Is it possible to create community radio without a studio or a tower? With his Knight News Challenge project, RootIO, Chris Csikszentmihalyi wants to enable neighborhoods and other small communities to develop a network of radio stations using mobile phones, simple transmitters, and other low-cost tools.
Csikszentmihalyi plans to run a pilot project for RootIO in Uganda, partnering with Uganda Radio Network, UNICEF Uganda, and the UNICEF Innovation Unit to research information needs in the country. RootIO was awarded $200,000 from Knight, which Csikszentmihalyi says will help in the prototyping phase of the project.
“In the back of my mind, I’ve been trying to think of how radio could benefit from things like telephony and networks,” Csikszentmihalyi said.
As proposed, RootIO would be a combination of open-source software and other tools, like portable transmitters and a power source, that would allow people to use their phones to host shows and broadcast information on low-power radio stations. As Csikszentmihalyi describes it, hosting a radio show would be similar to holding a conference call, with the host and guests on different phones, broadcasting out to the greater community.
But the project is far away from that point. Csikszentmihalyi said they’re in discovery mode, where they’ll assess the available technology in communities and see how RootIO can take advantage of existing networks.
As a medium, radio has shown remarkable resilience, enduring both technological shifts and natural disasters. It’s that durability, which becomes apparent in emergencies like the earthquake in Haiti, that makes it a useful platform for delivering vital information to people. But community stations in particular, Csikszentmihalyi said, can play a different role than most radio outlets, through offering intensely local information and offering a tangible connection to place. Local radio, he said, “supports the ability of the community to inform itself and help decisions.”
Radio has a strong presence in Uganda, Csikszentmihalyi said, but as stations grow and become successful, they can shed their community focus as they try to appeal to broader audiences. Local stations would be able to focus on reports for farmers, as well programming for minority language communities, he argued. Using phones as a delivery and production point becomes important because it ties people to a place, but using mobile is also crucial because of its ability to deliver an audience. The network effects that come from mobile devices create a potentially large audience of radio producers and listeners. “There’s something really interesting going on in Africa right now,” Csikszentmihalyi said. Phones potentially make it easier for listeners to participate in shows, using SMS to take part in polls, alert producers to guests, or to send basic advertising to stations, he said.
By some estimates Uganda has 60 percent mobile penetration, which would make phones an ideal device for producing and listening to radio around the country. Phones end up serving multiple purposes, as an access point for banking, or a source for emergency alerts in a community. RootIO could potentially make mobile-based radio a familiar feature to phone users as well.
Aside from figuring out the technology aspects of the project, the other goal will be defining stations and networks. By partnering with the Uganda Radio Network they’ll be able to figure out what resources small stations could use, and whether additional services, like cloud-based production tools, would be needed. Building out or strengthening networks would let producers share content among each other, which would help propagate stations.
Csikszentmihalyi said the network piece is important because it could allow community stations to tap into news programming from elsewhere around the country — or maybe global players like the BBC or Al Jazeera in the future. “For this to work, right away, we have to work with the existing stations to make sure this is useful to them as well,” he said.