Interview

Airtime: The Radio Community

TRC founder Chris Marol discusses the unique role of radio in South Sudan.

By Shayan N

This edition of Airtime spotlights the work of The Radio Community (TRC) and the importance of community radio in the world’s youngest country, South Sudan. 

In previous editions we’ve seen how radio offers a platform for new artists to share and archive audio-based work. However, in other contexts, radio can take on very different meanings and functions. 

TRC is a media network supporting 5 FM radio stations with an estimated combined audience of 2 million people. Their mission is to keep everyone informed and platform voices in all regions of South Sudan, a country that was founded as recently as 2011 and endured a long and arduous civil war from 2013 to 2020.

As the South Sudan's first-ever elections approach, we sat down with the TRC's CEO, and former humanitarian journalist, Chris Marol. He talked us through the importance of the medium of radio in keeping the population informed in the absence of reliable infrastructure, information and electricity.

Hi Chris! Radio seems to play a vital role in South Sudan. Tell us about your network, The Radio Community, and how it contributes to the world of radio?

The Radio Community is a media organization that runs a network of community-based radio stations in South Sudan. We were founded in 2015 but the stations have been existing for quite a while. Some were formed immediately after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.

[The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, marked a crucial milestone in Sudan's history, particularly for the region that would later become South Sudan. Brokered to end decades of civil war between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the CPA laid the groundwork for South Sudan's eventual independence in 2011.]

At the moment, we have five radio stations that are operational across South Sudan in different areas, and these stations operate in 5 out of 10 states, but there is overlap in terms of our reach on the airwaves. 

There is Akol Yam 91 FM, which is located in Aweil in Northern Bahr El Ghazal. Akol Yam means “new day” in the local language of that area. We also run Mayardit 90.7 FM in Turalei, Mingkaman 100 FM and Singaita 88.3 FM located in the Eastern Equatoria State. We recently re-opened Leer FM, which was destroyed during the war in 2014/15. Finally, we have Sobat 88.0 FM, which is currently off-air because of ongoing conflict. 

You mentioned the local language, what is the language you broadcast in?

In South Sudan there are so many ethnic communities and tribes, and different tribes have different languages. So we have multiple local languages. In each area where we broadcast, there are one or two main languages that 90% of the people within that region understand and speak. 

We make sure that almost all of the content we produce is produced in the given local language so that the majority of people can listen and also participate. Dinka is one of the main languages that we use. We have shows in Nuer, in Toposa which is common in Eastern Equatoria, and in Didinga. Then we do some news shows in English and Arabic. 

Some radio stations TRC supports were formed just after the CPA – that means some of the radio stations are older than South Sudan itself?

Yes! For example, Akol Yam was originally set up in 2006. Mayardit was set up in 2009 so that's before South Sudanese Independence. Leer FM was set up in 2007, before independence, but the other stations were set up in the aftermath of 2013 (the year the South Sudanese Civil War broke out) as humanitarian radio stations.

Can you explain what you mean by humanitarian radio – what is its purpose?

Humanitarian radio provides humanitarian information for internally displaced people. To give you an example, when war broke out in 2013, many people fled across the Nile and settled in a small town on the riverbank called Mingkaman. For these people, there was a real knowledge gap – they did not have access to any information about what was going on in other parts of the country. 

I was in Mingkaman working as a reporter, and I realised there was a need to fill this gap by setting up a radio station. There was funding available to set up a humanitarian radio and we had to set it up really quickly. 

It was initially just a station in a box, with a transmitter and a small antenna that could broadcast within a 15km radius. We had to build out the infrastructure and after a while equipment was delivered, it was installed, and the station grew.

I hired local journalists, many of whom were themselves fleeing from the conflict. We trained them and a few years later in 2016 it became part of our radio network, so it was no longer just a humanitarian radio. Now that station is Mingkaman 100 FM.

Wow, that is a very different purpose of radio than I am used to, and I guess it leads to my next question, what makes radio so important in South Sudan?

Basically in South Sudan, I don't know if you have been here or not, but the infrastructure is very limited. Most areas are landlocked and do not have access to roads. The telecommunications infrastructure is also very restricted. The internet penetration is very low in some areas because they are so remote. 

Even if you have a smartphone it can be a challenge to get electricity to charge the phone. If you solve that issue, the limited network and the high cost of data make it difficult to browse the internet. In most areas, there is no functioning public grid and you need to have electricity to use a TV. Currently, those who can afford it rely on satellite services like DSTV, which is primarily accessible to government officials or individuals with significant resources. An average South Sudanese, especially those dependent on farming or crop rearing, is cut off from all communications.

On top of all this, the literacy rate is very low. So really the only means for accessing information is radio. Because if you have a radio set you can get some dry cell batteries to put in it, and you can receive information. You can use radio because it's easy to transmit and it goes to areas that are hardly reached by people or even roads. Often the only thing you can afford and rely on is radio. So that's a big difference. 

In some cases, these stations are the only outlet for people who need help. When people have issues – maybe they don't have sanitation, or they don’t have a functioning water point – they will come to the radio and share their problems. The station can get into contact with the relevant agencies and government bodies and see what their response to the concern is. And then when governments decide on a policy, we report on it. 

Do these political interventions from the stations make an impact?

Definitely, one time a commissioner decided that he needed to tax goods that were already in shops, which of course had been taxed already when they were imported. This was mentioned to our station and we ran the story, talked to people, and figured out that this extra tax was illegal. The commissioner was removed from his position about two weeks after our report. If it wasn't for those reports people would have had to pay those taxes. 

Another time in Northern Bahr el Ghazal the local government implemented a new household tax. One of the biggest challenges facing people in South Sudan is food – the majority of people are relying on humanitarian aid. So imagine that you are asked to pay household tax. Where are you going to get the money for that? Are you going to sell the food you are receiving to pay taxes to the government? Once again the station covered this issue and was able to involve all levels of government to the point that the parliament intervened and the tax was suspended. 

We are able to discuss these issues with the community, inform the authorities, and engage them in thinking about these models and policies, raising the question of who these policies are actually benefiting.

This year, South Sudan is due to hold elections. What role are the stations playing in that process?

Right now everyone is talking about these elections, but the majority of people don't know how elections work or how to cast their votes because it is the first election since the foundation of South Sudan – the last time we had an election we were still part of Sudan. The stations have an important role to play, by giving people the information they need to understand this process.

Our current government is a transitional government, a coalition of different parties that came together as part of the peace deal that was reached in 2018. They are planning to have elections by December. There also needs to be a census to find out what the population of South Sudan is, so that we can determine how many MPs we are going to have in the parliament.

A major issue is funding – does the government have the resources to facilitate an election? They need 250 billion SSP which is around 230 million US dollars. We don't know where that money is going to come from.  

Some places in South Sudan don't have roads and some are not accessible during rainy seasons, how are people going to be able to reach ballot boxes? How are people going to be registered? How many voting stations are we going to have? What kind of mechanism will be used to determine the constituencies in these regions? How are they going to be drawn up?

We have a program on our network in the capital of Juba called Voice of Peace, it basically looks at current affairs and takes one question, such as the ones I mentioned, and asks for people’s opinions in 5 different locations. Then we ask a government official the same question and see what they say. 

People believe that even if the elections do happen they might not go the way they are supposed to – free, fair, and credible. That's why these shows are really important.

What is TRC’s mission and how far into achieving your goals are you? What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

TRC’s vision is to see South Sudan as a country where people can make informed decisions. Our mission for these stations is to make them sustainable so that they can continue to inform, educate, and entertain. 

Our goal at the moment is to mobilise and make sure we have enough resources. We are connected to solar power but it simply isn't efficient enough. We also have to rely on diesel generators and the cost of fuel sometimes piles up. But we are doing what we need to do and will get there. 

But there are other challenges we face – some authorities are not happy with us when we broadcast what they are up to. This can raise security issues. They put pressure on journalists to not follow certain issues up, or they just refuse to speak to us. But we have seen how important our work is and we do it for the people, they are the ones who support us and believe in our importance. If you go talk to them you will see. 

There are state-run radio stations in South Sudan too, but a lot are not operating, while others only run government activities and propaganda. So there is very little information that people can trust.

In a 2021 survey, Akol Yam was voted as the most trusted radio station in their region. So they topped a lot of big radio stations and national stations that broadcast from Juba. It’s because we actually try to reach the people with problems, those who are socially and economically marginalized. We inform them and allow them to call us so we can platform their voice.

I think at the moment TRC is in the middle of its mission. Our goal is to make sure that the stations continue to exist because the community in these areas truly sees the value in them. 

People rely on the input and information from the radios, without which they might find themselves in darkness. 

Tune in and find out more about The Radio Community here.

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