Imagine a two-way cell-phone-sized radio that is able to record (one button-push), store and promote listeners' feedback. The voice recordings are transmitted to the radio station where feedbacks are gathered, processed and incorporated into the programs. No more microphones as in the picture. Listeners can be and must be empowered to influence their societies in isolated parts of rural developing regions in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America; in such areas, radio is still a buzz word as the most important mass media. All the more, if you picture remote farming communities doing hard physical work, and struggling with the crucial problems of low income, food deficit, low level health care, illiteracy etc.: here enabling people to share their thoughts in speech becomes even more important. Also, to do so without having to rely on more complicated infrastructure, or interrupting their work.
The Advancement through Interactive Radio (AIR) project is one of the winners of the 17 successful proposals that is supported by 'Digital Inclusion' Awards (Microsoft Research). The radios are "simple, rugged, portable and inexpensive computing devices," according to John Bennett, Ph.D., Computer Science Department, University of Colorado. While several FAO programs have been dedicated to improve collaboration between agricultural scientists and radio broadcasters, soon we can witness the collaboration triangulated by the basic third party, the listeners themselves. In short, the seeds of citizen 'journalism' may start to grow if the AIR project proves to be fruitful.
Having a two-way radio network can only become a potential agent of social and economic advancement if it is allowed and used wisely. Therefore the project aims to target regions where giving opinion is legal. Secondly, there is a heavy emphasis on health care (including childcare, nutrition, sex etc.) besides farming and market conditions. As Bennett says, "without health and without women's and children's health there really isn't a healthy community." Accordingly, the plan is to target disadvantaged women in a few rural communities initially introducing approx. 100 prototype devices. These devices are integrated into the present version of the 'Internet' meaning loudspeakers on cars and radios. In addition, "the computerized handheld device needs to be able to exist in a networking infrastructure that's independent of the topology of the region, which is why we're looking at mesh networking direct transmission back to a base station." "If you look at the prevalence of Internet access in the developing world it's something like 1 in 160. The penetration of community radio is something like 1 in 4, so it makes a likely platform for doing this kind of work," adds Bennett. The soaring costs of Internet access averaged around 191% of monthly income in Bangladesh and 278%in Nepal in 2004 compared to 1.2% of average monthly income in the US, and the situation has not improved much for the countries in need.
Two years ago New Agriculturist said, "the success of mobile telephony even in rural areas, offers grounds for optimism," a two-way participatory radio gives even more grounds for a better future. Combining the strengths of traditional and modern media plays an important part in closing the digital gap. At least the technological part of that gap, as trained advisers equipped with the specific national language skills and accepted by the local communities are still welcome. However, sharing information within the community is the first step toward group self-training.
Hope to hear more about the AIR project.