Almost everyone who has listened to the radio within the last few years has heard a DJ call for the audience to send in a text message — whether to request the next song, respond to the latest news or to comment on the needs of their communities. Media outlets everywhere are using SMS to engage audiences in innovative and creative ways, especially as they are increasingly reliant on audiences to be their eyes and ears. The combination of broadcast and interactive, text-driven response is being used to affect a wide range of reporting and audience engagement practices.

FrontlineSMS, which allows people to set up a hub for text messaging to inform and engage rural communities, is in the final stages of pilot testing a version of our software that’s customized to meet the needs of radio broadcasters. The FrontlineSMS:Radio project, which serves as the foundation of our Knight News Challenge project, has given us insight into both the priorities and challenges facing community radio stations in low-resource communities.

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Radio Nam Lolwe in Kisumu, Kenya is taking part in the FrontlineSMS:Radio pilot. Image courtesy of Iginio Gagliardone

Whether used for scoping the most popular topics, gathering community input, or organizing activities, SMS is being used by radio stations all over the world to both generate and guide content, which in turn increases its relevance and stimulates dialog. BreezeFM in Zambia, for example, appeals to audiences to suggest topics for their “Issue of the Day” program and dispatches journalists based on news tips received from listeners.

The limit on audience engagement, historically, has been the tension between limited airtime and the number of interested listeners. By virtue of being digital, SMS increases the number of listeners who can contribute to the direction of the program via their mobile phones, whether through poll responses or free-form comments, without requiring significant airtime.

One station, one number

Additionally, most radio stations don’t have just one mobile account, leaving DJs to use their personal phones to manage SMS interactions. This can result in lost data and audience confusion. (Why, for example, does one station have a different phone number for every show?) A centrally run FrontlineSMS hub helps overcome this — one station, one number. Moreover the software can gather data to analyze listener behavior — gauging the popularity of their broadcasts, topics, and engagement efforts at a station level.

From a design perspective, the question posed by the FrontlineSMS:Radio project is how large amounts of SMS data can be received and interpreted, easily enough that analysis can be done in near real-time during live broadcasts. It is important for DJs to be able to identify the most popular topics and themes. It’s also important to be able to preserve previous messages to enable radio stations to make data-driven decisions about their programs.

FrontlineSMS:Radio is a first attempt at helping to meet these needs by reducing the burden on media outlets, experimenting with new formats of audience engagement, and customizing our free and open-source software.

This is not to say that this process will be without challenges. Many stations are still grappling with considerations about how to prompt interaction and make the best use of SMS content. There are a number of access and educational challenges ahead, meaning that more innovation will be required for FrontlineSMS:Radio to completely meet the mobile interface needs of the broadcast community.

Still, with the experience we’re gathering through the FrontlineSMS:Radio project and the support of the Knight Foundation, FrontlineSMS will continue to build text-based tools to give listeners in every community a voice.