities work for local change.

For example:

  • In rural Mozambique, a local radio station is leading community health efforts. As a result of radio programs that called attention to the growing AIDS epidemic, a new clinic was established to test residents for HIV and research shows that men were eight times more likely to get tested after they heard these local radio programs. At this same station, nearly 60% of the music heard is performed by local musicians and local residents, strengthening the station’s connection to its community.
  • In Sierra Leone, radio is credited with increasing the number of girls attending school from 40% to 60% in one province.
  • In Burundi, Tutsis and Hutus produce radio plays together to create peaceful models of working together and ending violence.
  • In Liberia and Sierra Leone, radio has nurtured a climate of trust between previously fighting factions, promoting inclusion of the whole community in decision making. Public officials are held accountable by appearing on weekly radio programs and petty corruption has been exposed.
  • In Zambia, listeners are invited to produce radio programs for special days such as International Women’s Day or Children’s Day, incorporating local voices into daily lives.
  • In West Africa, women have been empowered to speak out about abuse and they voted in national elections in larger numbers than ever before because of educational radio campaigns.

At the same time, these and other community stations are very vulnerable: they operate in some of the poorest countries of the world and often depend on volunteers to fill the on-air shifts. Some stations spend nearly seventy percent of their income on diesel fuel because there is no power grid. Most of the stations are new, having been on the air less than five years, so they lack effective structures for long-term sustainability.

Over the past fifteen years, I have learned firsthand the importance of working collaboratively with stations over time to establish their trust and to work with the local radio sector as a whole. I have seen that short-term, top-down approaches have limited effectiveness and don’t develop a culture of independent radio. Therefore, we build enduring partnerships and have created a participatory, country-wide approach because no one else is doing this. Both from my experience and from independent research, we have found this is the only way to bring lasting change. We are now regarded as an important information resource in our field.

Developing Radio Partners is built on a foundation of best practices, field experience and a belief in local station staff to produce programs that speak to their communities and make a difference. In station after station, I’ve been inspired by the passion staff tell me they have for their work and their commitment to strive for excellence. Because radio is a platform for so many topics, and is the most accessible medium, I know of no other social investment that can reach more people.

I regret I am unable to be with you to share more of these experiences of stations that serve their communities so effectively. You can learn more by going to our website and reading case studies of effective stations: http://www.developingradiopartners.org/

Best wishes for a successful conference.

Bill Siemering