FrontlineSMS transforms Community Radio in Malawi

Thank you to John Kisewe Mpakani for writing this post about his experience using FrontlineSMS as a producer and presenter at the Nkhotakota Community Radio Station in Malawi.

Malawi Blog_Mpakani
Malawi Blog_Mpakani

Background Information

Nkhotakota Community Radio Station, along Lake Malawi, is a Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognized broadcaster and has been in operation for eleven years. More than 500,000 people live within our coverage area- transmissions reach Nkhotakota and Ntchisi districts and parts of Nkhatabay, Salima, Dowa, Mzimbaand Kasungu.

In 2013, Nkhotakota Community Radio emerged as the number one community radio in Malawi, after a listenership survey conducted by MACRA found that the station has a 52% listenership on issues of both national and community interest. The survey also found that most listeners contribute to programming of Nkhotakota community radio. Nkhotakota Community radio believes in participatory radio where it gets feedback from its listeners , which creates a two-way interaction between the station and its audience.

When we  first started, Nkhotakota Community radio feedback was collected through hand-written letters and by visiting the communities. The uptake of mobile phones has transformed this, and SMS has emerged as an instant feedback mechanism between the station and its listeners.

In Search for a Better Platform At our radio station we have a research desk. This is where we design programs and evaluate our feedback. As mentioned, our main feedback mechanism was use of letters. Community members would write letters to comment or ask questions on pertinent issues, especially agriculture, health, climate change and youth programs. They also wrote letters to pass on greetings to friends and relatives. Although this is a cheaper way to be in touch, most of the time the letters arrived either too late or not at all, and the voices in the community were not heard.

I started using mobile phones to get feedback from listeners for my radio shows. Still, this didn't work for me because trying to read SMS messages from my phone while on the air interrupted me and caused me to lose focus. Scrolling on my phone made it difficult to read the SMS. I started thinking about a simple way that would allow me to read SMS from my laptop when I am on the air. This would help me balance my shows, since I could easily read them and not have to scroll and get distracted.

FrontlineSMS: the Answer The idea of using mobile phones in our radio shows to get feedback prompted the search for desktop software that would help us receive and send SMS to our audience. We wanted something that we could afford as a community radio station, since we don’t have a large budget. Thanks to Developing Radio Partners, we now have FrontlineSMS software and know how to use it. I use it regularly and have also trained the rest of our staff on how to use it.

I use FrontlineSMS all the time to get feedback and content ideas from listeners. They send text messages to comment or contribute to our radio programming. They also help in contributing content on what they would like us to be doing, especially in the agricultural, health and youth programs.

FrontlineSMS has helped us reduce travel costs, as we used to have to go out and do audience surveys on our programming. Through FrontlineSMS we learn the listener’s needs and get feedback on our programming trends. By using FrontlineSMS, we receive SMS that are well organized by date and I am able to analyze them with ease. I use one central SMS phone number for a number of programs, and I use specific keywords to help organize the SMS received without problems. Listeners are informed of keywords to use when sending SMS.

Sending SMS to my followers is another thing I enjoy when using FrontlineSMS because I command many messages at one go and there is no need to monitor things because the system sends the SMS one after another. I send SMS to remind listeners when their favorite shows will be on air.

We are able to do this at the station because we are very much interested in enhancing ICTs in our programming, while at the same time, getting feedback from listeners. Frontline SMS technology has proved to be very useful and effective for sending and receiving SMS to and from listeners as supplements to radio programs.

The Journey Continues Recently, we also started airing “Let’s Talk for Change” (Bwalo La Chinyamata), a youth program, with help from Developing Radio Partners (DRP). The program gives youth a chance to ask questions or comment by sending SMS to the FrontlineSMS system. We also send SMS alerts to the youth reminding them of the broadcast times and informing them of the topics to be covered in our weekly Saturday shows.

In agriculture, we started a program on market information systems after farmers complained that they do not hear local market prices. They asked us why we weren’t providing them with this important information. In response, we developed a program and were able to start providing market information within two months after receiving this feedback, again through FrontlineSMS.

The Value of SMS in Radio Adding FrontlineSMS to radio lets you interact with your audience; it empowers our listeners and improves our programming. For a community radio like mine, SMS mentioned on air, values the listener/ sender as we make him/her part of our show, and they feel honored and a bit famous once their name is mentioned. This attracts other listeners to give their views by sending SMS to be read during shows. Hence combining radio with mobile phones makes radio programming more participatory as the mobile phones help us get feedback from listeners. FrontlineSMS gives that magic of receiving and sending, managing contacts and storing “received” and “sent” SMS’s in an easy way and I can also export the information to spreadsheets for reporting.