Reports from Sudan: Sudan Radio Service's Use of Mobile

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jan 31, 2011

From January 9th to January 15th, Southern Sudan held a referendum to decide if the region should become independent from North. Although results have not yet officially been announced, estimates indicate that the referendum will pass with an overwhelming number of pro-independence votes. During this time, keeping citizens informed of new developments is crucial, and one of the best ways to reach large numbers of people is through the radio. The Sudan Radio Service, which has been operating since 2006, recently began incorporating mobile technology into its work to both monitor the reach of its broadcasts and to solicit reader feedback.

Jacob Korenblum of SoukTel, the company that designed both mobile services, explains that the radio service, which is based out of Nairobi, Kenya and Juba, Sudan, wanted to make sure that the broadcasts were being heard by its target audience. He explains, “The power of radio is that it can reach millions of people; the challenge of radio is that you don't know if people are listening. […] So I think that there was a big need for ways to get feedback from listeners across southern Sudan."

In order to monitor the reliability and clarity of the radio broadcasts, SoukTel designed a survey for field workers in ten different regions where the Sudan Radio Service is heard. Previously, the broadcasts were sent out of Nairobi over shortwave radio frequencies, but the new station in Juba uses an FM signal. The branching survey, available in both English and Arabic, leads the field workers through a series of questions to describe the sound quality of the programs and, if the sound quality is poor, potential reasons for the interrupted service.

The information is sent back to the main radio centers where the data is used to track trends in service interruption and to make changes in problem areas. Written in PHP and SQL, the survey is available to field workers entirely through SMS so it works on basic phones. Korenblum says that the reason for this was to make sure that the field workers could easily participate: “The whole point of our platform is that it's bottom-of-the-pyramid. So it's all SMS-based, you don't need to have a Java client or an Android handset. [...] Frequently the field staff have only the most basic phones, and we never ask for our partners to go out and purchase different hardware – you can use whatever handset you have." The field workers are remunerated with air time at the beginning of the month to cover their expenses for completing the surveys (the Sudan Radio Service is a project of the non-profit organization the Education Development Center and is funded by USAID).

While building a system that needs to work on multiple networks, the organization did run into some challenges. One network operator (Gemtel) could only text within its own network, and one network (Vivacel) didn't have the network infrastructure to support an external content provider. To solve the problem, SoukTel set up a forwarding system for all Vivacel clients so that users could text a local number instead of an international one. The organization chose to not run the project on the Gemtel network, after determining that there were not many users of the network in the target regions.

Since the project launched in early September, they have run the survey program ten times in each region.

The second part of the project, launched in December, seeks to understand what listeners think about the programming. Since the Sudan Radio Service has programs covering everything from news broadcasts to soap operas, getting feedback from listeners about the type of content they find useful is important. 

Announcers of different programs promote the feedback line (a local long number), and users text in their replies, some of which are read on the air. Although the Sudan Radio Service broadcasts in 12 different languages, Korenblum says that most of the responses have been in Arabic, with a few in English.

So far, Korenblum estimates that the Sudan Radio Service has received roughly 400 SMS responses; below are a few examples of some of the responses (translated from Arabic with the names of submitters removed):

“This is very reliable news. I hope your news gets all over the world. We listen to your radio station and it's very clear in Saleh valley.”
“I like to listen to SRS programs because of the variety in programs, and the accuracy in news. The Sok Almawasera series talks about real problems and give us real messages for our life. Also thanks for the Al-Asmo program, and thanks for all the services the radio is providing.”
 “[…] Very good news service. I hope you invite a speaker from the army or the camps and increase the broadcasts. Please also provide us with a program that’s hosted by refugees.”  
“[…] I appreciate your dramas on the subject of al-Kojour in Darfur. They reflect the traditions and habits of Darfur in a very realistic way”. 

The listener responses help the radio station not only to know what sort of programs are most valued by their listeners, it can also help them plan for future broadcasts that continue to meet the needs of both Sudanese residents and the Sudanese diaspora within range of the Sudan Radio Service’s broadcasts. Combined with the frequent tests of the station’s broadcasting capabilities, the Sudan Radio Service can provide reliable information that reaches the greatest audience. Korenblum concludes, "It's really about creating a dialogue between radio listeners and the content providers of the programming, and mobile is a fantastic way to do that."

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