100 Years Of Radio:  Still The Grassroots Communication King In Africa


Last Tuesday, the world celebrated World Radio Day. The United Nations General Assembly. During its 67th session, formally approved UNESCO’s proclamation of February 13 as World Radio Day.

 Since 2011 when it was endorsed, the date was set aside to honour the enduring influence of radio as a medium that has informed, entertained, and educated audiences worldwide for a century. Radio has consistently played a vital role in disseminating information to the masses, particularly when other communication channels were inaccessible.

According to the United Nations, the 2024 observance highlights radio’s history and powerful impact on news, drama, music, and sports. It also acknowledges its continued usefulness as a portable public safety net during emergencies and power outages caused by natural and man-made disasters such as storms, earthquakes, floods, heat, wildfires, accidents, and warfare.

Furthermore, radio’s ongoing democratic value is to serve as a grassroots catalyst for connectedness among underserved groups, such as immigrant, religious, minority, and impoverished populations.

2024 Theme

This year’s World Radio Day theme, “Radio: A century informing, entertaining, and educating,” underscores the profound impact of radio across various spheres, including news, drama, music, and sports.

The day also aims to encourage radio stations to provide information through their medium while also promoting networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

Government support in Nigeria

The Nigerian government has stated its commitment to expanding community radio as a tool for strengthening the nation’s democracy.

This was revealed by Mohammed Idris, Minister of Information and National Orientation, in a statement issued last Tuesday in honour of World Radio Day.

The minister stated that radio plays a “vital role in shaping public opinion and promoting cultural unity in our diverse nation,” as well as providing a “platform for people of all backgrounds to speak out, be represented, and be heard, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation.”

Idris further stated that because of the radio’s widespread information dissemination, “the government has initiated necessary reforms in the process of establishing community radio stations.”

While Nigeria has 89 licensed community radio stations, the minister stated that President Bola Tinubu’s administration is prepared to create a more conducive environment for new radio stations to emerge while also strengthening existing ones.

Radio in Africa

In contrast to many Western countries, where there has been a shift towards streaming and podcasts, traditional radio continues to be widely embraced in Africa. Radio is thriving across Africa. Recent studies estimate radio listenership to be between 60% and 80% of the continent’s 1.4 billion population. Because of poor literacy levels and uneven access to the internet and technological infrastructure, old-fashioned radio remains a reliable and inclusive medium.

This year’s celebration of the 100-plus years of radio offers us an opportunity to reflect on the historical significance, cultural relevance, political power and social impact of the medium on the continent.

Early years

The story of radio in Africa starts with its introduction to serve colonial interests. The first official broadcast seems to have been on 18 December 1923 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In East Africa, radio was first introduced in Kenya in 1927 and in West Africa to Sierra Leone in 1934.Then, in 1936, the British colonial administration  decided to develop radio broadcasting throughout its African colonies.

Propaganda and Resistance

Colonial powers such as the UK and France upped their radio transmission efforts after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The 1940s were marked by the introduction of indigenous language broadcasts by colonial powers wanting to influence public opinion and garner support for their war effort. While the British broadcast to Africa in some African languages, France broadcast only in French.

This laid the groundwork for future developments. After the war, the British officially adopted a policy of extending broadcasting services across most of its African colonies.

The 1950s saw the expansion and transformation of radio in Africa. Radio stations across British, French and Belgian colonies rapidly increased as people under colonial rule increased their efforts to achieve independence..

Independence and state control

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s the number of radio-receiving sets increased fivefold, from 90 sets per thousand people in Africa to 450.

In some respects, the 1960s was a golden era for African radio. A wave of independence movements birthed new nations as radio technology was becoming more affordable.

Many newly independent countries established national broadcasting services.

 In Africa,Radio has also been used to promote nefarious political ends. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda stands as a painful example. The infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines disseminated hate speech and incited violence against the Tutsi minority.

Radio now

Over the last 40 years many African countries have liberalised their economies and their media regulations, issuing commercial and community radio licences. Another essential development has been the emergence of indigenous language radio. This has produced culturally resonant content and prioritised community issues

Digital convergence is also reshaping radio consumption, blurring audience patterns. This isn’t happening uniformly across the continent. Digital platforms face challenges, such as the digital divide and economic inequality. Radio’s influence is likely to endure, with podcasts complementing rather than replacing traditional broadcasts. A 2022 survey across 34 African countries found radio was “overwhelmingly the most common source for news”. This is a testament to its enduring influence and unique ability to connect with diverse audiences – even after one hundred years of existence.

Sources- theconversation.com, unesco.org

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