Facebook & USIM Journalism: RFERL (Azeri Service)

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Azerbaijan’s media environment suffered a significant blow in 2009 when the BBC, Voice Of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFERL) were banned from using the country’s airwaves.  RFERL’s Azeri Service has had some great successes in the past few years since implementing a proactive online, digital media strategy to replace the use of traditional broadcast radio and television.  For example, since the launch of Radi Azadliq’s Facebook Radio (2011), the audience is able to participate in a live, late-night and audience driven program streamed through Facebook.  This can be done because access to the Internet is still relatively free in Azerbiajn.  To better understand how Azeri Service pulled it off, I spoke with Kenan Aliyev (Director, Azeri Service) and Ayaz Ahmedov (Producer, Azeri Service).

According to Aliyev, “Facebook is exploding in Azerbaijan; there is a huge demand for information and government, so far, is not blocking it.”  This concern comes from the fact that on January 1, 2009, the Azeri Service was faced with the usual task of managing people and producing radio programming, but they had no ability deliver content over the radio.  Why?  Well, because near the end of 2008, Azerbaijan’s National Television and Radio Council ruled that it would ban international radio stations from broadcasting on national frequencies.  This is still in effect today.  Azeri Service staff put their heads together and realized that they could use enhanced Facebook tools to produce an interactive Internet radio station (with in-studio video capabilities).

Even the Azeri Service team is amazed at how many people have been not only attracted to the Azeri Service website and Facebook page, but how many are actively engaging with the content.  “Instead of waiting for the audience to come to you, we thought why don’t we take our shows to Facebook?,” explained Aliyev about the weekly Facebook Radio show.

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How Users Access Facebook Radio
On the Azadliq Radio Facebook page, there is a tab labeled “Live” that takes users to the streaming radio page (screenshot above) within Facebook.  Throughout the day, users can listen to everything from Radio Azadliq’s live broadcasts to recorded VOA Special English programs on the same stream.  “This (application) supports audio and video so people can listen/watch and comment while they’re on Facebook,” further explains Aliyev.

 

How Producers and IT Staff Setup & Strategize Facebook Radio
Ahmedov recommends several steps to successfully implement a Facebook Radio strategy:
1.        Go to Facebook developers and see what they suggest and see how you can use it.
2.        The developers may suggest social plugins.  These plugins can help you live stream content on the website and on Facebook.
3.        Be sure that the social plugins that are recommended actually work.  Facebook was still allowing the use of a particular plugin that Radio Azadliq wanted 2-3 months ago, but they no longer supported it. So Radio Azadliq switched to a social plugin that allows for three-dimensional radio (allowing users to watch radio talent live on air, in studio) through Facebook.  This is technically what Radio Azadliq calls Facebook Radio.
4.        Choose your broadcast topics from trending topics on Facebook.  This can include what is most discussed or commented on.  Use social media to gather AND produce content.

 

How Producers Identify Guests
Aliyev noted that they book a lot of their guests based off their engagement or popularity on Facebook.  Recently, for example, Radio Azadliq asked a famous Azerbaijani singer to launch his Facebook page on the radio show.  “While on live, he started receiving a lot of friend requests.  He took questions from the audience by phone and by Facebook,” said Aliyev, “He came to our show and drew a huge audience”.

“About 25 percent of our web traffic comes from Facebook; it’s a great tactic that works to get interactivity,” Aliyev stressed to explain how and why news programs must now work harder to push content to audiences—it’s not enough to just have a Facebook Page.  “On another show we invited a prominent figure who got about 70,000 likes on his Facebook Fan Page, so we asked him to announce his participation (on our program) on his Facebook page and tell his fans that he’ll be taking questions through the Azadliq Radio Facebook Fan Page,” detailed Aliyev, “It worked.”

Facebook Radio in-studio camera

 

How Producers Are Responding to Technical Difficulties
Aliyev noted that there is some difficulty explaining technical issues and needs across different languages, but the team also found difficulty in incorporating Facebook Radio into the Pangea CMS system.  Ahmedov added that “Facebook is extremely unstable and there are cookies problems.”  For example, if a user does not clear his or her cache, they may be seeing an old view of the page when, in reality, photos and information was updated.

While the general idea of the show is to have it available on all platforms—Facebook radio, satellite TV, and on the website–according to Ahmedov, “streaming video and audio through Pangea is extremely (difficult) to handle.” So his team is still forced to use third-party platforms, like Ustream.  “We have over one million clicks on Ustream, but we really would like have it on our site,” explained Ahmedov.  “But soon we are going to switch to a system called TriCaster, which is like a mini TV studio,” continued Ahmedov, “with this we can make all the programs our own” with the facilitation of one producer at a computer in the studio.

For producers, Ahmedov also expressed how important it is for his team to keep learning—even for things as simple as HTML—and to keep innovating with internal capacities.  For users, Ahmedov said that it is important to have a technical help phone line and website forum where people can send feedback about specific technical problems.

 

How the Facebook Radio Strategy is Changing USIM
By providing alternative digital ways to access information, the Facebook Radio model is helping to fill a gap (lack of traditional radio and TV broadcasts) previously encountered by USIM.  “This is a valuable commodity,” expresses Aliyev.  However, since using more mobile applications, podcasts, and other multimedia formats (such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter), listenership and viewership have increased.  Twitter, for example, will soon used by Radio Azadliq to do live blogging and Bambuser is currently used to gather and post live broadcasts filmed by users in hot zones or event areas.  Users can record video in HD and post videos using their mobile phones.  Producers can embed these videos on the website or drop it onto the server to broadcast it live across all platforms.  “We had a (video) report about some riots; a journalist was in the right place at the right time to broadcast live from his phone,” explained Aliyev, “We had a huge following and thousands of clicks on that event because it was exclusive.”  Aliyev advised that USIM “cannot sit and wait; we must always advance our technical abilities and journalistic skills—the nature of media is changing.”


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(Thank you to Kenan Aliyev (AliyevK@rferl.org) and Ayaz Ahmedov (AhmedovA@rferl.org) for their contributions to this post.)

(The foregoing commentary does not constitute endorsement by the US Government, the Broadcasting Board of Governors, VOA, MBN, OCB, RFA, or RFE/RL of the information products or services discussed.)

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April Deibert

April Deibert

April Deibert is the Multimedia Blogger/Producer for the Office of Digital & Design Innovation. Follow her on Twitter: @BBGinnovate and @AprilDeibert.

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