Cell phones are great for making calls, listening and speaking. So when it comes to media convergence, and the ability to do more and more on our cell phones, why is our media still so writing-centric?

Even in the Iindaba Ziyafika project, our Knight funded expansion of the public sphere in Grahamstown City, we’re focused on getting citizen journalism in via text (in particular in through SMS) and getting it back out via text. Text content for smartphones and mobile sites are huge and growing niches. But why not use voice more for citizen journalism, public debate, and just getting news teasers out?

There are already services that allow you to record a piece of audio and post it directly to the world, just as you would a video clip to YouTube. And although sites like Talkshoe and Utterli might not be the way — certainly not from South Africa — they might show the way. We want to build this kind of voice in/voice out technology into our Grocott’s Mail online site.

Getting citizen journalism content is a real challenge here in South Africa, partly because of low levels of functional literacy, even among adults. For example, we find that with some school kids that we have trained they have great ideas and wonderful stories to tell, but struggle to write a coherent sentence! So getting user generated content content through voice and then sending it back as a piece of audio, or giving people access to a CHOICE of how they want to get their news (and their interactivity) — text and/or audio — may be well worth considering.

Issues of Cost and Moderation

But, of course, there are a variety of issues to consider. The biggest issue, as always, is cost. SMS is the number one cell phone based medium in Africa for a good reason: voice calls are expensive, both relative to SMS and in absolute terms.

But prices are dropping and voice is such a powerful medium that the extra cost might be worth it. Part of this power is that one does not need to be literate to record or listen to audio on a website as long as some elementary training is provided, and the steps are made easy enough. In addition, you can choose your language preference.

There is also the critical issue of moderation. Users send in an SMS story, and we can edit, add, check and then publish. If we allowed users to narrate a story directly, how could we be sure it was accurate, fair, and not defamatory?

Even simple things like restaurant reviews can be contentious. Just this week in our local newspaper, a fish shop owner was incensed by an SMS that the paper published, alleging his shop was dirty. Not only did the owner deny this, he suggested such allegations might be the work of rival shops trying to pinch his business, and, as such, the SMS might be libel!

To what extent does freedom of expression balance out with the right of people and businesses to not be unfairly bad-mouthed? This is something that would need to be worked out in practice (once some good legal advice is in place!)

Facilitating Inputs and Alerts

Clearly, we need to work out how we facilitate citizen journalist input. It could be a more powerful tool than we’ve ever thought. Talk radio, for example, is big in South Africa: to what extent does convergence mean that community newspaper cites could become similar to talk radio sites, featuring both interactive audio and broadcast audio?

What is exciting is the possibility of pushing audio to citizens who’ve signed up for something like a headline service or a specific kind of alert — like “weather warnings” or “jam on highway” or “municipality about to pass a law” notices. Now, sure, you can send an SMS, IM, or email (for the smarter phones), but getting a voice message in your inbox still has more immediacy and own-language choice.

Arguably, a short spoken message, of, say, 30 seconds, can get a lot more across than a 160 character SMS. Voice can also convey emotion better, another way to aid meaning.

A community paper may not have the capacity for alerts, and there are a lot of technical issues to work out before something like “voice-box headlines” can be sent out in large numbers. In South Africa, callers do not pay to receive calls nor do they pay to retrieve voicemail from their voicemail boxes, so the entire exercise would be free to the user. But how would a voice headlines service be able to attract sponsorship? Could you tack on a voiced “brought to by” before or after (or both) to your audio headlines?

Equally important are the tech issues. One can send out 10,000 SMS messages or emails virtually simultaneously, but with voice, each voice box must be dialed, the pre-recorded message heard, and the message laid down.

We’re thinking about what kind of dialer could do this and investigating the possible costs.

Of course, there are those who say voicemail is dead but they are talking about peer-to-peer voicemail, not professionally produced, user requested, sharp, snappy sets of headlines that really fill you in on what is happening around your town exactly when you want it (as opposed to waiting for radio news on the hour for example). Maybe that difference makes it appealing enough for people to sign up and dial in for.

Does anyone know of newspapers using pushed out headline audio on cell phones? Or ways of getting citizen journalism in through audio recordings? Plenty of papers will send you SMS headline menus that invite you to log into the newspaper website, but how many, if any, are sending out audio headlines that entice you to log on, or even to buy a paper copy? And are payment issues different: Do you have to pay to receive calls, or retrieve voice mail in your country?

We’re hoping to conduct our first push audio headline experiments in July this year, so watch (or listen if we get it right) to this space for more.