Friday, February 13, 2015

Youth radio: getting the message out loud and clear

Youth radio volunteers in Laos about to go live
UNICEF Laos/2010/Souvannavong
While technology seems to be changing at light speed, delivering media into our hands and homes at the tap of a button, the humble radio still has an important role to play around the world in sharing information and helping people learn.

For World Radio Day tomorrow (13 February 2015), I spoke to UNICEF staff in Lao PDR and the Pacific Islands about their youth radio initiatives. They told me how radio is giving a voice to young people and helping communities.

Laos: taking radio to communities

In the Lao PDR, UNICEF supports ‘Open Hearts, Open Airwaves’ in 13 provinces. The initiative trains 11-16 year olds on all the skills needed to produce a show.

Tabongphet Phouthavong is communication specialist for UNICEF Lao PDR. He initiated the project in 2004.

“We supported the Lao Government to start the youth radio programme, which broadcasts 30 minute shows weekly throughout the country,” he told me. “Young people talk about the issues that affect them and their communities.”

But this is much more than just a radio show. “With the Government, we train the young people on important issues, then they go to the villages to spread that information in fun ways,” Tabongphet continued. “These include shows, games, competitions and discussions. It’s a very effective way of spreading important messages to children and their families.”

Last year in a village in Saravan Province, Southern Lao PDR, I witnessed one of these shows first-hand. The youth radio team, clad in bright pink ‘Open hearts, Open Airwaves’ t-shirts, welcomed over 100 villagers with a traditional dance, followed by a play about how to avoid dengue fever, information on healthy eating, and a very energetic children’s game.

During the show, the youth radio volunteers also asked for feedback on their previous broadcast, asking villagers if they listened to the show and what they learned from it. The young volunteers were as energised by the experience as the audience, who rarely had an opportunity to see organized shows.

According to Tabongphet, radio is inherently more social than TV. “It has the ability to be community-focused because we are able to make the messages much more relevant to local communities,” he explained. “It is cheaper and easier to set-up, and to receive the message you don’t need a TV or satellite dish. Radio is still a powerful tool in many remote parts of Laos.”

There are also many benefits to the hundreds of children who have been through youth radio initiative over the last ten years says Tabongphet. Aside for the radio skills, the volunteers demonstrate increased confidence, excellent speaking and debating skills and have valuable experience to take into future roles, either professionally or academically.

Giving youth a voice in Solomon Islands

Dean Koroi, 19, broadcasting in the Solomon Islands as part of Youth to Youth
UNICEF Pacific/2013/Tahu
Over 7,000 kilometers away from Lao PDR, ‘Youth to Youth’, or Y2Y is broadcast once a week in the Pacific island state the Solomon Islands. It’s another UNICEF supported radio show, produced in cooperation with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation.

“There are four radio announcers for the show,” explained Vika Waradi, communication for development specialist for UNICEF Pacific Islands. “They are responsible for content forward planning, research, collection of stories and interviews, scripting, editing and recording. We have someone on the ground to help support them.”

Dean Koroi was expelled from school in 2011 and wasn’t sure what to do next. A friend got him in touch with local youth services and last year, at the age of 18, he began working on Y2Y. He clearly enjoys the response from listeners: “I’m enjoying the popularity that I’m getting out of this. My neighbours and friends always let me know when they’ve listened to our program and heard me on the radio. Before, I didn’t feel like anyone took notice of me. Now I get stopped and people actually talk to me – it’s very nice!”

But importantly, Dean has also seen how the show is bringing potentially life-saving benefits to children and their communities: “I think that the discussions about measles during an outbreak was important. A lot of people called in to thank us for the information that we relayed.”

“That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt since the start of the program,” Dean continues. “When the show receives lots of callers and text messages it makes me feel excited because I know people are listening to our show and are having their say. I feel good to be a part of that.”

A tool for the modern age?

Sound editing is one of the skills taught to youth radio volunteers.
UNICEF Laos/2010/Souvannavong
At a time when mobile technology is quickly spreading through the East Asia and Pacific region, many people might wonder why continued investment in radio is needed.

In Laos, cheaper smart phones and improving telecommunications infrastructure means, slowly but surely, more people are accessing the internet. And the ‘Open Hearts, Open Airwaves’ volunteers are responding to this trend.

“Most youth radio stations around the country have their own Facebook pages, many of which have thousands of followers,” Tabongphet says. “The volunteers are taking the initiative to promote their show and their messages on social media. Now we’re starting to learn from them!”

Rather than damaging the popularity of ‘Open Hearts, Open Airwaves’, social media is instead being used to promote the shows and reach out to a larger audience. In response, the 'youth radio' initiative will soon be re-branded 'youth media' to take into account a wider spectrum of channels that can now be used by youth to have their voices heard.

It’s clear that in countries like Lao PDR and the Solomon Islands, radio is still a powerful way to bring communities together and to spread important messages. Dean probably summed it up best: “The beauty of the show is that it opens up discussions on all kinds of topics or issues related to or affecting youth in Solomon Islands,” he said.

Technology and how people access media is changing but the popularity of podcasts shows that radio still has an important role to play, even in more developed countries. The delivery method might be changing but radio is still very much alive and well.

Youth radio has the ability to engage youth, educate and entertain, and I hope young people are given more opportunities to get their messages out to communities loud and clear.

The author

Simon Nazer is Communication Consultant for UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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