In developing countries, and particularly in Africa, radio can be the key media channel in the local public sphere — that is, of course, in public spheres are allowed to be local and public!

Iindaba Ziyafika, our Knight News Challenge project in South Africa, has focused a great deal on training citizen journalists for print and digital media. The project is now branching out even more into community radio. We formalized a partnership with Radio Grahamstown, the local community radio station, to create about five hours of programming each week and to help the station stabilize itself. In South Africa, community media is poorly supported by government (if at all), and are often survivalist and marginal enterprises run by dedicated but stretched volunteers.

Our youth program, Y4Y, is going strong after eight months. It’s produced by and for young people from Grahamstown’s 13 high schools. The show builds bridges across the huge gulfs of race and class that permeate life in South Africa — and it’s developing a loyal listenership.

What is particularly exciting about the show is the way young people are able to use low cost instant messaging to interact with the show, rather than the more expensive SMS method used at commercial stations. An SMS in South Africa can cost the equivalent of 10 U.S. cents — a lot of money where 40 percent of citizens live on less than U.S. $2 a day. By contrast, an IM costs 1/80th the cost of an SMS.

Reaching Adults

More recently, Iindaba Ziyafika has moved towards building a more adult audience, but with similar ambitions and strategies to build bridges and cross barriers. We created a new news-focused show called Lunchtime Live. Initially on twice a week for an hour, the idea is to one day go live every weekday for an hour.

Lunchtime Live is a wonderful hybrid of citizen journalism, live interviews, call-in talk radio (and sent-in SMSs and IMs from cell phones) combined with professional interviewing and radio production.

Building on the Izwi Labahlali (The Voice Of The Citizens) pilots of 2009, citizen journalists prepare stories, come on air to read their copy, and the stories are then discussed with well prepared hosts. Often, pre-production have arranged to call the people mentioned in the in the stories, especially when a contentious issue is raised.

The citizen journalist then gets to take part in a moderated discussion with the people about whom he/she has written, or who might have something valuable to contribute

Sometimes the show is a bit similar to Sourcing Through Texting, which was recently written about on Idea Lab. That show sees listeners text in a story tip, but more often the stories are sourced by citizen journalists. Our citizen journalists have 20 hours of training to guide them, and a lot of mentoring from a citizen journalism editor. Some of them have become community “super stringers,” or what we might have, in a different age, called “freelance journalists.” It helps that we pay — or should we rather say cover costs! — for good journalism!

Strikes and Human Interest

Topics for coverage vary. We’ve had a lot of strikes in South Africa recently, some nationwide, and some very local. Our citizen journalists broke the news of strikes starting locally, one at Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a teachers strike. During the strike, radio turned out to be the best way to follow the fast moving strikes, marches, and sit-ins. The citizen journalists (and the production crew) worked hard to let different voices, such as parents and pupils whose schools were closed by the strike, striking workers, and management have their say. The KFC strike was a big deal in our home town, but not as big as the national public sector strike that shut down courts, schools, hospitals and the like across South Africa.

On other levels, human interest stories also generate a lot of discussion, calls, IMs and SMS. A poor family called to say their daughter had died in Johannesburg, but they could not afford the exorbitant cost of transporting her body back to Grahamtown (a journey of about 1000 kilometers). After the story appeared on Lunchtime Life (and later as an article in print and online), money and offers to help came pouring in, and the grieving family was able to bury their loved one this past weekend.

Radio really does have power to connect people to each other, helping rebuild social capital and social solidarity in the process.

Our print-based citizen journalism is going from strength to strength, with over a dozen articles appearing each month; but the articles are written to conform with the fairly traditional norms of the newspaper — and they are only in English. On Lunchtime Live, isiXhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa, and English can mix freely. This frees people to phone in and speak in the language they prefer.

Indeed, when we talk about “public spheres” there is a lot tied into “‘formal” ways of engaging. Amidst the hustle and bustle of South Africa, a country still struggling to overcome a past of exclusion based on race, gender and language, community radio has a critical role to play in deepening democracy. Lunchtime Live is finding out, in big and small ways, how that role might be played.

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