You’re reading this story on the Internet right now; that means you probably get at least a small portion of your news from online sources. In many parts of the world, however, radio is the dominant source of news. Uganda, a country with approximately 200 radio stations is one of those places. But while the Internet has democratized news, radio stations in Uganda have not–the big, well-funded stations are in English even though people in the country speak dozens of languages, and much of the radio station ecosystem is paid for by companies and NGOs.
Root.IO, one of the winners of the Knight News Challenge: Mobile , is trying to put radio stations in the hands of the people, ensuring that broadcasts are relevant to the citizens they serve. Chris Csikszentmihalyi, the founder of the project and a professor at Art Center College of Design, tell us that Root.IO is working on three levels. The first level is creating a network system that allows organizations who are producing content to share it with their peers. “We want to the take network effects of the Internet in terms of peer production, allowing [people] to share at the level of radio media,” he says.
A station that has 2G or 3G connectivity and a budget for data could pull down non-copyrighted content via Bittorrent. Community radios host the media they’ve created, and when a new station is being set up, the creators can look for keywords and categories of program content. A station working off a voice-only connection can set up calls from other stations. “Every hour your microstation gets a call … that’s the national news broadcast being put together by Uganda Radio Network in Kampala,” explains Csikszentmihalyi.
The second piece of Root.IO is all about radio station dynamics. Many stations can only interact with people outside the studio using phones; that’s not ideal in the developing world, where people might not have enough credits on their cell phones to call in. So Root.IO is working on a cloud-based system to give stations access to SMS-based voting, conference calls, and other alternative methods of interacting with the community.
The final piece–the most important–consists of microstations. Anyone with a smartphone running Root.IO software and a small transmitter (a 20-watt transmitter goes for a couple hundred dollars) can create their own station, no fancy studio required. Communities can collectively acquire smartphones and transmitters, which are placed on top of community centers like stores, mosques, and churches, while enterprising hosts can generate original programming and pull down as much extra content as they want from Bittorrent to round it out. The station quality won’t be crystal clear, but since many people will be listening from handsets on speakerphone, it doesn’t matter.
Root.IO is still in the research stages; funding from the Knight Foundation (a total of $2.4 million was distributed to the eight challenge winners) will move it along. The initiative is currently working with a youth center in a low-income, densely populated part of Kampala that’s known as a hotbed of music and creativity. Csikszentmihalyi hopes that a home-grown radio station could help support local artists. “We’re designing this as the radio system we’d love to have,” he says.