February 13 was declared World Radio Day and this year’s theme, “Radio is you”, attempted to show the importance of radio to local communities.
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement on the occasion that “at a time of turbulence, radio provides an enduring platform to bring communities together. On the way to work, in our homes, offices and fields, in times of peace, conflict and emergencies, radio remains a crucial source of information and knowledge, spanning generations and cultures, inspiring us with the wealth of humanity’s diversity, and connecting us with the world”.
The Arab region has been late in deregulating radio.
In the post-colonial years, controlling AM radio along with occupying the presidential palace was the hallmarks of most revolutions, and coups d’état.
New military leaders were therefore worried about being overthrown themselves in the same way, so radio stations became a military castle and stations were run by very loyal individuals.
The idea of giving out licences to the private sector was unheard of until the 21st century.
In Jordan, the Arab world’s first privately owned radio station ammannet was launched on the Internet in November 2000.
Two years later, King Abdullah opened up the airwaves to the private sector, licensing tens of new radio stations.
They are mostly in the capital, but a handful of stations are based in public universities throughout the Kingdom.
The Arab Spring opened up many Arab countries to radio, as the chaos that ensued weakened central powers and allowed local communities to set up radio stations with permission from local mayors or governors.
Non-government radio spread quickly in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia and even many parts of Syria not under the control of Damascus central government.
Tunisia is now the only Arab country that has legally recognised community radio, giving 10 licences to local NGOs that run community-owned stations.
The proliferation of radio despite a general setback of institutional media is a result of the resilience of this media outlet.
At a time newspapers are retracting under the financial crisis facing their business model, radio has continued to attract audiences simply because at certain daytime hours it has captive car audiences.
Unlike television stations, which greatly multiplied in numbers because of the convergence to digital, analogue radio still reigns as long as car radio does not move to digital.
Only Norway has taken the risky move of shutting down its analogue broadcast and moving all frequencies to digital.
Mobile radio’s ability to pick up FM broadcasts has also lifted radio listenership among the youth, especially for music.
In Jordan, the increase in radio stations has not been regulated, thus resulting in a chaotic market that is dominated by a few stations that benefit from the situation.
In addition to the state media, which collect a licence fee, all radio stations owned by the government, whether by Jordan Radio and TV or by government entities (police, army, appointed city council) have been allowed to advertise.
In the context of a centrally run government, such as Jordan’s, businesses often prefer to advertise with these stations in order to secure favours from the government.
These government stations that are allowed to receive advertisements benefit from government buildings, antennas and staff also contribute to an uneven playing field.
Independently owned radio stations that speak truth to power are often the last stations that a business wants to be seen associated with or advertise on.
Despite all that, a group of pseudo-community radio stations is popping up in Jordan and starting to make their voices heard.
On World Radio Day, eight stations issued a statement calling on the government to recognise community radio and waive the exorbitant media commission and telecommunication authority’s fees.
Stations have to pay tens of thousands of Jordan dinars annually to renew their licence and frequency.
A new audiovisual law allowing stations that do not advertise to have their fees waived was passed in 2014, but no station has yet benefited from it.
The law requires individual approval by the Cabinet for every request.
Recognising community radio stations as a separate sector and with specific requirements and regulations would greatly help the sustainability of these stations, and their listeners can benefit from them.
Community radio has been around for decades, with Latin America a leading continent in this regard.
World Bank studies have shown that countries that allow the proliferation of community radio stations fare much better economically than countries that refuse to recognise them or allow them to operate.
Mirta Lourenco, the head of UNESCO’s Media Development and Society section, expressed support for community radio.
In a statement on this year’s theme, she echoed the importance to local communities.
“The theme puts the spotlight on audiences, ensuring their views and diversity is represented on the airwaves. It is a chance to look at all of the different ways that radio engages audiences, not only on air but through ‘listening to listeners’ in the planning and policy of radio”.
As Jordan moves into the decentralisation phase with the first decentralisation elections scheduled for August 15, it is high time for the government and Parliament to take a new look at the value that community radio provides to local communities, and to create an enabling legal environment for their proliferation and sustainability.