Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Africa's Mobile Radio Conundrum

This is an interesting new report and useful resource, but I still think there is a confusion surrounding listening to audio on phones. Voice of America audio, referred to in the article is obviously coming to the user in rural Africa over the phone network because phones don't have AM/SW receivers built in to them. 

One line in the Nigeria media survey by Gallup commissioned by the US BBG (that Clayton Powell also refers to) particularly caught my eye.

Additionally, a growing number of mobile phone users (39%) in the north of Nigeria have used phones to listen to radio in the last week.

That prompts my question.

Are they listening to local radio programming via analogue FM using the radio module that in installed in about 30% of all the feature/smart phones that you find across West Africa? This would incur no cost.

Or are they listening to audio by dialling a (toll-free) number and listening to audio material distributed over the GSM network. This is similar to what Deutsche Welle is doing with its Learning by Ear program. Although this doesn't require a local partner, the listener does have to pay something towards the cost of the call, the audio quality is limited (sounds like AM to me) and it is not a shared experience. You are not hearing it at the same time as others are hearing it, so rather useless for sports and live events coverage.

When it comes to general listening to local and national radio, I believe many people are still listening to the FM radio in their mobile because it doesn't use any costly bandwidth and it provides entertainment in local languages. Why carry around a separate device, when the phone does the job perfectly?. The mobile is also an instrument for doing business. You can't do mobile payments or talk to customers over your FM radio. 

This trend is concerning international broadcasters like VOA though because they don't have direct access to the local FM radio waves for factual programming. That's why they have traditionally used AM radio (either medium or shortwave) because that can be beamed in directly to listeners from another country. But the AM bands aren't used by local broadcasters and increasingly listeners are not searching these parts of the dial for something interesting to listen to.

So all this talk about mobile phone replacing radio is confusing the device with the medium. And that's leading to confusion amongst content makers as to what formats are the most effective. Is the market for long form debate and discussion disappearing from major urban markets in Africa because listeners are being asked to pay for content in the form of mobile phone data charges? I don't think so - although I would agree that the format of the radio show needs to include listeners far more than in the past. Audiences want to participate at a much higher level than ever before. Those who ignore this input will simply see their audiences dwindle. 

So what am I missing here?

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