The first thing I would say about making radio in developing countries is that I most certainly don’t have all the answers, but I may have a few: for the last few years I have been traveling through developing countries, helping radio producers tell the stories of their people. I began my radio career working in Australia’s National Broadcaster; I now make radio in South Sudan. Life here can be challenging at the best of times; once you take into account the conflict, curfews, and seemingly constant stomach bugs, making radio is almost the simple part.
I work for Radio Miraya, a radio station run by the United Nations, the closest thing the country has to a national broadcaster. We’re a rag tag crew of 15 or so local journalists and a handful of international staff from Uganda, Bhutan, Greece, Eritrea, Australia and of course South Sudan’s freshly divorced countrymen, Sudan.
If being a journalist is a life filled with daily discoveries, than this kind of work has to be the pinnacle. In this line of work you will most certainly learn more than you teach. For starters, I was born in 1983, the same year the previous major conflict began in this country. The majority of the journalists in my newsroom have known this conflict in its various machinations their entire lives. Many were displaced to another country for their safety, others were recruited as child soldiers and all, without exception, lost many relatives in the last thirty years of fighting.
To choose to work as a journalist, a dangerous profession in a nation that does not encourage criticism of the government, and openly arrests and often jails reporters for their coverage of events, you need some serious balls. As a white, middle class, Aussie girl there is no doubt in this world that they can teach me much more about life than I could ever teach them about radio. This work can be challenging, stressful, but also one hell of an enriching adventure.
So. If you’re still keen on getting into this line of work, here are a few tips from the field.
I’m not into turning this piece into something that could be filed under a self-help tag, but it’s important to admit upfront that many people get into this line of work because they want to help people. A given. But you also have the opportunity to learn a lot about yourself.
Patience, just like fine editing, listening during an interview, or the fine art of applying gaffa tape, is a learned skill. Working in developing countries tests that skill to the limit. For instance, many countries have a fairly flexible approach to the concept of time. Whether it’s called ‘island time’ (as it was when I worked in the Solomon Islands) or Africa time, or manyana manyana, the first thing to learn is that we in the western world have an obsession with punctuality that is not necessarily a passion shared by everyone. An hour late to work is not a big deal, a break for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea is accepted, and talent will respond to your calls when they’re good and ready. News sometimes starts past the top of the clock and a three-day-old story is considered fresh. But if you take into account that three quarters of the country cannot read, which makes newspapers pretty useless for the majority of the country, even old news on the radio is better than no news at all.
Head In a Box. Or Gear and Equipment.
Besides our reporters working in the capital, Juba, Radio Miraya has a number of reporters working from the other nine states in the country. Living and working conditions for those reporters can be tough. While Juba has a handful of restaurants and even a few swimming pools to help combat the oppressive heat, our reporters working from Bentiu, Unity State, for example, live within the UN base, have beet restricted at times to 10 litres of clean water per person per day, have little access to fresh food, have no telephone network since the fighting broke out in December, and because of the ongoing instability in the town, report almost exclusively from within the base. However, the fact that the town is almost completely deserted after several attacks and the UN base is now home to almost 40,000 displaced people means the base is the town.
It may not surprise you to learn that many of our journalists working outside the capital don’t have access to recording studios. So we get a little creative. Recording and editing interviews or voxpops is one thing; recorders are small, portable, and laptops are more than sufficient for editing. But nothing beats the warm sound of a well-made studio for recording those voice links.
Our simple solution — cardboard box on the table, blanket over box, head in box and you’ve got yourself a nice little acoustic wonderland to record in. Need to record a phone interview and can’t handle the distortion and general crappiness of a speakerphone? This handy little device here (there are many similar devices at many different price brackets) will attach your desk phone through your digital recorder to record phone conversations. Note — there are also versions compatible with mobile phones but when living in a country with some questionable infrastructure, it’s best not to rely on cell phone networks.
Rechargeable batteries; a no-brainer.
Another tip: keep your equipment simple. Mac products are not recommended (you’re not going to find anyone to repair a MacBook pro out here), sure have a smart phone, but aim for a cheaper version so you won’t mind if it gets crushed by a car or lands in a muddy puddle. Have an additional power supply for your phone because town power supply is completely unreliable. Also a dual-sim phone could be your best friend. Many places have several phone networks that only cover some of the country, so you want to keep your options open.
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Catfish, Goats and Frogs.
As you may have guessed even our main studios in capital are still pretty makeshift, like mini shipping containers, barely soundproofed, small and packed with air conditioners to stop the infrastructure from melting (I’m not even joking about the melting, most of our car dashboards have melted in this crazy heat).
When things break, there’s no shop with replacement items, so infrastructure in general requires a whole heap of forward planning for the inevitable. Then you need to take into account the seasons. In the dry season, things generally operate OK, but in wet season, when the dusty base turns into a mud puddle, our radio studios turn into a wildlife park. Goats roam the base eating our shrubs, catfish swim up our drainage channels, and more annoyingly, thousands of frogs take up residence under our nicest, biggest radio studio, making it basically unusable until the rains have gone (unless you’re happy to have a melody of croaking under every recording). Things will not work how you expect, so flexibility is a must.
These radio-in-a-box mini systems are amazing and can be used with really minimal training to give remote communities a voice.
They are the journalists. You are the trainer.
You need to remember you’re there to share your experience, not work as a journalist. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve come across so far. You’re in a new place; everything is exciting. It smells different, tastes different and most importantly sounds different and your inner urge to take over is difficult to resist. Once a journalist, always a journalist.
But despite your academic degree, your Twitter obsession and extensive research on wherever you have landed, the local journalists always know much more about this place than you ever could. Your role is to help the local journalists tell the stories that matter to them, and as an outsider, those stories may be very different than the stories you think matter.
Like all teaching, it’s important to take a step back, sometimes allow people to fail and help them learn from their mistakes.
At Radio Miraya, the national staff report, present and produce daily news and current affairs while I, and the other international staff work as editors and technical support in the background. Hoping to improve their skills, editorial judgment and ideally, although not always successfully, instilling in them a love of radio. The idea being, when the UN eventually leaves this country, we leave behind a functioning, well-resourced radio station filled with capable enthusiastic reporters.
Don’t forget your passport.
If you’re keen to pack your bags and head out into the field there are a bunch of ways to do it.
Many countries have professional volunteer programs that will hook you up with a radio station in a developing country that needs a little support. This radio station in South Africa is a great initiative and a good way to get your feet wet.
And there are a myriad of media development organizations that make radio in some of the most difficult places in the world (Check out: Internews, BBC Media Action, etc). I made my way into UN radio through their professional volunteer program. The UN has radio stations in many peacekeeping missions around the world and the UNV program is a good way to get a foot in the door. If you speak more than one UN language you’ll have many more options. We broadcast in English and Arabic, many UN radio stations such as Radio Okapi in the DRC broadcasts exclusively in French for example. You can find out more about UN Radio here.