| December 17, 2007

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    By George Jobe, Director, Mudzi Wathu Community Radio Station

    What would have been a total blackout to Mudzi Wathu Radio Station’s broadcasting, in Mchinji district, turned out to be a different case for its listeners because of use of modern technology. An MP3 Player served the role of Studio-to-Transmitter Links (STL). The listeners of the station had had a two-months dead air on the station because its signal had been interfered with so much that one could hear nothing when they tuned on to the radio station. Management of the station resolved to stop broadcasting. All equipment was switched off in March 2007 as efforts were made to procure other STLs. Rumours made rounds in the district that the station had been transferred to another district but life was re-instated when the station’s management decided to try use insights learned from the briefing meeting of African Radio Research Initiative project at Korea Garden Lodge on 31st May 2007. Use of the MP3 Player brought back to life broadcasting on the station.

    Mudzi Wathu Community Radio Station came into being as part of the USAID funded project, In My Village, which was implemented in Mchinji district from February to October 2006. The project, which was contracted to the American Institute for Research and implemented by CRECCOM, was designed to use radio as a medium of conveying messages across to mobilize towards communities mitigating the impact of HIV/AIDS. The project promoted abstinence and faithfulness among the Mchinji residents; mobilized communities to support education of Orphans and Vulnerable Children and promoted care for People Living With HIV and AIDS. The project also procured a 30-minute airtime slot on the national Malawi Broadcasting Corporation for its weekly programme. The project implementers lobbied for equipment from Radio Systems Inc in the USA for radio station equipment so that Mchinji district residents would have sustainable broadcasting of its development initiatives even after the project phased out. Broadcasting on Mudzi Wathu Community Radio Station started on 17th June 2006 on a 102.6 FM frequency. People in Mchinji and some parts of Lilongwe, Dowa, Ntchisi, Kasungu as well as Mozambique and Zambia expressed their gratitude to the newly launched station. Research done by the project later established that over 90% of the 324,941 Mchinji residents listened to the station. Letters and telephone calls in our radio programmes proved the popularity of the station. Communities replicated initiatives which were broadcast on the station. The station’s signal was the most clear of all radio stations reaching Mchinji district. However, the joy of the listeners was short-lived as quality of the signal declined within months. 

    The station was set at the bottom of Mchinji Mountain while its transmitters were placed on the mountain. The two were linked by Studio to Transmitter Links (STLs) which used preset frequencies of 950 MHz and 951 MHz. However, when one of the wireless internet service providers, Burco Broadband Limited, came to the district, the situation changed. The Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) assigned them a frequency in the same range to the station’s. The situation brought in interference on the radio signal being transmitted from the studios to the transmitter. Efforts were made to work on the transmitter and STLs as the cause of the interference was not yet known.

    MACRA discovered that the problem was the preset STLs whose frequencies had not been given by the authority. The station was asked to procure other STLs, to be set on the then officially assigned frequency of 462 MHz. Broadcasting of programmes was suspended pending arrival of STLs which CRECCOM ordered from Cape Town, in South Africa.

    The 31st May 2007 AFRRI meeting took place when the STLs had not been delivered. The Executive Director for Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (DCFRN), Kervin Perkins, emphasized need for exploration of use of modern technology in broadcasting, such as MP3 Players. The insight triggered creativity in the station’s management, who, at times, were connecting a Radio/CD/Cassette Player directly to the transmitter, and played music. A 1 G MP3 Player was procured. Volunteer Broadcasters at the station were trained on how to use the technology. Music and programmes were loaded on it and played while connected to the transmitter. People were offered entertainment and education. Staff walked from the station to the mountain to change batteries and reload other materials.

    The problem now was that batteries would run out at night, a situation which annoyed listeners. This made the station’s management to revisit their technology. They bought an MP3 modulator which fits onto a lighter socket of a motor vehicle and plays materials from a flush disk. They bought a power adapter, connected it to the power tip of the modulator and plugged it to an electricity socket. The Broadcasters at the station were taken through further training. Materials were loaded on flush disks and played on the modulator. Cables connected the modulator’s headphone plug to the transmitter.  Broadcasting of programmes on the station became normal. Music, various programmes and advertisements, including reading of letters from listeners, were put on the flush disks and played on the modulator.To avoid frequent walking up and down the mountain, the flush disks were taken to watchmen at the mountain. The watchmen would fit the first one from morning to noon, the second one from noon to afternoon and the third from evening to morning. Listeners made a lot of telephone calls commending the station’s management for bringing back to life their “beloved” radio station.

    This improvised technology served the station for two months, June and July 2007, until the ordered STLs were delivered and installed on 21st July. Use of MP3 Players technology has proved to be very instrumental discovery for the Mudzi Wathu Community Radio station as it enabled the station bypass the contaminated STLs and still broadcast to listeners. Over MK60,000 ($428) was raised from advertisements during the period the station used the technology. This has made the station realize that it can cover an event with a laptop right in the field, load some of the recorded data on flush disks or MP3 Players and send them to the studios for broadcasting while recording still continues. This can enable listeners follow the event through this phased-in-transfer of materials to studios through use of modern technology.