VOA Africa adds direct-to-phone programs, evading censorship and intimidation

VOA LOGOWASHINGTON — Voice of America’s Africa service has begun programming directly to mobile telephones. Delivering news and information in regions where independent journalists are censored or intimidated.

VOA’s Mali 1 newscasts, launched last summer, serve the northern regions of Mali, where Islamic militants have closed broadcast stations and threatened independent journalists. The new Mali 1 newscasts are part of the VOA French service, which covers Francophone Africa. David Ensor, VOA’s Director, singled out Mali 1 during a CCLP forum here in Washington DC earlier this month as an example of the new direct-to-telephone services, saying they are an end to run around censorship and intimidation.

Mali 1 is just one piece of VOA Africa’s move into phone-based media: VOA is embracing technological innovations based in large part on information from its network of journalists and other contacts on the ground. Additionally, the network is planning for changes in content those innovations are enabling and requiring.

“We have to appreciate how rapidly it is changing,” said Gwendolyn F. Dillard, director of VOA’s Africa Division. While conducting an interview in her Washington D.C. office she explained the following: “We need to stop thinking about legacy systems. This is a paradigm change. We need to get our heads around this.”

According to Dillard, most Africans now listen to and watch legacy media, but television and radio receivers are being eclipsed by mobile phones.

“There is 1,000 times faster growth in mobile,” she said. “Does it make sense to put resources into terrestrial television — or any kind of television?”

In at least one country, cellphone penetration already exceeds television: In South Africa,1343220896.jpg 82 percent of households have television sets, according data compiled by Guy Berger and Zikhona Masala in “Mapping Digital Media: South Africa”. Only 77 percent have radio receivers, but total radio penetration is over 90 percent when listening in “vehicles, workplaces and shops” is included – as well as listening over mobile phones. But Berger and Masala report mobile telephone penetration there had reached 100 percent by 2010, and faster 3G service already reached 60 percent of users.

To reach Africans on their mobile phones, entirely new forms of media are being developed. One fast-growing technique is Interactive Voice Response (IVR), because it is cheap (or free) and tailored to the individual. It allows users to leave recorded messages, field questions and answers, and to provide market updates and weather reports. Cellphone users can interact by text (SMS) or by voice, in a technique detailed by, among others, the Freedom Fone blog.

“It takes advantage of audio to address language and literacy barriers when reaching out to the millions of people living on the margins of the information society,” wrote blogger Cleopa Timon Otieno. “It can be a perfect tool for agricultural extension service providers to reach out to farmers and also allow the farmers to listen to instructions via their mobile phones as well as leave voice messages for the service providers. Those working in advocacy issues can also use it to provide a hotline for leaving messages, recording campaign audio to be shared by their targeted groups. Edutainment is also an area that Telecentres can take advantage of by creating educative audio content which people can retrieve by dialing a given number to listen to. Short audio dramas or plays can be recorded in various episodes to keep listeners calling in.”

This new interactive tool is being adopted by Voice of America as a companion to more conventional broadcasting.

“We are aggressively pursuing IVR to complement streaming,” said Steven Ferri, web managing editor of VOA Africa and head of VOA Mobile and Digital Media on the continent. In an interview at his office here, Ferri added that VOA is finding that Africans use mobile phones in a very different way than Americans do, enabling the broadcaster to provide long-form program services over the telephone.

“Africans are listening to their phones for 20-minute programs,” said Ferri. “No one in America would do this. You really have to walk away from your American media experience.”

To build VOA’s presence in IVR, Ferri met last May with what he described as “the five largest telcos in Africa,” to develop strong ties and continuing program services, not just one-time experiments.

“Right now we have one-offs,” he said, and instead VOA wants to build regular, continuing programs with “top-level telcos and mid-level aggregators.”

And legacy broadcasters, according to Ferri, need to be alert to partner with high-tech companies.

“We want to make certain we have feelers out to the Googles, Twitters, Facebooks,” he said, highlighting the necessity to keep track of and utilize the latest technologies in these burgeoning markets.

But for all of the program and service providers in Africa, that means using new forms of media, often accommodated in expense budgets that already support traditional broadcasting – and that are not likely to be increased. It is what Jay Tolson, director of Global News Network for the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, calls the “bow tie” problem, where one audience is increasing while another remains flat or shrinks.

“When do you start tipping out of old media and into new media?” Tolson told me in an interview. “It’s a matter of shifting resources. And we need to make this case [for newer media delivery systems] more compelling.”

Research for this article was part of the “Larger Cities, Smaller Screens” project for the Center on Independent Media Assistance. The complete report is available here: CIMA-Africa Digital Media – 09-18-12.pdf