Sierra Leone's Independent Radio Network

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: Sierra Leone is no stranger to violence. The West African nation suffered through years of horrific civil war. That officially ended in 2002. That same year, four radio stations pooled their resources to provide independent coverage of Sierra Leone's presidential elections, and that led to the development of the Independent Radio Network. The IRN now has 24 member stations.

AUDIO BROADCAST: You're listening to the biggest and hottest radio station, Tuesday morning.

MULLINS: The network broadcasts independent news, music and, of course, soap operas.

AUDIO BROADCAST: You know the big guys are [Speaking African term].

MULLINS: That's one of the broadcast soap operas. Ambrose James is the Sierra Leone Country Director for Search for Common Ground, an organization that helped launch the network known as IRN.

AMBROSE JAMES: What the Independent Radio Network is trying to do is to push the whole notion of diversity, that there are different viewpoints and that everybody has a voice, and to ensure that all these diverse voices have a space to talk about their own issues.

MULLINS: Is it hard to keep it independent?

JAMES: Yes, it is very hard to keep it independent because when the radio stations air programs that do not favor politicians or do not favor rich people, there's pressure, you know, to shut down. There's pressure on them to stop broadcasting, so it's very difficult. So, if it's ...

MULLINS: How do you resist that, though? What can you do?

JAMES: Well, the network provides that space. So, when one of the radio stations is being attacked or is being threatened, then the network, 24 radio stations will come together and say, "No, this is our member. You can't do this." There are rules to the game. If you are disturbed by a broadcast, take it to the Independent Media Commission. You can't just shut down a radio station. So, that is what the network brings in.

MULLINS: Are there independent journalists there? Has this been an enhancement to what they are allowed to report?

JAMES: Yes, there's a lot of independents there. You know, before information was used as a tool for manipulation in Sierra Leone, so the new wave now it's all these little radio stations in different communities, is beginning to challenge, look at leaders to be more responsive, to be more, you know, accountable. And that shift from the days when they used to use information to manipulate the minds to now, which is about transparency, that is what the network is trying to provide.

MULLINS: Ambrose, what is the importance of radio there in the first place?

JAMES: Radio is very important to the communities out in Sierra Leone. In a country where the infrastructure is very poor, where there's lack of electricity, where there's lack of Internet, Twitter, Facebook, where a population of about 6 million people and you have about 20 doctors, people cling on to the radio for information about health, information about HIV and AIDS and how to prevent that. A lot of the communities depend on our culture. What can't get information about fertilizers, pesticides to help their crop. Information about how they look at [inaudible] work. So, it's very powerful because infrastructure is not there. So these local radio stations, you know, provide all this sort of information for communities out there.

MULLINS: And how do people in the communities get the information? In other words, how do they access radio? Do they have portable radio? Do they carry radios with them?

JAMES: Yes. Every household in the communities have portable radio sets. They are small ones that people can use headphones on. When they ride their bicycles, you know, across the towns, they listen to the radio. In fact, they're dependent on the radio stations themselves. For example, if the radio is on, it's like life for the people. And when the radio's off, it's like darkness. So, it's about like sunshine versus darkness. So, sometimes, the radio goes off because of the generator or breakdown of some equipment and people feel really, really sad because they can't get the kind of information that they want. They cling on to these radios, you know, from the time they are on on to the time they shut down.

MULLINS: And is there one particular line of programming? I mean you have various stations with various outputs. Is there one that you think has made a significant impact?

JAMES: Nearly all of them have made considerable impact in the communities [inaudible].

MULLINS: How can you tell? How do you know?

JAMES: It's about listenership. It's about feedback. I mean, people text in and the number of text messages that they receive, they can't even read all of them on air. I mean, there have been issues about where they've and add corruption with local councils. And those local council officials have been fired from their jobs. There have been issues a number of sick people have been able to find solace by just the broadcast that they provide.

MULLINS: Is there one supremely popular program?

JAMES: Yes, the radio soap opera that we produce called [speaks African language]. It's a local language which means lost and found. It's very, very popular. It's really like an institution now in that country.

MULLINS: It's a soap opera?

JAMES: It's a soap opera and over 95% of the population listen to it every day. If you don't send that program to the radio station or the radio station does not receive the CD, I mean there's a lot of phone calls from communities about where is the program? Why it's not being aired? So, it's something that people love and it's really, really popular.

MULLINS: Ambrose James, Country Director for Search for Common Ground in Sierra Leone talking to us about the growth of the Independent Radio Network there. Thank you very much.

JAMES: Thank you.