Talk Is Cheap – Use It Wisely

The term “freedom of speech” is often trotted out by various people with various agendas. The right to have your say has never been easier thanks to the explosion of social media. And as we have seen in recent times, Twitter and Facebook have given a voice to many who previously may have found it hard to have their say.

Yet when it comes to radio, this right largely follows a model which is decades old. Inviting listeners onto the airwaves via the traditional phone-in, or the vox pop in the street, is universally accepted as a snapshot of public opinion.

Or is it? My former colleague John Rockley takes a wry look at the radio phone in in a recent blog

They don’t work because it’s The Public that calls. Firstly no one normal has EVER phoned a radio station. No one. Normal people don’t want to get involved. Every single caller to a radio station is a bit odd.

I have to add, you must take this comment in the context of the wider blog. John’s an experienced broadcaster and knows his stuff – but you’ll have to click on the link to fully appreciate where he’s coming from.

But the next time you’re tuned to a phone in – and doubtless wondering which planet some of the callers are living on, spare a thought for the people of Malawi.

The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation

 Fear not, this isn’t going to turn into a charity appeal.

Quite often, State Broadcasters in developing countries operate a tight regime. Anything that challenges authority is surpressed or censored. Social media have played an important part in publicising injustice to the wider world. So it’s good to see the public broadcasting in Malawi giving a real voice to the people.

A study just published by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has looked at an “alternative news” programme which features contributions by ordinary Malawians, highlighting their everyday experiences of abuse and violation.

And this isn’t your usual phone in or vox pop. Dr Harri Englund from the University of Cambridge found that witchcraft features in many of the news stories and is one of the ways of talking about abuses of power. For example, stories suggesting that prominent people may be using magic to steal money, property or to cause misfortune or even death for their own benefit are used to highlight greedy and corrupt behaviour. Although no direct accusations are made, listeners can easily work out who is being targeted by the story and what they have done.

What’s interesting about this is that MBC had set out to broadcast its “News From The Districts” to highlight positive stories about development. Instead, they found that listeners had other matters on their minds – and MBC has seemingly been good enough to listen to public opinion.

Dr Englund contrasts the work done by MBC with those who should being looking after the broad-brush term “human rights” – the Non Government Organisations (NGOs) – and argues that radio is, in fact, a far more powerful force than they can ever hope to be.

Who said public opinion on the radio was a waste of airtime?


Extracts from the research are © of the Economic and Social Rsearch Council and the authors – and are reproduced here for illustrative and discussion purposes only.

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