Radiocommunication Study Groups

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Very little rigorous research has been undertaken so far to evaluate the impact of Lifeline programming on the overall effectiveness of aid delivery. This is partly because it is very difficult for media development organisations to undertake baseline research at the start of a rapid onset emergency. However, anecdotal evidence and after action reviews undertaken after some interventions indicate that Lifeline radio programming is capable of producing a significant impact.

In 2006, BBC Media Action launched a special Lifeline programme in Darfur Arabic for the conflict-affected population of Sudan's Darfur region. This daily programme, broadcast by the BBC World Service on short wave, also reached Darfuri refugees in Chad. One UNICEF officer in the Darfur town of Nyala noted that the child immunization rate at local camps for displaced people doubled after immunization had been promoted on the BBC Lifeline programme.

Today, wherever possible, BBC Media Action endeavours to produce Lifeline Programming that is:

  • local in focus;

  • broadcast on FM;

  • interactive - allowing the target audience to feed-back information, questions and concerns, usually via the mobile telecoms network.

However, practical problems often arise which make this formula difficult or impossible to implement in practice.

Firstly, FM broadcasts have a very limited range. Many community radio stations operate low-powered transmitters with a broadcast range of less than 20 km. Even high-powered FM transmitters seldom reach further than 150 km. In mountainous areas, the range of FM broadcasts may be further limited by the nature of the terrain. And in sparsely populated areas, such as the arid and semi-arid zones of the Sahel and East Africa, many communities are simply beyond the reach of FM radio broadcasts.

Some technical solutions to these problems exist, but they have seldom been tried, partly because of contractual and regulatory issues.

These possible solutions include:

  • Boosting the transmitter power of existing FM stations to increase their range - This process is slowly taking place in Bangladesh, where all 14 existing community radio stations have applied to increase their maximum permitted transmitter power from 100 to 250 watts. However, gaining official authorisation to increase transmitter power rapidly in the heat of a crisis remains a stiff procedural challenge in most developing countries.

  • Installing relay transmitters for existing radio stations on mobile phone masts to open up new areas to FM coverage - Something similar has been done successfully in Liberia, where mobile networks began to construct base stations in the interior after the 1990-2003 civil war, at the same time as new community radio stations were being opened in rural areas. Many of the new community radio stations co-located with mobile base stations in order to mount their transmitters on the mobile tower and power their studios with the mobile operator's generator set at the base. This collaboration saved the community radio stations the expense of building their own mast and running their own generator. Mounting FM relay transmitters on mobile masts to extend the range of existing radio stations is a technique that has not so far been trialled in an emergency.

  • Setting up new FM radio stations from scratch to cater for isolated communities that were previously without FM coverage, such as camps for refugees and displaced people - The media development agency Internews ( did this successfully in Chad from 2005 onwards. Internews established three new FM radio stations serving camps holding more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur and the host population of eastern Chad. More recently, Internews has also partnered with the Kenyan radio station Star FM, to set up a special Somali language radio station in the Dadaab complex of refugee camps in eastern Kenya near the Somali border. This station serves the information needs of Dadaab's 400,000 residents.

The development of suitcase radios has made it much cheaper and faster to set up new FM stations, from scratch very quickly. Suitcase radios are literally a mini radio studio, complete with a music library, audio mixing and editing equipment, microphones, headphones, a laptop and a mobile phone, packed into a suitcase. They are used in conjunction with a small generator set, a small low‑powered transmitter and portable transmission antenna that can be mounted on a tall building or tree. This light and portable kit can be assembled and put on air in less than one hour. Even with a relatively low-powered transmitter, suitcase radios are able to broadcast programmes on FM over a radius of up to 15 km - enough to cover the urban area of a large city. Suitcase radios can either be used to launch a new emergency radio station, or to put existing broadcasters back on air rapidly if their installations have been damaged or destroyed. First Response Radio ( successfully used a suitcase radio to re-launch local FM radio broadcasting in Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the surrounding coastal area was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, putting all local TV and radio stations off air. BBC Media Action has a suitcase radio on standby in Kathmandu to provide emergency broadcasting facilities, in partnership with the Nepalese government and local broadcasters in the event of catastrophic damage to the city following a major earthquake.
However, despite the technical feasibility of extending the broadcast reach of existing FM stations or setting up new FM stations from scratch, restrictive regulation, slow bureaucratic processes and political sensitivities can combine to make the upgrading of radio transmission capacity a slow and expensive process, even in the midst of a major humanitarian emergency. The only way to reach FM-deprived communities quickly by radio, in such instances is on medium wave or short wave broadcasts from existing radio stations based outside the disaster zone.

In states where broadcasting is tightly controlled by the government and in states affected by conflict, political considerations may prevent aid responders from using local FM or medium wave radio stations based inside the country for Lifeline programming.

In such cases, short wave broadcasts beamed in from abroad are still the most viable alternative. Audience research in Darfur by BBC Media Action and other broadcasters, such as the Sudan Radio Service (SRS), has shown that where FM broadcasts do not exist or are tightly controlled by the government, short wave broadcasters transmitting humanitarian information from abroad still manage to achieve significant audiences.

In Syria, where the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died in two years of conflict, humanitarian organisations were still struggling in August 2013 to establish a politically neutral radio or TV channel capable of reaching ordinary civilians affected by the fighting.

So far, the only alternative to short wave that had been tried inside Syria was internet radio. In June 2013, several media development and press freedom organisations, including Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), International Media Support (IMS) and Canal France International, helped to launch a Paris-based internet radio station staffed by Syrian journalists called Radio Rozana (, reaching people with access to the internet. Other media development organisations were meanwhile planning to set up radio stations to serve Syria refugee camps in neighbouring countries, particularly in Jordan.

Where disaster-affected communities do not have access to radio receiver sets, or where it is desirable to encourage the formation of collective listening groups to discuss the content of special programmes, it is possible to distribute solar/wind-up radios for collective listening. These radios are robust and do not require mains power or batteries to operate. The larger models are powerful enough to allow groups of up to 40 people to listen at the same time. Some of the latest models have a built-in record and playback facility. This allows programmes to be recorded live and played back to local audiences at other times that are more convenient for collective listening.

The purchase and distribution of several thousand solar/wind-up radios can be an expensive and time-consuming business. However, since 2003, USAID has distributed more than 200,000 solar/wind-up radio sets in South Sudan1 and three adjacent areas of (North) Sudan that are affected by conflict. That amounts to approximately one radio set for every 50 people in the region.

In mid-2013 the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) told aid agencies accredited to apply for funding under its Rapid Response Facility2 that it would seriously consider the possibility of establishing a stockpile of solar/wind-up radio sets for immediate distribution in a rapid-onset emergency.


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