Liberia Community Radio a Vital Resource for Liberians
Community Radio a Vital Resource for Liberians
By David Montez, AudienceScapes Research Analyst
Radio is a vital means of public communication in a post-conflict country like Liberia, where a little less than half the population is illiterate. The number of radio outlets has grown considerably since the end of Liberia’s 14-year civil war in 2003, often with the help of external donors. Many of the new radio stations are community-based, with local staff and missions to support community peacebuilding and development.
Community radio also fills a domestic information void in many areas created by the lack of a national public service broadcaster with broad signal reach.  In recent years, the state-run Liberia Broadcasting System has received technical support from both USAID and the Chinese government and is in the testing stages of an FM network that may have national capacity.  However, there are both international and domestic observers who consider the station’s programming to be largely propagating the views of the government. Community radio stations are viewed as a way to balance the broadcast media scales. 
Community radio has even greater importance in the country’s rural areas where television and newsprint access rates are relatively low. In a 2008 national media survey of Liberia, less than a quarter of rural respondents said they watch TV or read a newspaper at least weekly, whereas 91 percent said they listen to the radio at least weekly (See Chart 1).
There are well over 50 registered radio stations, a majority of them community-based. The Danish NGO International Media Support places the number of community stations outside of Monrovia at 47. However, there are fewer than 35 that are active. The variability in the number of stations that are actually broadcasting compared to those that are registered speaks to the financial constraint that most of these stations operate under.
International radio broadcasters such as the BBC and Voice of America transmit on shortwave and generally reach all parts of the country. But these outlets are less focused on local issues (note that 10 domestic radio stations, nine of which are community-based, broadcast some programming from the BBC).
Another key player is UNMIL radio, the radio broadcast arm of the United Nation’s Mission in Liberia. In fact, on the national level UNMIL is the most popular radio outlet among regular radio listeners. It uses a network of FM relays to expand its reach throughout most of the country. UNMIL provides news and development-focused programming, in simple Liberian English and various vernacular languages.
Liberian stations Radio Veritas and and Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) use FM and shortwave to reach beyond the county level (Hirondelle funded Star Radio recently stopped broadcasting on shortwave after cancellation of funding). However, neither has a national presence and both have difficulties in signal reception due to problems associated with shortwave signals.  For more information on each of these outlets see our Media Outlet Matrix.
The 2008 survey of Liberia did not explicitly cover a large number of community radio stations but it did reveal the importance of these stations as communication outlets for much of the population. As the table below shows, community stations surveyed ranked as either the leading radio outlet in their respective county or rivaled the listenership of UNMIL or the BBC shortwave station.
Community radio stations will become even more important players in these localities as Liberia prepares for elections in 2011. How radio stations report on the 2011 political campaigns, which includes a presidential election, will speak to the maturation of these community stations and to the development of Liberia as a democracy. Liberians will require thorough and accurate journalism from these stations if the public are to be well-informed voters.
In addition, it is expected that the UNMIL mission will begin to substantially draw down after the elections, leaving the future of UNMIL Radio in doubt. This also raises the question of whether UNMIL will follow in the footsteps of its sister mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and transfer its technical equipment and facilities to the state broadcaster. The success of that venture may inform whether it is attempted in Liberia.  Nevertheless, in the absence of UNMIL Radio community-based stations would be the sole media outlets broadcasting social-change or development-based programming in many counties.
Some of key external supporters of Liberian community radio include the Open Society Institute, Fondation Hirondelle, Radio Nederland’s INFORMOTRAC, Mercy Corps, Search for Common Ground (SFCG) and IREX. Many of these organizations began their efforts to reinvigorate Liberia’s media just after the end of the civil war.
Much of the sponsored work is done through a few local NGOs. A prominent one is the Liberia Media Centre (LMC) established through an initiative of the Partnership for Media and Conflict Prevention in West Africa, a loose network of local and international media development and free expression organizations. Another is the Press Union of Liberia (PUL). Smaller NGOs involved in community radio include the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building (CEMESP), the Liberia Women Media Action Committee (LIWOMAC), and the Media Women Center for Development and Democracy (MEWOCEDE).
One of the more extensive media assistance programs in Liberia was conducted by Mercy Corps just after the cessation of civil hostilities. As part of a five-year Community Peacebuilding and Development program Mercy Corps established 23 community radio stations with a mission of providing rural communities news and information that is essential for taking an active role in their own governance. Similarly, the Liberia Media Project (LMP) conducted by a partnership between International Alerts and three Liberian NGOs installed eight radio stations spread throughout the country. The LMP provided the equipment in each location, while the local community built the structures. In addition, the LMP also produced programs on peace, governance and HIV/AIDS that were aired on the stations.
Indeed, many stations receive programming as well as training and equipment that address important socio-economic and health issues. For example, the Talking Drums Studios in Liberia, established by the SFCG, is a multi-media enterprise that has created soap operas such as “Ju Jay” and “Today is Not Tomorrow,” and roundtable discussion shows such as “One Step Beyond” that seek address some of Liberia’s most critical issues.
Despite the assistance they continue to receive, a large number of community stations have problems accessing enough resources to cover capacity building, the creation of quality socially-relevant content, and ongoing expenses. As a most community stations are non-profit and perceive themselves to be public service broadcaters they do not see themselves as businesses that need to make money. Media development experts have suggested that station managers need extensive training in business management. In addition, training to produce journalism that addresses more community concerns may also prove fruitful. 
Meanwhile, survey findings show strong demand for news programming on domestic issues. Fifty-three percent of respondents in the 2008 national survey said they access news at least two or three times a day, while 71 percent of respondents said they consume news at least once a day. Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they are “extremely interested” in domestic news,, while 87 percent said they are either extremely or very interested in domestic news.
Another recommendation from funders is to strengthen existing community radio networks and associations.  There are currently three such institutions in Liberia. The Liberia Community Radio Broadcasting Association (LIRCORBA) focuses primarily on the relationship between state policy and radio stations.
The Association of Liberian Community Radios (ALICOR), with some 38 member institutions, acts more as a technical support body, running a network of technicians that travel from station to station diagnosing and correcting system failures. ALICOR, established in 2005 and housed in the offices of Mercy Corps, has in recent years also strived to become a key training provider. In 2008, ALICOR organized an industry wide conference which led to the development of a code of ethics for community radio stations and a standard of responsibilities for independent broadcasters. 
The third organization, the Liberia Community Radio Network (LICORNET), was established with assistance from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA, ). Notably, LICORNET trains radio staff and supplies them with equipment through "in-kind" grants.
These community radio associations survive not only through collecting dues from its member institutions but also through continual support from international and multilateral organizations. The forms of support they receive often come in the form of either grants or projects in which they are paid to broadcast specific programs as part of a larger development project.
MORE ARTICLES ON COMMUNITY RADIO
 “Total Adult Literacy Rate 2003-2008 %”. At a Glance: Liberia. UNICEF. Accessed April 2010. http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/liberia_statistics.html.
 “Media Sustainability Index 2008: Liberia”. International Research and Exchange (IREX). Washington, DC. Accessed April 2010. http://www.irex.org/programs/MSI_Africa/2008/liberia.asp. and “Strengthening Liberia’s Media: A review of media support in the post-conflict transitional period and recommendations for future actions”. International Media Support. Copenhagen, Denmark. 2007. Accessed April 2010. http://www.i-m-s.dk/files/publications/Liberia_webfinal%201202-2007.pdf.
 “Media Sustainability Index”. And “The Perennial Tragedy of Democracy: Attacks on Freedom of Expression in Liberia 2006-2007”. Center for Media Studies & Peace Building (CEMESP). Monrovia, Liberia. Accessed May 2010. http://cemesp-liberia.org/Book_final_version.pdf.
 "UN lauds Sierra Leone move to create new independent broadcaster". UN News Centre. 4 May 2009. Accessed May 2010. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=30684&Cr=press+freedom&Cr1=. and "New Radio Station Created in Sierra Leone As UN Outlet And State Broadcaster Merge". UN News Centre. 7 April 2010. Accessed May 2010. http://allafrica.com/stories/201004080060.html.
 “Special Report: Support for Independent Media in Liberia’s New Democracy”. Center for International Media Assistance. Event 17 February 2009. Washington, DC. Accessed April 2010. http://cima.ned.org/696/media-in-liberia.html.
 “Strengthening Communications: Understanding the Differences, Acting on the Commonalities”. Search for Common Ground. August 2008. Accessed April 2010. http://www.sfcg.org/programmes/liberia/pdf/liberia-update-aug08.pdf.