Broadcast is Technology Too

Sudanese citizens gather around an NDI-distributed radio in the village of Leer to listen to NDI's Let’s Talk radio program.

When we talk about technology for development, older technologies tend to get lost in the shuffle. Radio and television just aren’t sexy the way that mobile and mapping are – we know them too well to get exercised about the possibilities. Too blunt, too broad, too familiar.

And too bad – because radio and television have lost none of their potency in many parts of the world. In fact, in some places audiences for both mediums are growing as a result of rising household income, falling consumer goods prices, and improved access to the electrical grid that powers our digital lives.

Charles Kenny, an economist with the World Bank, calls television the ‘kudzu of consumer durables’, and notes that ‘By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one.  Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.’

Radio is generally thought to be even more common – in many regions the datasets are uneven, but through piecing together what information does exist, a globe full of listeners emerges. The African Technology Development Forum has data that estimates that radio ownership rates are over 30% of the population in at least 15 African nations.  Ownership doesn't begin to account for access or listernship, and so we can begin to get a picture of the scale of broadcast media consumption.

Why does this matter? Because at the end of the day, many tech for development use cases are about information exchange, and the best ICT4D programs are the ones that use pre-existing tools and networks – like those skeletal old transmission towers rising above much of the global landscape. And when programs are designed that utilise 'old' technology in complement with new technology, the impact is even greater.

Numerous evaluations, programs, and methodologies have sought to quantify the impact radio and television can have on positive behavior change. With all the hype around innovation and technology these days (the silver bullet that isn’t) it’s curious to see these two seminal – and effective – technologies so often cut out of the loop.