Mapping the media in LIBERIA – preparing a radio project

In the immediate aftermath of the ebola emergency, EMPOWERHOUSE was asked to map the community radio sector in order to provide Equal Access within the full context and framework of the media in Liberia. This was then the basis for EMPOWERHOUSE’s recommendation of an effective approach, appropriate tools and ways forward for strengthening a sustainable community radio sector – for a programme proposal they were working on.

Besides from a lot of details about the framework, the sad summary of findings included:

The community radio stations

Liberia does not have community radio stations. They have small local stations which report to the community but does not engage the community in programming. And community-run and community-owned are unfamiliar concepts.

Oscar Bloh, Director of Search for Common Ground and on the ALICOR board, Liberian and active with SFCG in this area since 1997, said that there are no stations that have been initiated by the communities themselves. They are all ‘top-down’ initiatives in one way or the other:

  • Either a donor has ‘offered’ a radio to a community
  • An individual from the community has started the radio up without any community engagement intentions
  • A politician wants to have a radio to promote him/her
  • A religious grouping wants to spread the gospel.

When meeting James Wolo, the chair of the ALICOR board, who used to the the lead trainer in the implantation of the Merci Corps stations (USAid funded), he said that they had had the chance to get it right at that time: the first major creation of stations, but they did not get it right. And they really didn’t!

The consultant agrees: Community radio in Liberia is the least ‘community radio’ met anywhere:

  • The vision and mission: no one talked un-prompted about facilitating community development and change. The view and aspiration was to provide information which is not bad but it is a real pity not to utilise the potential of a community station – at least a little
  • The governance structure of the stations is not democratic and not based in the community. The stations met had a board made up by representatives from 5 local interest orgainsations (farmers, women, youth, a few churches) and 2 persons of confidence appointed by the board. There are no elections, no annual general assembly, no accountability to the community (a concept surprising and unfamiliar when asking to it in all meetings). A few stations did hold community report-back meetings after a major annual board meeting. But with no governance consequence(s).
  • The programme production is in all cases met (and reconfirmed as a general trend) live,
    few stations have a production studio – they only have an on air studio, and the bigger stations are on air about 20 hours per day.
  • The language issue: all stations met have only a very small percentage of national language programmes – and if, it is a small translation from the English language programmes. Most stations did, however, not only speak BBC English, but also Liberian English. Still, with between 15 and 35% only of literates (and of course a higher % in towns, and a much lower in rural areas) my hypothesis that illiterates would also understand less English was reconfirmed by all. So: quite a number of the rural listeners would not even understand most of the programming (see ‘languages and literacy’ hereunder).
  • Gender balance was weak. Women were by many asked considered lazy, not creative, not interested, only interested if money was earned, and really, should women work so closely with men away from home… etc. The best gender balance was found in Radio Gbanga, where 25% of the people in the station were women. They were in the lowest paid and lowest status area – but they were there. Many stations have practically no women, I was told, many have just a few.
    The Vice president of ALICOR is a women, who is the station manager of radio MARWOPNET at the border with Sierra Leone. She told that it took her three year of being firm, not giving up when having to reject offers of sex almost every day. When the colleagues realised that she was not to be had, and that she was good, she got a good space in the station and was even promoted to be station manager.
    So: it is possible but there is a lot of work to do!
  • .Community development impact was rarely mentioned, following on from the above presentation of the ‘Vision and Mission’ issue. One refreshing example, however, was Radio Superbenguese visited in Gbarnga, where the stations manager James Dorbor Sao, with excitement told how his station, together with other civil society forces in the district had managed to change pressure local extractive companies to pay 84.000 USD to the district authorities and onwards 12.000 per months. This was meant to ensure latrines everywhere, clean water, scholarships to students, social services etc. An important victory. So – even when it is not a part of the self-understanding by community radio people in Liberia, such incidences happen – and can be built on.