40 years of radio excellence

April 29, 2019
A translation for this article is available in French

Every farm radio broadcaster has their own bumpy path to the broadcast studio. Farm Radio International’s goes like this: In 1975, George Atkins, then a farm radio broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was travelling by bus down a rural road in Zambia. He was accompanied by a number of African broadcasters, there as part of a workshop for farm broadcasters. Ever curious, he asked about their latest radio shows.

One of the broadcasters, a man named Abdul from Sierra Leone, said his latest show was on the correct use of spark plugs for tractors. Mr. Atkins was surprised. As he tells it, the conversation went like this:

“How many farmers in Sierra Leone have tractors?” he asked.

“Well, one in 80,000,” Abdul responded.

“And how big an audience do you have?” asked Mr. Atkins.

“I’ve got a big audience,” said the broadcaster. “Around 800,000.”

Mr. Atkins quickly did the mental math. “You mean you’re talking to ten farmers out of 800,000.”

The broadcasters said they didn’t have access to information that would be relevant to the majority of their listening audience. “This was where the idea came into my head,” said Mr. Atkins.

He proposed writing scripts which featured low-cost agricultural tips—things like using manure for fertilizer, or raising oxen for plowing—and sending them to broadcasters for them to adapt to their local language and conditions. Mr. Atkins turned to his colleagues on the bus: “If I were to write that stuff and make it available to you, would you use it?” he asked. The answer was “yes.”

Four years later, on May 1, 1979, Mr. Atkins put together the first package of scripts. From his living room at the family home in Oakville, Canada, Mr. Atkins, with help from his wife Janet, sent the packages to 34 broadcasters in 26 countries around the developing world.

The Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN) was born.

Broadcasters around the world would get the scripts, translate them into local languages and transmit the information over the airwaves to their listeners.

Mr. Atkins compiled a team of people, including scientists and agricultural experts from the University of Guelph, his alma mater, and farm broadcasters and journalists from around the world to learn about compelling, easy-to-use, and low- or no-cost farming techniques. The team created radio scripts that explained the techniques and sent them to other broadcasters.

In one case, scientists at the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya confirmed that chickens ate ticks, and proposed using chickens—rather than chemicals—to limit the number of ticks in cattle pens. A decidedly simple idea, but one that might have stayed put in Kenya had radio across the world not passed the information along.

While tapes and packages of printed scripts were sent to places like Cambodia, Peru, and Sri Lanka, in 2003, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network narrowed its focus to sub-Saharan Africa. This is where we knew we could make the biggest impact. And, in 2008, DCFRN became Farm Radio International.

Today, Farm Radio International continues to share packages of radio scripts, technical documents, and other resources with radio broadcasters and rural communicators—with more than 800 broadcasting partners in 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. These resources are produced in English, French, Amharic, Swahili, and Hausa, but are translated and interpreted into many local languages before they are broadcast on air.

On our 30th anniversary in 2009, Mr. Atkins recalled the way the organization had grown over the years. “I just have to pinch myself a little bit now when I think of the people who are helped by this service that is available to them just by turning on their radio.”

Though Mr. Atkins passed away in late 2009, we’d like to think that we are still living up to his legacy, now 40 years since its humble start. As he used to say during the sign off for every broadcast he made:

“Serving agriculture, the basic industry, this is George Atkins.”