Tales from Afghanistan: A Case for Community Radio

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The year I spent working in Afghanistan with the media, I witnessed a deep desire and need for community radio. Many of the provinces and towns within Afghanistan are detached from centralized TV stations that broadcast from the capitol, Kabul. When I was there in 2012, some TV stations did broadcast throughout the country, but most were unreachable by the majority of denizens outside that area.

Community radio is a locally produced alternative to media that is otherwise government-run or produced by groups with religious or commercial interests. It has a direct and meaningful influence on populations that may otherwise lack access to a variety of information, views and opinions.

Everywhere else outside the capital, people relied on local radio stations for their music, news, and information. Everything from funerals to lost items are broadcast via community radio stations. While it may sound strange to us, broadcasting funerals is seen as a social requirement for many families. This kind of local broadcast is also a cost effective way for communities to advertise social or educational programs.

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Modern Kabul, the capitol of Afghanistan, is pictured in this photo taken in 2012. “According to a 2012 estimate, the population of the city was around 3,289,000, which includes Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras and smaller numbers of Afghans belonging to other ethnic groups. It is the 64th largest and the 5th fastest growing city in the world (Wikipedia).”

Apart from being an alternative broadcasting service, these stations in Afghanistan draw big local audiences compared to national and global media outlets. To say that community radio stations are important in such developing communities is an understatement—they are a vital part of everyday life.

Where the infrastructure for technology such as TV, Cable TV, Cable Internet, DSL, and even dial-up Internet services are limited, community radio will continue to dominate in the present and near future. Community radios have a long history in these regions and as a result, more people are familiar with radio technology, providing an easy and cost-effective solution for disseminating information. And for the people, it’s much cheaper to access—they just need an FM radio.

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Radio and cell phone towers are visible on a nearby mountain in Kabul.

Public safety is another issue that community radio can address. Taking into consideration this lack of technological infrastructure in many developing nations like Afghanistan, and those countries in particular that are also in a state of crisis, a grassroots level media effort like community radio can bring critical information to people in need of vital communication services that support public safety.

Imagine what would happen if an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman were misquoted on a sensitive topic in a war-torn country such as Afghanistan. It would likely send ripples of negativity throughout the country, where many lives would be put in danger.

Local radio broadcasts can mitigate the impact of misinformation by promulgating more accurate information. The citizens within a community can be informed through broadcasts of current and relevant news from trusted, local sources. With the best result being updated information that minimizes ignorance, gossip, hearsay, misinformation, and even demagoguery.

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A man dressed in Sikh garb walks through a market in Kabul. The demographics of Kabul have changed drastically in the past ten years, as the wealthiest left the country and people from rural areas moved into the capitol. A new rich class has arisen, mostly as a result of a rise in local business acumen and international investment, while great disparity between rich and poor remains.

From my experience in Afghanistan, I have found that global media has an effect on the local media, but not a direct impact. I witnessed this difference in influence while working with the media there in September of 2012. There was a video that negatively portrayed the Prophet Mohammad on YouTube a few months prior to being broadcast on the local media. The news did not have any impact within the country for those months until when it was reported by the local media, and then demonstrations and attacks began on ISAF interests in Afghanistan. YouTube was subsequently blocked for several months by the Afghan government as a result of this incident.

Another example is the pastor from Florida, Terry Jones, who made national and international news in 2010 for his multiple plans and one realized attempt to burn Qur’ans, most notably on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I witnessed the impact of these events in April of 2012. Even though the Qur’an burning was broadcast several times internationally, there was not much of a reaction within the country. But when the story was finally picked up by local media, we began to see Afghans showing aggression toward ISAF interests (likely because of ISAF’s perceived affiliation with the United States).

The big lesson I learned was that education is a key component to bridging cultural shifts. At ODDI, we are empowering our journalists with innovations to help them spread information, and thereby educate. For me, information ultimately equals education.

As a member of several teams at ODDI, working on RIVR, Relay, and research projects, I often face challenges like figuring out how to capture a larger share of a critical audience in a particular region of the world, or finding out how technologically savvy a certain demographic is, or determining the usefulness of an application or specific type of technology. What makes ODDI’s vision compelling is that it is not bound to any specific metric or audience, but considers all options as viable, even when it will impact a small audiences. Such is the case in Afghanistan, where our community radio app can be used to share information among small groups of listeners.

It has been great to be part of an organization that contributes to what Thomas Kuhn calls the “paradigm shift”: bridging the gap between communities and cultures.

Credits
Editor: Erica Malouf
Feature Image: ’Afghan boy and man with radio,’ Barat Ali Batoor, Photo from Progress Report “A Young Ugandan Journalist Tells her Story”
Other Images: Taken by the author, Mr. Kokcha, in 2012
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Yousof Kokcha

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7 Comments

  1. Randy Abramson Randy Abramson says:

    Great piece, Yousof. It is great having you on the teams at ODDI! Question: how do people in Afghanistan find out about community programming? Is it word of mouth or are there other marketing techniques that can be deployed?

  2. Yousof Kokcha says:

    Thank you Randy. I would say it’s all word of mouth up to now or radio and some TV. There is tremendous upside and potential in using other means to find out about community programming as the local media and communities learn how community programming is broadcasted within the middle eastern and western media.

  3. Doug Zabransky Doug Zabransky says:

    Fantastic Yousof. Thank You, I enjoyed your journey and can see BBG launching quite a few Community Radios through Afghanistan this year.

  4. Son Tran Son says:

    Very insightful, Yousef! By community radio, do you mean shortwave radio?

    Sometimes mass media doesn’t translate to big impact. It’s the targeted programming at a grassroots level that can make the greatest influence.

  5. Yousof Kokcha says:

    Thanks Son. By Community Radio, I meant all forms of radios. In the case of Afghanistan, shortwave is very popular as well as other radios such as on feature phones. By the word “community” I meant that the information is consumed at the grassroots level or brings forth community awareness. I hope that answers your question.

  6. jmcclure says:

    What ten years can do! Ten years ago there was not even a single cell tower in Afghanistan. It is great to see them making strides towards implementing technology. Now, as it was then, radio rules. A popular item to the villagers (the ones without power in the mountain regions of the south) was a radio that had a small solar cell on it for power, and a hand crank to generate energy at night. Hopefully one day the country will have faster access to information.

  7. Y NIRMALA says:

    sir may i know the history of community radio in Afghanistan..as i am a ph.d. scholar…i need some information..regarding community radio stations in afghanisthan…if u provide i will be grateful to u..thank u

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