International radio stations in Africa

Article  by  Pierre BARROT  •  Published 29.11.2010  •  Updated 07.01.2011
The hegemony of international radio stations in Africa is based on the failure of public media, challenged today by the rise of private radio stations.


Pluralism comes to Sub-Saharan international radio stations

Sub-Saharan Africa is listening intently to the outside world. No other region in the world is so open to international information and yet so dependent on foreign broadcasters. Of all the radio stations that are listened to in Africa, only one, Africa N°1, can claim to be pan-African; but this station is far behind the radio stations of the former colonial powers, like France or the United Kingdom, which have set up hundreds of transmitters throughout the continent to broadcast Radio France Internationale and the BBC World Service. The United States also has a significant presence with the Voice of America and, a short time ago China Radio International started to rapidly increase its presence. Finally, several countries that have been through severe crises have radio stations that have been created or helped off the ground by the United Nations, such as Radio Okapi, the most listened-to station at the moment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hervé Bourges, appointed in 1981 to the helm of Radio France Internationale, was known at the time as the advisor of the director general of UNESCO, Amadou Mahtar Mbow, who supported the project for a “New world information and communication order” (in an appeal published by UNESCO in 1977, the following can be read: “Developing countries continue […] to ‘consume’ world information generally created by developed countries and which tends to maintain people in the third world in a certain state of alienation and, at the same time Western people in dangerous ignorance of the circumstances in these countries, while comforting them in their smug assurance of their industrial, technological, cultural ‘superiority’ [...] and therefore the superiority of their civilisation”). Bourges is himself the author of a work entitled Décoloniser l’information (“decolonising information”) and was fully aware that the radio station whose reins he was taking was called “Le poste colonial” (“the colonial radio station”) before the war, prior to being changed in 1940 to “La Voix de la France” (“the voice of France”). He therefore took on the task of transforming the image and the content of this radio station, going as far as turning it into an international information tool able to rival the BBC, which, thanks to its independence and its influence, is held up as a model. At this time, international radio stations broadcast in short-wave only were the only alternative to the controls placed on the population’s access to information by their respective African governments. They are perceived as a palliative to the lack of democracy. Nobody could imagine then that the advent of media pluralism in Africa would lead to these international radio stations achieving even greater audience figures.
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The decline of pan-African radio

At the start of this same year, 1981, the Gabonese government, with the support of France, launched Africa n°1, which sees itself as a Pan-African, French-language radio station. This radio station was more African and more popular than RFI, reaching over twenty million listeners in French-speaking Africa, and was, from the 1990s through the early 2000s, the fifth-largest global radio station. In 2002, Africa n°1 was still at the top of the audience ratings in Lomé, ahead of RFI. But this successful era ended that very year with the withdrawal of the main shareholder of Africa N°1, SOFIRAD (Société financière de radiodiffusionor radio broadcasting financial company), which managed holdings by the French state in “peripheral radio stations”, as well as RMC-Moyen Orient (Radio Monte Carlo, Middle East) and Moroccan radio station Médi 1, and which held 40 % of its capital. The shares in this company were bought by Libya, whose “guide”, Mouammar Kaddafi, has always been open about his Pan-African ambitions. But while awaiting the investment announced by this new shareholder, Africa N°1 lost ground throughout French-speaking Africa. This drop can be explained by the out-of-date transmitters, the impact on the programmes of cutting the staffing in half, and can probably also be traced back to a loss of credibility due to the reputation of Libya as a rogue state, a title that it has never managed to rid itself of. On its own territory in Libreville, in November 2009, Africa N°1 achieved a market share half that of Radio France Internationale, while its peak audience rating in another African capital did not exceed 8% (in Yaoundé). The dream of becoming an African Al Jazeera, which appears to have influenced the decision by Libya to buy out Africa N° 1, now seems out of reach.
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The cultural dependence of French-speaking Africa

“Enormous cultural dependence” – this is how Roberto Savio, head of Inter Press Service, “the press agency of the third world” described the situation in French-speaking Africa in the media sector in the early 1990s. Yet, at this time, the public media of the countries in question still held a monopoly in many States and international radio stations picked up on short-wave did not offer the same sound quality as national radio stations. In 1991 Radio France Internationale set up its first FM relay station in Dakar. After that, the liberalisation of the airwaves meant that international radio stations could set up at the heart of the African audiovisual landscape. RFI now has 107 FM transmitters on the continent (all located in sub-Saharan Africa), of which 82 are in French-speaking Africa, where its market share reaches 25 %. For its part, the BBC has 70 FM transmitters in Africa, of which only 28 are in English-speaking countries.
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Audience figures for international radio stations in French-speaking Africa

Sources: TNS-Sofres/Africascope studies (May 2009 for Kinshasa, November 2009 for Bamako, December 2009 for Yaoundé and Douala and April 2010 for Abidjan and Dakar) and TNS-Sofres for Libreville, Cotonou, Nouakchott, Antananarivo and Niamey (respectively October and November 2009, February and March 2010).
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The challenge for African languages

BBC Africa and RFI each have their own private domain, but the BBC managed until 2009 to stay ahead of RFI in Niger thanks to its programmes in Hausa. The great strength of this British broadcaster is the wide range of languages (33 in total, compared with 13 at RFI) and in particular, the fact that it is broadcast in five African languages: Hausa, Somali, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and Swahili. In East Africa, the BBC is listened to more in Swahili than in English. Radio France Internationale took a long time to look at broadcasting in African languages and did not start programmes in Hausa until 2007 and in Swahili in 2010. Thanks to this new policy, the French broadcaster is back at the top in Niger, where the BBC enjoyed the biggest audience ratings for the past twenty years; but while RFI has converted to African languages, Deutsche Welle already broadcast in Amharic as well as Hausa and Swahili. The Voice of America goes out in ten languages. In the north of Nigeria, where people are still very much used to listening to short-wave radio, 45 % of listeners tune in at least once a week.
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The rise of China’s importance

At the same time as its diplomatic and economic offensive on the African continent, China is showing its desire to be present on the airwaves. After setting up its very first FM relay station in the world in 2006 in Kenya, Radio China International (formerly Radio Peking) made spectacular investments during the summer of 2010 by setting up four FM relay stations in Senegal (Dakar, Saint Louis, Kaolack and Zinguinchor), with three others in Niger (Niamey, Maradi and Zinder). Radio China International broadcasts in Hausa and in Swahili, as well as in French, English, and of course in Chinese, a language being learned at an incredible rate in Africa, given the economic changes underway.
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Two hard-core resisters: Nigeria and South Africa

International radio stations are achieving record audience figures in certain African capitals, and are in some cases listened to by half, even two thirds of the adult population, but they have almost no presence in the two most powerful countries on the African continent: Nigeria and South Africa. These countries are unusual in that they do not allow FM relays for foreign radio stations to be set up in their country. In Nigeria, Radio France Internationale nonetheless obtained a licence in 2002 to broadcast in FM via a local subsidiary called Atlantic FM; but, faced with budget problems, RFI did not manage to get over the final obstacles before the launch of its programmes (prohibitive cost of setting up the transmitter, restrictive specifications). After the failure of this attempt, it was the BBC’s turn in 2004 to suffer a setback with the decision of the NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation), the Nigerian regulatory body, not to allow live broadcasting of news bulletins from foreign broadcasters on local radio stations. The Nigerian network, Ray Power, which dedicated one of its channels to relaying almost the entire BBC output, was forced to forego the most listened-to sections of information.
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UN radio stations: from crisis media to appropriation

One could call radio stations created during the deployment of United Nations forces “peacekeeping media”. The Fondation Hirondelle, a Swiss non-governmental organisation – a specialist in setting up this type of radio station – started out in the region of the great lakes in the wake of the Rwanda genocide, with Radio Agatashya, set up in 1995. After that, this foundation provided its services to Liberia with support from the American aid agency USAID (Star Radio, created in 1997, then suspended for five years by the Charles Taylor regime, is now the most listened-to radio station in Liberia). It then created three radio stations one after the other, financed with funds connected with the United Nations peacekeeping forces: in the Central African Republic in 1998, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002, and finally, in Sudan in 2006. Unlike other United Nations radio stations created at the time of a crisis and abandoned once the blue boys action squad were gone, the three African “peacekeeping radio stations” were asked to stay as they turned out to be irreplaceable in these countries, where local media set-ups were poorly organised and there were no public services worthy of being called such providing impartial news for the whole country.

Radio Okapi
became the first radio station of the CDR; it brought in a hundred journalists and prevented certain abuses in a country where several of the provinces were on the edge of explosion. These radio stations, unlike international radio stations, cover local news and take the place of national public stations, which are well-known to be ineffective. The high cost of these stations, however, means that they are not always viable, which is why Radio Okapi, with its budget of 10 million dollars per year, is being called upon to slim down in order to retain a strong position in the long term in the radio landscape of the Congo.
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Towards rapid expansion of private African radio stations

The huge presence of international or UN radio stations in Africa and their substantial impact on the public are the symptoms of a failure of public service media on the continent. Seen as partisan, propagandist or simply mollifying entities, public African radio stations are barely credible in most countries. In the short term, private radio stations must increase in importance and become more professional in order for the national media to start to tentatively win over the public once again. The success of radio stations such as the Nation Media group in Kenya, or Radio Futurs Média, launched by the musician Youssou Ndour in Senegal (with a level of professionalism way over the average in both cases), appears to be the precursor for a questioning of the domination of international radio stations in Africa.

Translated by Peter Moss
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Marie-Soleil, FRERE (dir.), Afrique centrale – médias et conflits, vecteurs de guerre ou acteurs de paix, GRIP, Panos, Editions Complexe, 2005.
Ondes de choc (2007), documentary by Pierre Mignault and Hélène Magny. This 52 minute-film shows the daily workings of Radio Okapi in the DRC (extract on YouTube).
Radio Okapi, radio de la vie, by Pierre Guyot (2005).
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