Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is three months into an interactive SMS service with its Radio Azadi service in Afghanistan that allows listeners to access content and participate in the program via mobile phone.
Through the interactive SMS service, Radio Azadi is now able to send and receive SMS messages from subscribers. As a news organization, the main goal of RFE/RL is reaching an audience, according to Julian Knapp, RFE/RL's deputy communications director.
"We want to make sure our content is available on whatever platform Afghans want to consume it on," Knapp said. The service allows listeners to become texters, and people around the country have sent in messages to the radio station. Roughly 200 messages are now flowing in per day.
RFE/RL is a private, non-profit corporation funded by the U.S. Congress. RFE/RL currently reaches 21 countries, and Radio Azadi, the Afghan station, has been broadcasting for 10 years and is the most popular media outlet in the country. It has a weekly audience of 7.9 million and a market share of about 50 percent.
How it works
Outgoing messages -- those sent by Radio Azadi -- include breaking news headlines and emergency alerts. The headlines are sent about twice daily and there are currently 50,000 subscribers since the launch in late October.
RFE/RL partnered with mobile provider Etisalat for the interactive SMS service; it's free for users. Knapp said it was important to go with a major regional player with a large subscriber base. However, only Etisalat customers can join the service for now. To sign up to the bilingual SMS headline service (there is one code for Dari and one for Pashto), people send an SMS message to a shortcode.
Another facet of the service supports citizen journalism in Afghanistan by allowing subscribers to text in reports and opinions. Radio Azadi receives 150 to 200 messages a day from Afghans with messages ranging from music requests, comments on programming, and information about local stories and issues. Subscribers can also send in MMS and photos. Knapp said the majority of incoming texts are substantial news messages and a selection of these messages are read over the air. In some cases, RFE/RL reporters follow up to verify details, or are tipped off about a story which they then investigate themselves.
Radio Azadi provides the headline text to Etisalat via a web interface, and the provider, in turn, sends the SMS message to subscribers via a bulk distribution. For incoming messages, Etisalat helps advertise the short code via bulk ads to the base, and messages and pictures sent in are then forwarded to the radio station.
Using New Tech to Reach New Audiences
Though the service is in the early days, Knapp said it has proved important for rural areas of Afghanistan. The majority of incoming SMS messages come from small villages or rural areas where people don't have as much access to officials or media.
"People's habits are developing as we speak," Knapp said. "Which seems to suggest that people there feel more disconnected and like the idea of having a new outlet for their concerns and observations."
As elsewhere, mobile penetration is on the rise in Afghanistan, where up to 60 percent of Afghans have access to a mobile phone, Knapp said. In addition, the mobile environment is modern.
"Infrastructure was so destroyed," Knapp said, "that Afghanistan started pretty much from scratch. Development skipped the infrastructure-heavy broadband and telephone lines and went straight to mobile."
Which is why mobile infrastructure -- where it's available -- is modern and advanced.
Radio in Afghanistan is still the main means to reach a wide audience especially outside of urban centers. "SMS is a complement for us because we are aware of how crucial radio is," Knapp said.
This month, Radio Azadi moves into mobile audio with the launch of an IVR (interactive voice response) component. People will be able to call a number and choose a language and category (sports, entertainment, news, and so on). The audio recordings will be updated several times a day.
The above image shows free solar-powered radios being distributed by RFE/RL in Afghanistan, to promote access to information where people lack access to electricity. Mobile phones can be charged via the radios. Photo courtesy of RFE/RL.