By Tamba Jean-Matthew
Exactly 20 years after the civil war, Liberia’s extensive radio landscape is yet to fully regulate and embrace the digital innovation which it obtained over a quarter of a century ago.
With approximately 163 registered radios in the country, about 54 of them are running on the national digital audio broadcasting (DAB), while an estimated 30,000 listeners out of a country’s approximately 5 million people have access to only one radio station.
“That number of radio stations is quite high for a small country like ours,” says Agatha Johnson of the media accreditation agency at the ministry of information.
So what the government planned to do this February, she says, was to revoke all licenses and frequencies issued, and then re-issue to appropriate candidates so as to regulate the radio landscape and narrow the digital gap.
But two ongoing significant intrusions have put that process on pause: the first is the organised confusion over the conduct of the disputed national census, which is a crucial element of the electoral process.
The second stumbling block is the verbal gymnastics among politicians over the pertinence or not, of the biometric voting system during the October 2023 presidential and legislative elections.
Those interruptions mean that the majority of Liberia’s radio stations which have virtually been turned into music and chat boxes, as well as those which have long gone off the air, will continue to stay put.
Observers believe that some degree of lobbying has culminated in the suspension of the re-accreditation and regulation process since the electoral periods enable many radios to reap from campaign ads from politicians.
But Peter Khaler, a veteran Liberian journalist who once managed the West Africa Democracy Radio in Senegal, regrets that the delay in the radio regulatory process will only retard Liberia’s march to modernity triggered by digital innovation.
Wilmot Tamba, an ICT consultant, squarely blames the lateness to embrace digital innovation in Liberia on the lack of interest of lawmakers “most of whom have very little or no interest in the innovation”.
Wilmot also slammed the “lackadaisical attitude and ignorance” of most media proprietors about the merits of the innovation, saying: “they fail to calculate the immense benefits” that digital innovation holds.
“Not only does digital technology minimise financial costs, but it also downsizes expenditure on human capital. And beyond that, digital innovation enhances excellent sound quality, adds prestige and increases the social profile of institutions,” says the ICT expert.
A late but innovative newcomer
Indeed, Liberia pioneered newspaper innovation on the continent by starting one of the first newspapers in 1826, but the country is a double latecomer to both radio and digital innovation.
After that innovative and landmark launch, Liberia waited almost 128 years to signal the ‘Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA)’ radio in 1954, thanks to the initiative of some American missionaries.
Before then, Liberia’s regional anglophone neighbours, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria embraced radio innovation in the early 1930s following the Italian, Guglielmo Marconi’s luminary invention of the radio in 1901.
However since 1954, ELWA still remains a dominant innovation in Liberia and on the greater part of the continent broadcasting through western, and central Africa up to Sudan; and was only interrupted only during the 14-year Liberian civil war that killed an estimated 250,000 by the time it ended in 2003.
Besides its religious programs, ELWA basked in the adulation of its heterogenous and international audiences particularly for the world news feature: ‘Window on the world’ that was seen as an eye opener on world issues as early as in the 1960s as it hit the waves on the short and long wave bands.
Furthermore, the innovation also won the admiration of its audiences for its unimpeachable editorial policy and its adherence to the tenets of professional journalism.
For those reasons, ELWA seized the opportunity to position itself as the first training centre for radio journalists in Liberia, producing a long list of celebrities including Joe Mulbah.
Joe as he was affectionately called, eventually became a radio instructor at the Mass Communication school at the University of Liberia, and was the first post-war minister of information in 1997 shortly before his death.
Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab