Broadcasting with a bucket in Uganda (JAMLAB Africa)

July 16, 2018
Une traduction pour cet article est disponible en Français

Radio continues to be a powerful medium across sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is radio commonly used to share community information, but it’s cheap and accessible. In Uganda, a mix of radio, mobile, and internet technologies is allowing communities to create their own micro-radio stations—“radio in a bucket.” All the community needs is a smartphone, a transmitter, and dynamic content.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi is the co-founder of a project called RootIO that develops tools for small-scale radio broadcasting. He got the idea for the project after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. To respond to the crisis, FM radio stations provided information for people devastated by the earthquake to help them find water and other assistance.

About a year and a half later, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi was working on an educational program in Uganda with the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. He was amazed at the way Ugandans used phones—rarely for calls.

He explains: “In the rural areas, people would go for a long time without recharging their credit. Or they didn’t keep credit on their phone and at the same time, they listened to radio 24/7…. I thought, is there a way of joining these two things [radio and mobile phones] together in a way that no one had done before?”

While at UNICEF, he met Jude Mukundane, who worked for Uganda Telecom at the time.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi says: “Together we said [that] we should change radio and make radio work better with phones, make interaction with radio easier for people. And we came up with RootIO at that point.”

Mr. Mukundane became the chief technical officer, while Mr. Csikszentmihalyi focused on fundraising, among other responsibilities.

The technology is what makes these tiny radio stations unique. They have no studio, and all the shows are created with the host’s smartphone. They are radio made simple, using off-the-shelf consumer goods instead of soundboards and editing software.

How does it work? A small transmitter is built into a 19-litre plastic bucket, along with a fan, a charge-controller to protect the batteries, and a smartphone, which is connected to an antenna and a solar panel. In this way, whatever’s playing on the phone is broadcast over the airwaves.

Anyone who wants to build a micro-radio station can purchase most of the materials at the local market. RootIO provides the software for free.

The micro-radio stations have a limited range, perhaps up to 15 kilometres, serving one or a few villages and up to 10,000 listeners.

The programs produced by the radio hosts are stored on the internet rather than on a hard drive, which makes it possible for stations to share content with other stations without expensive equipment.

With RootIO’s system, a station can also receive free calls and put them straight on air, download audio from the internet, and run SMS votes.

When a radio station wants to put a caller on air, they can use RootIO’s system to ensure the call is free to listeners. Mr. Csikszentmihalyi explains: “Listeners wanting to participate in the radio show’s discussions call in, their calls [will] be dropped, then the computer [will] call them back. So people are not charged.” By eliminating the costs of the call, the hope is that more listeners will call in.

The team started with four mini-stations in 2015, and is hoping to launch another 20 in eastern Uganda and Cape Verde this year.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi says they run RootIO at breakeven. Their software is free and available as open source on GitHub. Anyone can download and run the application software on a smartphone.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and Mr. Mukundane hope to build a lot more inexpensive and low-powered FM radio stations. They want to hand control of FM radio to the people who depend on radio the most.

This story was adapted from an article titled, “How RootIO is broadcasting radio shows using a bucket in Uganda,” published by JAMLAB Africa Magazine. To read the original article, please see:

With files from “Smartphone + solar panel + old bucket = radio station” from CBC Radio.

Photo: Supplied by RootIO for original story in JAMLAB Africa Magazine.