From Somalia to the UK, 24-hour Audio News Coverage via Mobile

Posted by MelissaUlbricht on Sep 02, 2011

Somalia is suffering through its worst drought in 60 years, and people are fleeing the famine and conflict. A large number of Somalians already live in diasporas across Africa, Europe, and North America. A new service from Voice of America’s Somalia Service and AudioNow makes it easier for Somalians in the United Kingdom to listen to coverage of the drought and other audio news updates, via a basic mobile phone. 

“You have a well-educated, motivated, and mobile population that is willing to dial up and listen to radio broadcasts on their mobile phones,” said Steven Ferri, Web Managing Editor of VOA in Africa.

The new service allows people to do just that. Using a basic mobile or landline phone, people call a local UK number to listen to extensive live coverage of Somalian news, 24 hours a day. George Cernat, of AudioNow, estimates that every day, about 1500 to 2000 people access the VOA Somalia content on their phones. The only cost for the user are the fees or time associated with regular airtime use. spoke with Ferri and Cernat to hear more about the mobile radio service and where else it is being used.

How the Service Works

In the UK, people call a local number (020 3519 3010) and are immediately connected to a live stream; there are no menu options as with a traditional integrated voice response system. The AudioNow service is a proprietary technology that converts Internet audio formats and streams the content to a gateway server. The service then relays the stream to people who call in to the pre-established (and promoted) local number. On the backend, the system has a built-in logic to recognize the various audio formats as well as the ability to continually update the location of the content on the Internet, and, hence, via mobile.

There are other ways to access radio on a mobile phone. Some phones use data service to access radio via the Internet, many smartphones have radio apps, and other phones have FM receiver chips. But data is expensive, apps require more expensive smartphones, and receiver chips may have spotty or unreliable coverage. The call-in functionality of the VOA and AudioNow service allows anyone in the UK to access the content, on a landline or a basic feature phone, and the only cost to the user are regular airtime costs. Content can be broadcast in any language or format.

Cernat describes the service as “satellite radio on a phone.” The service woks like online radio, where a user clicks on a live stream to listen to content over the Internet. Here, you connect via mobile phone instead of online. 

Partnerships with Radio Stations and Telecoms

AudioNow charges radio stations a one-time connection fee of 200 USD to connect an MP3 stream and provide a local number. It’s up to the radio station to promote the service and number. Cernat said that the service can provide the scale many radio stations are looking for, as an unlimited number of users can call in to the service at any time.

Another partnership occurs at the level of the mobile network operator. AudioNow works with various telecoms to find the lowest cost provider in establishing local numbers. In some cases, such as recent mobile radio service in Guinea, AudioNow set up the gateway server at the teleco in Conakry, as it was easier to co-locate the service there than to serve it via the US.

Metrics on Listeners

AudioNow also provides metrics to its partners via a daily email and online. Radio stations can run reports and see the number of users, the time of day users call, the length of time listened, and the numbers that people call from. 

In the UK, for example, Cernat said about 1500 to 2000 listeners a day call in to hear news from Somalia. At the station end, Ferri receives daily metrics and is able to see numbers day over day or week over week, which helps VOA observe trends, get a better sense of growth potential, and understand the type of news and events that people respond to. 

Other Uses, In and Out of Country

So far, most AudioNow partner stations are in the US and the UK, as this is operationally easier, Cernat said.  But in the past months VOA and AudioNow have launched services in Guinea, Liberia, and Latin America.

The mobile radio service holds potential for ethnic groups to tap into news and events from their homeland, but it can also be used in-country. In Guinea, the VOA uses the mobile service almost as a “Plan B” for content delivery. Traditional news dissemination in the country (via radio, TV, and the Internet) can be intermittently shut down by government or disrupted due to unreliable infrastructure. During times of high instability, providing a way for people to call a local number for news and information is key. “If everything else breaks down, we will still have dial-up audio available,” Feri said. 

Other major broadcasters have begun mobile distribution in Guinea and Liberia, including the BBC and Radio France Internationale (RFI). The service is hosted on the Cellcom mobile network; Cellcom subscribers also have the option of  calling a short code with a reduced flat rate. The numbers to call are:

Cellcom Guinea:

BBC: Short Code: 501, Full Number: 65100991

RFI: Short Code: 502, Full Number: 65100992

VOA: Short Code: 503, Full Number: 65100993

Cellcom Liberia:

BBC: Short Code: 330, Full Number: 0777999330

RFI: Short Code: 331, Full Number: 0777999331

VOA: Short Code: 332, Full Number: 0777999332

AudioNow is being used outside of established radio broadcast stations, too. In the US, the Maryland Transit Administration uses the service so MTA users can dial a local number to listen to official traffic updates on the go.

For more case studies and guides on the innovative use of mobile tech at radio stations, visit the Mobile Media Toolkit.

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