Community Radio as Civic Media: The case of Radio al-Balad 92.4FM in Amman, Jordan

Gretchen King (McGill University)

In 2000, Jordan’s first community radio station Radio al-Balad 92.4FM emerged to break the government’s monopoly over local media by launching AmmanNet.net to produce community news content for Internet distribution and broadcast on nearby FM stations in Palestine (Aqrabawi et al. 2006). After receiving a radio license in 2005, AmmanNet began broadcasting on the FM dial reaching listeners throughout the greater Amman area (or over two-million people). The station fulfills a mandate to provide radio production skills to those who have limited access to media or other resources to address social, economic, or political problems (Pintak 2007). By 2008, the station re-branded itself as Radio al-Balad 92.4FM — Saut al-nas wa al-balad or voice of the people and the community (MP3, Arabic).

Today, Radio al-Balad 92.4FM is part of a growing network of community media institutions that have been established in the Middle East and North Africa region throughout the last decade with many new stations opening through initiatives like Aswatona (2014). As non-profit and participatory media institutions, community media are largely volunteer-run and provide a service to a specific community. While the structure of community media institutions is determined by local realities including regulatory, legal, and economic environments (Coyer 2011); community radio stations worldwide generally have a similar mission, but can vary greatly in governance practices (Buckley et al. 2008). Among media institutions, community radio stations are unique in their charters in that they are guided by participatory values promoting citizen empowerment in their work towards democratizing local media and politics (Gumucio Dagron 2001; Rodriguez 2001; AMARC 2003). Over two decades ago, Bruce Girard, co-founder of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (known by its French acronym AMARC), which today brings together a network of more than 4,000 community radios, federations, and civic media stakeholders in more than 130 countries, identified community radio’s “commitment to community participation at all levels” (Girard 1992, 2).

The impact of this mission has been the focus of the first extensive study of community radio audiences in the Middle East, which draws on ethnographic techniques that include participant observation, interviews, storytelling, and focus groups to produce qualitative and applied audience research (King n.d.). Ten hours of listener generated data gathered in Amman over five weeks illustrate how Radio al-Balad 92.4FM achieves their mandate to serve the needs of citizens. Extending this research to build on the history of community radio as a civic technology promoting participatory media access and social change (Huesca 1995; Fairchild 2001), this case study demonstrates how community radio offers citizens a transformative experience by cultivating media literacy, raising civic awareness, and revealing opportunities for collective action and social change.

Community radio stations, like Radio al-Balad 92.4FM, aim to make media accessible and participatory. Radio al-Balad 92.4FM achieves this by providing regular opportunities for citizens to acquire skills in radio production. One listener and new volunteer shared her first experience producing a multimedia program for distribution by Radio al-Balad online and over 92.4FM:

“Practically, I am a human rights journalist who works in the written medium, but after I saw the effect of the audio and video reports this made me realize who the eye or ear respond differently to written content versus audio and video. The other thing was to be able to approach subjects from a purely rights perspectives, while not being under the umbrella of someone like the United Nations, or another umbrella that deals exclusively with human rights; to be able to do so at a local radio station, that was something ground-breaking. This gave me courage in proposing questions and stories. They told me, the ceiling is as high as I am comfortable setting it. So we produced the content with all positions, we brought the government opinion, the human rights opinion, the opinion of people on the street, and the voice of unions. It was beautiful experience.”
By broadcasting programming focusing on civic freedoms and human rights, Radio al-Balad 92.4FM facilitates political learning environments.

Programs like the popular Nas ou nas show, covering human rights news in Jordan, places Radio al-Balad 92.4FM, according to one listener, “at the forefront of political and social education in Amman.” Other programs promote media literacy by offering a critical view of the political economy of Jordan’s media landscape, as in the weekly show Ain al E’lam or Eye on the Media.

Accessing a free space for expression and media production offers citizens not only new forms of participation and education, but also extends new opportunities for engaging in collective action. Over 300 audience members have participated in meetings of the Listeners’ Club at Radio al-Balad 92.4FM. Members of the Club’s Executive Committee report experiencing increased political activities in the community. According to the Club’s President, this is evident in the achievements of the Listeners’ Club:

“The success story of the Listeners’ Club is that we have tons of cases of charities and services that we were able to provide help through the Listeners’ Club. Because people interact with the Listeners’ Club and since this is a community radio station we were able to reach people and get to know their problems. We were able to help many people though the radio. Not to mention visiting high profile officials in the government and connecting them to the citizens, but also starting to solve some problems that people pointed at. … We could reach to the Prime Minister — all of that through our engagement in the Listeners’ Club.”

These activities of the Listeners’ Club are one example of audience involvement in the station’s programming and structures that cultivates meaning participation in civic life. Finally, the impact of programming aired on Radio al-Balad 92.4FM extends beyond the station and its community of listeners by promoting citizen awareness of social problems and their solutions. An audience member, who is also an occasional contributor and works as a human rights lawyer supporting several activists cases, remarked how Radio al-Balad 92.4FM achieves this impact:

Representing activist and civil society perspectives is now possible in a FM dial 99% owned by the military, the police, the state, or business associates of Jordan’s King. In this way, Radio al-Balad 92.4FM has a direct effect on society by engaging citizens of Amman as civic actors and promoting new ways of thinking analytically and strategically. Community radio, from the perspective of Radio al-Balad 92.4FM listeners, offers a transformative experience by providing a participatory platform for media and political education, offering programming that raises civic awareness, and providing space for autonomous collective action through which audience members can increase their access to political power as well as opportunities for social change.

Representing activist and civil society perspectives is now possible in a FM dial 99% owned by the military, the police, the state, or business associates of Jordan’s King. In this way, Radio al-Balad 92.4FM has a direct effect on society by engaging citizens of Amman as civic actors and promoting new ways of thinking analytically and strategically. Community radio, from the perspective of Radio al-Balad 92.4FM listeners, offers a transformative experience by providing a participatory platform for media and political education, offering programming that raises civic awareness, and providing space for autonomous collective action through which audience members can increase their access to political power as well as opportunities for social change.


References

AMARC. “AMARC statues.” Last modified February 27, 2003.http://www.amarc.org/index.php?p=AMARC_Statutes&l=EN.

Aqrabawi, Tamara, Sawsan Zaidah, and Daoud Kuttab. 2006. “Community Radio for Development in Jordan with specific reference to AmmanNet Radio.” Paper presented at the global conference for the World Association of Community radio Broadcasters (AMARC 9), Amman, Jordan, November 11–17.

Aswatona. “Aswatona Fund for Media Development Launched.” Accessed June 30, 2014. http://aswatona.net/?p=17071.

Buckley, Steve, Monroe E. Price and Marc Raboy. 2008. Broadcasting, Voice, and Accountability: A Public Interest Approach to Policy, Law, and Regulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Coyer, Kate. 2011. Community media in a globalized world: The relevance and resilience of local radio. In The handbook of global media and communication policy, ed. Robin Mansell and Marc Raboy, 166–179. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fairchild, Charles. 2001. Community Radio and Public Culture: Being an Examination of Media Access and Equity in the Nations of North America. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.

Girard, Bruce. 1992. A Passion for Radio: Radio Waves and Community. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Gumucio Dagron, Alfonso. 2001. Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communication for Social Change. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation.

Huesca, Robert. 1995. “A procedural view of participatory communication: Lessons from Bolivian Tin Miners’ Radio.” Media, Culture and Society 17(1): 101–119.

King, Gretchen. The Radical Pedagogy of Community Radio and the Case of Radio al-Balad 92.4FM: Community Radio News Audiences and Political Change in Jordan. PhD diss., McGill University, n.d.

Pintak, Lawrence. 2007. “AmmanNet founder Daoud Kuttab: ‘Huge need for independent media’ in Middle East.” Arab Media & Society (February): 1–10.

Rodriguez, Clemencia. 2001. Fissures in the Mediascape: An International Study of Citizens’ Media. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press.


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