Twitter  Ken Doctor on the newsonomics of how and why nie.mn/WHcDmB http://t.co/AYGuIqfDGp  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard
tanzania-boy-radio-cc

Deutsche Welle’s trying to use Africa’s mobile-phone boom to spread news by new means

The German broadcaster is using SMS and dial-to-listen radio shows to reach an audience with limited Internet access.

As the fastest-growing mobile market on the planet, Africa is facing huge opportunities — and distinct challenges — in news dissemination.

By the end of the year, it’s estimated that more than three-quarters of the population will be cell phone subscribers, including in places where literacy rates are low and electricity is unavailable. To better serve that demographic, German media giant Deutsche Welle is using over-the-phone voice technology to deliver news.

No Internet access necessary: Just dial a number to access the program Learning by Ear, an educational show for teenagers that mixes news and explainers having to do with health, politics, the economy, the environment, and social issues.

When the series launched in 2008, it was a radio broadcast. A podcast version followed two years later. Now, Learning by Ear is available on any kind of mobile phone. (Episodes are also available to download for those with smartphones.) Each episode is 10 minutes long, but those minutes cost the user less than talking on the phone would. (The specific lower rates vary by carrier.)

The show’s already available in languages like English, French, Hausa, and Swahili. In the past year, it was introduced in Tanzania and in Niger. The plan is to launch the program in four more nations — Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Liberia — “within the next weeks,” Naser Schruf, Deutsche Welle’s head of distribution for Africa and the Middle East, told me in an email.

The idea is to help give young people access to information that otherwise may not be available. One ongoing Learning By Ear series on women’s rights, for example, features episodes on topics like female circumcision, sexual harassment, child labor, leadership and “careers for girls.” “They are narrated by African native-speakers which makes it even easier for the audiences to identify,” Schruf said.

Deutsche Welle also gave the show an on-demand feel by enabling people to shift between episodes, as well as pause and later return to the point the show stopped. Essentially, Learning By Ear turns your phone into a remote control for audio, Schruf said. Deutsche Welle is also experimenting with news-by-text distribution.

It launched a Swahili-language pilot project called SMS News Services 18 months ago in Tanzania. The subscription service distributes two to five text-messaged daily news updates, with a focus on international and breaking news, at a cost of 100 Tanzanian shillings per day, or about US$0.06. Sports-related updates will be added in coming months. “For Deutsche Welle, it is crucial to provide Tanzanian info-seekers with the information they need and from a different perspective, that of an international broadcaster,” Schruf said.

Deutsche Welle wouldn’t provide subscription numbers but Schruf says the service is gaining momentum. “In view of the market and its limited resources, we can say that it is a successful story so far.” Many of those who haven’t yet connected to the Internet from desktop computers are now getting access via phones for the first time. The ability to get information to a hard-to-reach population is a victory in and of itself.

At the same time, Schruf acknowledged, Deutsche Welle is still trying to find new ways to facilitate more interaction through mobile phones, and give users “a ‘voice’ in current events,” possibly through features like SMS-based polling and commenting. The bottom line for Deustche Welle is to distribute news and information to the “widest possible audience,” especially in African markets where web penetration is low or non-existent. “Mobile phones have succeeded in an area where the web has found success difficult to come by,” Schruf said.

Photo of a boy in Arusha, Tanzania, listening to his radio by Charles Anderson used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
What to read next
lippmann-house-990
Ann Marie Lipinski    July 24, 2014
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard wants to hear your idea for making journalism better. Come spend a few weeks working on it in Cambridge.
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1014243831 Alejandra Fernández Morera

    Way to go Deutsche Welle, one needs to remain connected to the realities/particularities of each culture, country, continent.. In this case, Africa is miles ahead, just as they are in terms of mobile money http://www.economist.com/node/21553510
    I really enjoyed this article.

  • Allan

     

    Laudable to be sure but if it is produced without dubiously
    motivated commercial content, does it not tread dangerously near to risking interpretation
    as otherwise neo-colonialist? Fraught with potential in any event and a very
    good idea especially with useful local content.

  • rbole

    Just a note that Voice of America has been doing this with the African diaspora using Audio Now for quite some time.  Also note that we have been experimenting with the Twillo service to do similar in China and Central Africa.  This is a great story about how to use voice technology to deliver content, but there is a lot of play in this arena.  Congratulations on DWelle on their program…sounds great.

  • http://www.jonathanmarks.com Jonathan Marks

    Pity that  DW will not share the figures so it’s difficult to gauge effectiveness and whether the dial-a-radio show is going to scale beyond a few enthusiasts and early adopters.  I find myself subscribing to more podcasts if they are focussed. But the fact that they are stored digitally in the device means they always sound a lot better than this answerphone concept.  Are the programmes stored on the device?

  • Greg Fitzgerald

    Deutsche Welle is now in direct talks with AudioNow to launch our African-language radio in North America as well.  Greg Fitzgerald