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'All Things Considered' Creator's Latest Venture Brings Radio to Rural Developing Areas

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Radio pioneer and MacArthur Genius grant recipient Bill Siemering is working with radio partners around the world to strengthen the power of local broadcasting. KPCC's Kitty Felde say down with Siemering to find out what the rest of the world is tuning into.

Kitty Felde:You might call Bill Siemering's latest venture an incubator for newly hatched radio stations. Siemering describes his organization Developing Radio Partners as committed to bringing information to people who need it most: those living in rural areas of developing countries.

Bill Siemering: In Liberia, or Sierra Leone, where the illiteracy is 60%, and there's no real electricity outside of the capitol city, and... radio is the most important medium by far. There are only, in Sierra Leone, only about 44 newspapers physically go outside of the capitol city, and 4 million people live outside of Freetown, so it's really important.

And, more importantly just than getting information, is the fact that it gives voice to people. And that's critical to empowerment, to poverty reduction, to solving problems, airing and solving problems, and to celebrate their local culture.

Felde: Take me to Mongolia. I've dropped down in the middle of Mongolia, I'm turning the radio dial, I tune into this station. What am I going to hear?

Siemering: You might hear a local news program. A half hour news program a day.

[Sound of local news programs]

Siemering: You'll hear cashmere prices, you'll hear other market prices, you'll hear information about preparing for the winter. You could hear the local governor, who talks on the radio once a week, has a call-in to talk with him.

Felde: Ask the governor.

Siemering: Ask the governor. But also where he can tell them, you know, this is what we're working on. I actually heard in this two-way, that a listener called the governor, and he said "What can we do about poverty?" So it's not simple questions.

They have a program called "Let's Meet," where you call in and identify yourself, and the kind of friend you would like. I mean, might be a girl having another girlfriend to pal around with, or boy/girl. And you as a listener might say, you know, that number two sounds kind of interesting. So you go down to the studio and you present yourself, show that you're sober, and have a job, and are clean, and so on. Tell them about yourself.

Felde: Craigslist of Mongolia?

Siemering: Exactly.

Felde: How do these stations support themselves on the air? They don't run what we think of as commercials.

Siemering: Some do, but often it's announcements. "I need a ride to Ulan Bator," or funeral announcements in Africa, or "I've got a liter of fermented mare's milk I'll sell for 50 cents," or fresh vegetables. But more in Africa. The station at mile 91, they don't just read the announcements, they actually go out with a MiniDisc recorder, so you record in your own voice the announcement. So the station on the outside says it's "the voice of the people," and it is literally the voice of the people.

Radio, as we know, is a storytelling medium, and it's just common sense that soap operas or radio plays, however you want to frame it, would be popular. They're the most popular programs, the most popular format, in I think every African country I've been to.

Felde: But these are also often used as public health information tools.

Siemering: Oh, they are. They're very, they're much, they all have a social message of changing behavior. So you can have a soap opera around attitudes, men's attitudes about sexuality, that can lead and prompt discussion, and that's where the real change of behavior comes from. Radio is having this enormous impact, as public radio in this country has had, but even moreso because it's in the developing country where there are few, fewer media choices.

Felde: The budget for Bill Simering's organization is a $150,000 a year. His next project: helping to create a community radio station in China for women.