Media plays an essential role during emergencies. But gathering good, up-to-date, information is not always easy, especially when rumours fly. As part of our COVID-19 response, Farm Radio International’s Digital Innovation team set out to create an accessible system for broadcasters to access good information for their programs.
Broadcasters carry the responsibility for getting information to communities that are often rural or cut off from more traditional sources of information. In fact, they are a main line of support for rural Africans. Whether broadcasting in minority languages, or in ways that respond to the specific needs of the communities they serve, broadcasters are hyper-local. They know their communities inside and out, and know how to pass along information in ways that are timely, entertaining, informative, and easily understood.
Supporting broadcasters = supporting communities
In Burkina Faso, for example, 94 per cent of adults listen to the radio daily according to a recent Africascope survey. Across the countries where we work, an average of 65 per cent of adults own or have access to a radio. In places with much lower internet access and use and where owning a television might be out of reach, radio is essential. This all means that the information available to broadcasters is key.
“Currently with this pandemic, broadcasters are struggling to get info,” says Nathaniel Ofori, Farm Radio’s Senior Team Lead for Digital Innovation Delivery. “There is a lot of fake news, especially on social media, and people can’t determine what is authentic. Broadcasters need a platform where they can verify, and see if the info they have received is verified or not, and if they have questions, ask them and have access to people to answer them.”
So, with additional funding provided by the Government of Canada for COVID-19 related work as part of Farm Radio’s Scaling Her Voice on Air project, we set out to find ways to support broadcasters.
Developing an emergency hotline for broadcasters
As the coronavirus became a global threat, the Digital Innovation team asked themselves how to support rural communities as they adapted to the new conditions imposed by the coronavirus. The answer seemed logical: support broadcasters by getting good information about how they could continue to work while practising physical distancing.
But that only posed more questions: How do we ensure broadcasters across the 10 countries where we have offices get access to good information about COVID-19? How can they verify the information they do have, or ask questions about the information they don’t?
When developing radio programs, Farm Radio often designs digital tools that allow broadcasters to connect with their audiences. By using Interactive Voice Response (IVR) phone-in systems, listeners can ask questions, respond to polls, and hear important facts from radio programs. It seemed natural then, that IVR be one of the ways we reach out to broadcasters — many with few resources themselves.
- We asked broadcasters from our Whatsapp groups to submit their frequently asked questions.
- Using the latest information from the World Health Organization and other verified sources, our Radio Resources team compiled content on basic health information about COVID-19 and safety tips for broadcasters, into concise, easy to understand snippets.
- Our teams recorded the information in French, English, Swahili and Amharic.
- We set up IVR hotlines in 10 different countries and shared this information through our broadcasting networks with more than 2,000 broadcasters.
Unlike our listener IVR services, which often feature streamlined, topic-of-the-week information, this service provides a comprehensive overview of frequently asked questions, myths and misinformation, and tips for broadcasters to stay safe.
“We were trying to push all the information that we felt broadcasters would need on the IVR system,” says Nathaniel. He led the design and development of the hotline.
“We structured it in a certain way so it is easier and straightforward, but we wanted to give more information because these broadcasters are giving information to their listeners.”
A place to ask questions
But the call-in lines are not just a one-way service. The IVR allows broadcasters to ask a question or share their best practices on the line.
“Currently, it is difficult for broadcasters to access a local expert. With this system, you can ask a number of questions, and experts will look at them and provide answers for them,” says Nathaniel.
When broadcasters record a question, it is captured on an online app developed by our team, who then categorizes the question (so that we can track the type of information needed) and then sends it to a local expert.
The experts then sends a text back to our team, who relay the responses in the language spoken by the broadcaster.
The most commonly asked questions asked for basic information on COVID-19, including symptoms, protection, and transmission — and how the disease is impacting genders differently.
“The questions they are asking are not for them. They are asking questions on behalf of people, their listeners, and they need an avenue to ask those questions,” says Nathaniel.
Meeting broadcasters where they are
At the same time, we recognize that broadcasters are increasingly using social media as a tool to augment their programs. We have Whatsapp groups where hundreds of broadcasters share information and best practices.
So our team also developed a chat bot, where, through a series of guided questions, broadcasters can access that same COVID-19 information using Facebook Messenger and Telegram.
You can test it out for yourself here: http://m.me/farmradioFM.
Serving rural communities with information about COVID-19
Our goal is for these services to help ensure that rural and underserved communities get the information they need to stay safe as the pandemic continues.
When the threat of the disease diminishes — and we all know the pandemic is not over yet — it’s important we also ensure that food systems and marginalized communities are not ignored. The aftereffects of COVID-19 may drive food-insecurity and difficult harvests for farmers who have been unable to tend to their fields.
As we turn to the recovery stage of the pandemic, we know that broadcasters will continue play a key role in ensuring communities can build back better and stay safe while doing so.
The Scaling Her Voice on Air project aims to bring improved interactive radio services to Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, and Senegal, reaching more than 7 million small-scale farmers to improve food security and gender equality. The Government of Canada, through Global Affairs Canada, is supporting the project with a grant of $5 million over the five years of the project. With additional funding from Canada, Farm Radio International will support broadcasters across sub-Saharan Africa who provide essential pandemic-related information to remote and rural communities.
Listen to some of the recorded messages from the hotline and learn more about Farm Radio International’s work supporting African radio stations during the COVID-19 pandemic: https://farmradio.org/emergency-covid19-hotline/