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Cricket game in Pakistan

In the United States, high-end smartphones like the iPhone and BlackBerry don’t have built-in radios. But in Pakistan, even the cheapest cell phones, which don’t have cameras or other features, come with the ability to listen to FM radio. Every day, and especially during cricket matches, people walk the streets with their phones pressed to their ears, tuned into their local stations, according to Huma Yusuf, a journalist based in Pakistan.

In Pakistan and other countries in the developing world, mobile phones are becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In June 2009, Pakistan had 94.3 million mobile subscribers, or about 58 percent of the population, according to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, a government agency. Mobile phones have become a popular way to tune into radio, a medium that has proven to be a powerful force for democratization and civil society. Although it’s not clear what impact mixing cell phones and radio will have, it promises to be a powerful combination.

The evolving relationship between cell phones and radios was one of the subjects of a recent report by LIRNEasia, a think tank that studies ICT policy in the Asia Pacific. The most surprising finding was that in three of the countries studied — Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — more people own mobile phones than radios, according to Ayesha Zainudeen, research manager and demand side specialist at LIRNEasia. About 24% of people in Pakistan own radios, according to the study.

The study found that roughly 7% of people in Pakistan listen to radio on their phones. However, Zainudeen said the study likely underreported the number of listeners. In 10,000 face-to-face interviews conducted by researchers, people reported that families will often share a single phone, meaning multiple people could be using it to listen to the radio. This type of use was not counted in the study.

Traffic Reports Cover Urban Warfare

In Pakistan, where radio stations operate under state restrictions, radio operators will find creative ways to share useful information, according to Yusuf. “We have a poor government licensing department,” said Yusuf. “There’s a lot of stuff that happens, so they forget and don’t realize they need to shut something down.”

Radio stations have used traffic reports, which are permitted by the government, as a means of reporting gang violence, looting and other unsafe conditions. Yusuf detailed this practice in an article:

The radio journalist Waqar Azmat advised drivers to avoid the area known as Gurumandir, “because the conditions there are not good, there is no traffic in the area.” A few minutes later, at 2:26 p.m., he returned to the airwaves to say, “traffic on Shaheed-e-Millat Road is very bad, as it is on Sharah-e-Faisal. There’s madness all the way until Tipu Sultan Road. Drivers should choose their routes carefully so that they don’t become victims of bad traffic.”

Descriptions of traffic became code for urban warfare and violence, warning listeners about where it wasn’t safe to travel or be outdoors.

Dueling Radio Stations

In the future, Yusuf thinks the combination of radio and cell phones could become especially interesting in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). “This is the place where radio can have most explosive impact,” she said.

Currently, the Taliban has about 150 illegal FM radio stations in the area. The Pakistani government is considering allowing other stations in order to counter the Taliban. “That legislation is expected soon,” said Yusuf. “If that passes, I think that lots of incredible things will happen.”

Though the government is unlikely to allow community radio stations across the country — Yusuf said they fear the power of local reporting — it recognizes the role that community radio stations could have in fighting the Taliban. The Obama administration has also supported the use of cell phones and radio in this area. “The way Obama phrased it is that we’re losing the information war against the Taliban,” said Yusuf.

As more people in Pakistan and the rest of the developing world listen to radio on their mobiles, the growing number of listeners could have a potentially disruptive, and democratizing, impact. Most likely, these listeners won’t just be tuning in to hear cricket scores.

This article originally appeared on MobileActive.org

Photo of cricket game by Pete Meade via Flickr.