Increasingly, women are getting behind the microphone to deliver vital health and empowerment messages.
Growing up in Bangladesh during the 1990s, Monica Islam remembers her father listening to world news by radio. A continent away in Cameroon, Linda Ngobesing listened to her father’s motivational radio program every day as a child, imitating his “golden voice” and hoping she would someday speak on the radio, too.
Today, both women have realized their dreams and are hosting their own radio shows. They join a new wave of activists who are reclaiming a traditional medium to share stories, organize social campaigns, raise awareness, and inspire a new generation of leaders.
The World Is Listening
With three quarters of households worldwide accessing radio, the medium draws the widest audience of any mass media in the world. There are over 2.4 billion radio receivers and over 51,000 radio stations worldwide. In an ever-evolving digital media landscape, radio continues to offer a powerful platform for women’s empowerment and social change messaging.
Busayo Obisakin of Nigeria, who recently ran a successful radio campaign, observes that traditional radio continues to be the cheapest and most accessible form of media in her part of the world. And it provides a means to communicate with populations not reached by other forms of media, including the 781 million adults worldwide who are illiterate.
Young people are tuning in as well. Even as youth audiences for broadcast radio decline, they are accessing radio programs online—often through mobile devices. Asrida Ulinuha, a news announcer for a radio station in Indonesia, cites a popular mobile application in her country called Informasi Dari Anda that allows citizens to share information through radio. “We can do anything – anywhere –anytime while listening to the radio,” she says.
A Gateway to Global Connection in Nigeria
For Busayo Obisakin in Nigeria, the affordability and accessibility of radio provides an opportunity to mobilize women to participate in another communications medium that needs more women’s voices: The Internet.
Obisakin ran an interactive 13-week awareness campaign over radio last year. The phone-in show, sponsored by the World Wide Web Foundation, featured panels of women discussing important topics related to women and Internet access. The conversations included teachers, students, market women, doctors, artisans, and women of varying literacy levels. Callers joined the discussion from five states in Nigeria. “Men were not left out in the discussions,” writes Obisakin, “They phoned in to give their opinions on the benefits of internet and the fact that women must not be left behind when it comes to accessing the internet.”
The show covered a wide range of topics, from the basic skills to access the Internet, to rights and responsibilities online; from protecting privacy online, to cyberbullying. She discovered that the program helped women who didn’t already have access to the Internet learn how they might be accomplish their goals online.
After the campaign, women flooded into Obisakin’s Women Inspiration Development Center, eager to access training on how to use a computer, access the Internet, join social networks, and take part in global conversations.
Through radio, Obisakin says, "Women’s eyes are open to their rights."
Shifting the Conversation in Cameroon
Working in radio is not without its challenges. In Cameroon, Linda Ngobesing laments that broadcasters who present frivolous or negative stories are often the ones who gain fame and make their way to the top. In the afternoons, she says, people in bars, taxis, restaurants and other public places tune in to programs that use language derogatory towards women. That’s why she’s developing a radio program to support young girls in cultivating self-esteem, overcoming challenges, and realizing their potential.
“I want to see a society where girls everywhere know what they want, go for it with confidence and win,” says Ngobesing. “I aspire to build a strong network of girls who support and strengthen each other.”
Another broadcast journalist in Cameroon, Mbi Clementina Njang Yong, is also up against commercial pressure when delivering her socially-minded programming. Radio hosts and journalists give less attention to social communication that benefits local communities, she says.
These attitudes spur Yong to fill the gap, producing programs with titles like “Women’s World,” “The Advocate,” and “Changing the Tides in HIV.” Through these programs, Yong discusses issues related to human rights violations and tells stories of those whose rights have been violated.
“I think the concerns and issues of women are better known by us women and it is our place and responsibility to communicate in a way to serve as a voice to the voiceless,” she says.
She has seen firsthand how radio stories can lead to change. After she launched a radio campaign to raise awareness on the violation of widows’ rights in Northwest Cameroon, decision-makers started paying attention to the issue. A representative from the governor’s office even contacted her to assure her that concerns about widows’ rights would be channeled to the governor so that the region could adopt better strategies.
Ngobesing has also seen her work deeply affect her listeners. She works with the She Platform, a campaign that helps citizens to empathize with women who have experienced violence and identifies causes of violence. When she thinks about her success, she thinks of a woman suffering from abuse who told her the radio program helped her rise above her low self-esteem.
Reaching the World from Bangladesh
Monica Islam in Bangladesh received radio training through Sylvia Global Media Network During the 2013 World Pulse Voices of Our Future program. Afterward, she launched two of her own online radio channels: Parenting Worldwide aims to bridge the communication gap between elders and youth; and Women of Bangladesh highlights the achievements, struggles, aspirations, and stories of Bangladeshi women.
On one hand, Islam says that she hosts fun shows about cultural events, and on the other hand, she leads serious talk shows on topics ranging from sexual harassment to food conservation. Her goal is to provoke minds and affect social change.
She has delved into topics such as child neglect, elder abuse, domestic violence and the sometimes strained relationships between parents and children. “I was shaken when my guest relayed her story—how she had been abandoned as a child, only to be adopted by a religious family that did not quite treat her justly, and then finally to be reunited with her biological mother when the latter was in the hospital in critical condition,” Islam says.
One radio guest from the Philippines had survived two suicide attempts after being bullied, overcoming those difficult times to become a public speaker and fashion journalist.
Islam has learned in her radio work that the deepest reflections emerge from heartfelt conversations. She urges young women to remember radio is a form of media that can be used for social transformation.
“Radio isn’t dead,” says Islam. “Instead it’s reviving to penetrate a great number of homes–in both urban and rural areas.”
She is helping lead that revival through podcasts and online radio. While Islam embraces the shift towards digital distribution, the essence of radio that captivated her as a child still captivates her today. She is amazed by radio’s ability to affect people through a single sense. “The combination of sounds,” she says, “can bring alive a story just as statistics provide context to a written article.”