Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Economist.com: Press freedom

Economist.com | Liberation technology:

"Radio, however, is a different tale. The number of independent radio stations is exploding, as costs and regulatory barriers fall. The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, which had 1,200 members in 1990, now has 3,000. Marcelo Solervicens, the secretary-general of the association, guesses that the number of unaffiliated stations has expanded equally fast, and that there are now 10,000-15,000 across the world, of which about half are in poor countries.

"To set up a basic radio station now costs half as much as a decade ago, reckons Matt Buck, the head of Globecom, a South African company that specialises in doing just this. The necessary equipment is also much less bulky, and can be operated without an engineer on call. A transmitter that fits in a suitcase and broadcasts for a kilometre or a mile may cost as little $2,000, says Mr Solervicens. Something bigger, with a range of up to 100 kilometres (62 miles), would be $20,000-40,000, says Mr Buck. Probably most community radio stations in Africa get some support, financial or otherwise, from disinterested donors, but as prices continue to tumble, more will become profitable.

"Another change is the advent of the wind-up radio, which is powered by a hand crank and so needs no batteries. This makes a huge difference to the poorest, who cannot afford even 20 cents for six hours of listening. In families with battery-powered radios, the husband often pockets the batteries when he goes out to work, so that he can listen longer to the football when he gets back.

"Wind-up radios allow women and children to learn about the outside world, sometimes for the first time. This is no exaggeration. Peasants in very poor countries, or even in remote parts of richer countries, can be isolated in a way that media-saturated westerners find hard to imagine. For many, radio is the only way of hearing a weather forecast, or finding out what price their crops might fetch in a distant town. Educational programmes provide teachers who are never late and never die of AIDS."

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