Innovation @ BBG » USIM Fri, 20 Nov 2015 18:47:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 VOA West Africa Trip: What I Learned… #Africa2014 Mon, 24 Mar 2014 19:12:07 +0000 Adam Martin I recently returned from 17 days of travel through sub-Saharan West Africa, experiencing the culture, meeting with VOA broadcast affiliates, becoming educated on the local digital media ecosystems and gaining a better understanding of how US International Media can prepare to meet the opportunities presented by this rapidly evolving region and serve our strategic mission.

During those 17 days across Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, I heard from a diverse collection of journalists, social entrepreneurs, students, cab drivers, broadcasters, technologists and Senegalese Wrestling fans (Laamb!) who shared what they say those opportunities are and also some of the challenges they face.

What I learned…

Media & Technology

  • Mobile communication dominates as a form of social interaction among young students and professionals in the region. Mobile messaging apps, chat services, SMS and IVR all inform the way people communicate, organize, learn, send and receive news & information.

  • The Social Web is the Web for many in this same demographic who regularly engage online. Facebook acts as a single destination for people where they can message with friends, share photos, find relevant information, socialize online and organize ‘in real life.’ Twitter, Instagram and multimedia mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp, Viber and 2Go are also growing as places where people engage with friends, family, media organizations, brands and public figures online.

  • But…radio continues to play a critical role in these communities with its ability to reach a large and diverse audience, engaging them on topics that are local, relevant and personal to their lives while bypassing challenges for Web access that range from low broadband penetration and cellular data accessibility to language proficiency and literacy.

  • Radio and the Social Web share many characteristics that make them complimentary and allow them to serve as critical sources for communications. Having an ‘authentic voice’ that reflects the local language and culture with the ability to respond to the audience in ‘real time’ is key to successfully engaging with and building a supportive, loyal following — on-air or online.

Adam Africa trip

Me (fourth from left) with the Radio Kledu FM Team in Bamako, Mali

  • The regional telcos (telecommunications companies) that control the ‘last-mile‘ flow of data, information and access to the global community have tremendous influence over the way people use their mobile devices to communicate. Working effectively with these power brokers will be necessary for near-term success in providing content to these communities while alternatives are developed to bring more competition and collaboration to the market.

  • Affordable access to cellular data and low broadband penetration continue to be two of the biggest obstacles to ‘internet everywhere’ across the Sahel. Closing the digital-divide in these countries will lead to opportunities for incredible growth in access to education, new business opportunities, health and social services and cultural exchanges.

Adam Africa radio

Radio Kledu FM and digital news teams preparing the afternoon rundown


  • Digital Media Literacy within these regional audiences is growing exponentially. There is a critical need to bring more digital training to the journalists, technicians, marketers, programmers and management teams at USIM affiliates in order to meet the needs of an audience that is increasingly finding alternative programming online.

  • VOA Broadcast Affiliates across the region are increasing investments in their digital operations and in original programming. They say there is a demand for unique, local content that reflects their culture and is relevant to their changing lives. This means news that is timely, actionable and formatted for a mobile audience that is increasingly engaging first, through the social web before turning on the radio or television.

  • The potential for Nigeria as a center of economic growth and innovation on the continent appears almost limitless but it also faces many challenges. A renewed confidence in local and national political leaders, investment in its infrastructure, re-emphasizing education reform, and improving access to social services for all citizens were all said to be critical to Nigeria’s future success.

Adam Africa Photo Radio

A look inside a Ghanian broadcasting company


  • Mali has an amazing local music scene with modern r&b sounds rooted in the traditions of blues-men like Ali Farka Toure, but there’s also an underground hip hop community and a collection of club DJs and band leaders bringing Merengue, Salsa and Bachata to Malians.

  • Extreme sports that combine speed, action, music and local passions are growing rapidly in popularity in West Africa. If you want to learn first hand about youth culture in Dakar, go to a Laamb match where you’ll find them watching their favorite wrestlers get after it.

  • Money, Religion, Sports and Politics are the topics people I talked with spoke most passionately about ~ so not that different for a neighborhood guy from north Boston like me.

  • In Lagos there is an ‘energy’ that comes from the people and from the city itself…you can feel the City breathin’. The pace is frenetic but with a sense of urgency – the kind that drives change.

  • But the traffic…Lagos needs to fix its traffic situation.

  • If you’re near Osu in Accra, head toward the beach and ask for the spot where they serve the best ‘red red’ you’ve ever eaten…trust me.

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ODDI Demo Day Kicks Off the New Year Mon, 13 Jan 2014 18:41:16 +0000 Erica Malouf Friday marked the last demo day at ODDI in the current format. In the past, project owners (team leaders) have given demo day presentations in ODDI’s office with an occasional note from a team member. From here on out, the emphasis will be on having the team members take the lead in talking about their work, instead of the project owners.

In the past, stakeholders from within BBG have always been invited, but have rarely joined–it’s usually just ODDI staff who attend the Friday demos. Going forward, ODDI demo days will be centered around the stakeholder. Teams will schedule time with their various project stakeholders within BBG. The goal is to get internal customer feedback on a more regular basis as a part of our Agile, iterative approach.

ODDI scrum master Son Tran says that team-driven presentations provide team members with an opportunity to show that they are delivering on goals and owning the work they’ve done. He also notes it’s about the iterative process:  ”Closing the feedback loop and making it shorter is better for improving projects.”

What are we working on at ODDI?

For most teams, Sprint Zero was a time of research and planning, defining goals and determining KPIs. Adam Martin, our newly minted Director of Innovation, asked teams to come to the January 9 demo day “prepared to discuss their Charter as described in the Strategic White Paper, their shared vision in response to the Charter, the team’s goals, how they will measure their success against those goals, and their product(s) roadmap for Q2 of FY14 (and beyond if available).”

Now the teams are ready to see their brilliant ideas into fruition. And some teams are also managing ongoing projects like Relay, RIVR, the BBG-wide analytics roll out, and mobile app updates.

Here’s a look at what’s happening:

image mobileprez

Will Sullivan presents on the latest mobile app updates and the Symbian launch.


Project Owner: Will Sullivan

The Mobile Team is continuing develop, update and support the suite of umbrella news applications for all BBG entities, which supports more than 82 language services now, and has an install base of more than 400,000 users. We are launching new applications with Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Google Android and Apple IOS for both mobile and tablet form factors and just launched VOA’s Africa-focused Symbian application (the third largest mobile OS in the region, after Android and IOS, which we launched for VOA services last year). This quarter we will be updating the entire suite to a more magazine-style iPad design, building new Android home screen news widgets and moving the app analytics over to the shared Adobe Omniture SiteCatalyst system. We’re also beginning work on an live audio streaming and on-demand podcast Android and IOS application for the Middle East Broadcast Network’s Radio Sawa that is visually-rich with a touch-centered interaction experience and deep user-generated and social sharing integration.


Project Owner: Doug Zabransky

The Affiliate Digital Services (ADS) team represents a new chapter for USIM and affiliate relationships. Existing and new BBG Affiliates will be offered up to three tiers of digital service. Each tier represents levels of digital-hosted offerings including live streaming, adaptive html 5 digital players, and an internet broadcast station which will allow for content source switching between BBG live and on-demand content, as well as other affiliate content within the ADS community. All tiers include customer service and support.

Essentially, BBG hopes to build a robust network of affiliate partner on-line stations. Growing the BBG affiliate digital audience will grow BBG’s audience as well.


Project Owner: Rebecca Shakespeare

The insights team is focusing on setting up tools that collect and present objective information about digital performance to inform BBG leadership and editorial about what is actually happening with their digital products and content. The team is currently focusing on the rollout of the new web analytics tool which measures digital properties owned and hosted by the BBG. It is also contracting outside validation of the numbers that are collected and reported to ensure accuracy of the information presented. Beginning in February 2014, the team will start to focus on displaying weekly performance analytics from BBG’s range of digital reporting tools, side-by-side in a dashboard, to present a complete picture of digital performance.


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Brian Williamson’s illustrations illuminate the Storytelling Team’s vision


Project Owners: Steve Fuchs, Randy Abramson

The storytelling team is determined to revitalize and update USIM storytelling around the globe. We are brainstorming innovative ways to tell stories that inform, engage and connect with audiences based on their needs and expectations. One of our main goals is to build community engagement with younger audiences by using a toolbox of highly relevant, visual, trans-media storytelling techniques. We plan to not only count standard metrics–such as time spent, return visits, videos watched, social engagement, and so forth–but we also aim to make a real-world impact that affects conversation and behavior. Randy will continue to work on Relay, and the entire team will work on projects like finding innovative ways to cover sports in developing countries, among others.

Other Teams & Projects

In addition to the teams that demo’d last Friday, ODDI also has several other teams that are kicking A and taking names.

The Research & Analysis (R&A) team functions as support for all other teams. R&A was recently pivotal in helping the Storytelling team and the Affiliate Digital Services team determine their next projects. During Sprint Zero, the R&A team dug deep to find data on countries around the world, interviewing internal experts and BBG’s Regional Marketing Officers, diving into BBG research reports and library databases, and translating that data into insights and strategic recommendations. The R&A team includes Son Tran, Ashley Wellman, Yousef Kokcha, Ahran Lee and myself (Erica Malouf).

image RIVR screen

Ongoing Project: Doug Zabransky will continue to lead the IVR project called RIVR. Look for a blog post update to come soon.

ODDI also has various teams working on ebooks, UX testing and more. Follow the action here on the blog, on Twitter (@BBGinnovate) and on our new website portal (

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Facebook & USIM Journalism: RFERL (Azeri Service) Fri, 28 Sep 2012 13:30:56 +0000 April Deibert 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.


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.”

For more info:


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(Thank you to Kenan Aliyev ( and Ayaz Ahmedov ( 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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USIM Direct: What’s Next Mon, 30 Jul 2012 20:24:12 +0000 April Deibert Office of Digital and Design Innovation (ODDI) Multimedia Blogger/Producer April Deibert interviewed ODDI’s Manager of Technology Services Adam Martin to discuss USIM Direct.

Watch the Full Interview [7min 27sec]

Key Takeaways:

1. USIM Direct is a recast of the current VOA Direct product service that will expand to include all the entities and language services that are a part of USIM while allowing each of them to maintain their individual brand identity.  USIM Direct will also help them communicate more effectively with their affiliates around the globe and distribute their content to them using Internet protocols instead of traditional satellite methods.

2. There are a lot of technical challenges to delivering high-quality audio and video content using IP to areas where broadband penetration is ‘low’: leveraging a global CDN partner for caching and networking optimization, formatting content appropriately to provide the highest quality at the smallest file size, and providing rich metadata along with the content to allow affiliates to only spend time accessing the content most relevant to their audiences.

3. Another challenge is facilitating engagement between BBG affiliate representatives, the Office of Programming, and affiliate-level program directors in order to inform the editorial choices that are made that determine what ‘types’ of content are produced/distributed by the Direct service (short-form vs long-form, ‘hard news’ vs ‘features’ etc…)

4. ODDI is building an enterprise-level system (for a low-cost) that is scalable and flexible for the future using a cloud infrastructure and open-source technologies.

5. An IP-based, ‘digital first’ approach to content distribution for a global audience is what ODDI is focused on.


Top Highlights from the Interview:

1. How does USIM Direct work? [2min 2sec]

2. What advice do you have for others who are working on similar technical projects? [2min 0sec]


To contact Adam Martin: OR @adamjmartin


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(Thank you to Adam Martin for his 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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