Radio Ergo uses Freedom Fone to encourage feedback from Somalis

Listen to an interview with Radio Ergo staff about their use of Freedom Fone

From its studios in Nairobi, Radio Ergo produces a daily hour-long programme in Somali language that is broadcast via short wave from the UAE. The broadcast is received countrywide across Somalia, a country with an established tradition of tuning in to radio on short wave frequencies. The daily programme is also shared with a network of partner FM radio stations operating in Somalia. Content is generated with the assistance of Somali-based stringers who file their audio reports via email.

Radio Ergo banner

Programming focuses on the humanitarian issues attendant in a nation bereft of formal governance structures. Health, education and livelihoods-related issues are popular with listeners. They have a 'Radio Doctor' segment which is used to share health advice and information.

Large numbers of Somali citizens have been displaced over the last 20 years into the Diaspora with possibly a million living in refugee camps and broader society in Kenya. And although Radio Ergo's programming targets Somalis living in Somalia, many Somalis living in the Diaspora also listen in - often via the broadcasts published daily to the organisation's website www.radioergo.org.

Radio Ergo was initially established in Nairobi because of the then logistical and security challenges associated with running the project in Somalia. Being based outside Somalia does make information gathering more challenging, but it also brings benefits.

It is common for the FM radio stations based inside Somalia to be intimidated by local factions into ignoring or under reporting certain issues - or to be pressed into reporting with a partisan voice. Broadcast range and audience reach is limited with local news seldom shared beyond the local radio station. Given the limited governance framework in Somalia, there is no broadcast regulator and so in Mogadishu, where many FM radio stations have set up, they are sometimes at odds over frequency conflicts.

Based outside Somalia, Radio Ergo has been able to provide a national news service free of local bias. They are not seen as a competitor and hopefully in time may actually be able to build the capacity and professionalism of these local partners.

A common challenge for radio stations is providing channels for listeners to provide feedback, share information and ask questions. This is as true for the FM stations based in Somalia as it is for Radio Ergo in Nairobi.

The needs, aspirations and voices of Somalis at home are routinely ignored in a country renowned for all the wrong reasons: piracy, violence, anarchy, illiteracy, extremism and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

Radio Ergo regularly cooperates with UN and other agencies in an effort to mitigate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Somalia. Establishing accessible and affordable communication channels with ordinary Somalis across the country would go a long way towards responding to needs and evaluating the impact of interventions. High illiteracy rates in Somalia require agencies to move beyond social media and SMS in their search for meaningful feedback channels.

Radio Ergo's first effort in this area has been to set up a couple of Kenyan mobile numbers for callers to 'flash' or leave a missed call to signal a request for a callback. This strategy was used to remove the call costs associated with an international phone call to their Kenyan numbers. Reviewing the phone numbers associated with the missed calls and incoming SMSs it is clear that Somalis living in a variety of countries are keen to communicate.

However the overheads involved in responding to the missed calls are high. The small Somali speaking staff struggle to respond to all requests and have no way of prioritising them. Requests and contributions via SMS are easier to manage but this channel is not much use to illiterate listeners. According to web statistics, Somali's low literacy rate of 37.8% places the country in the bottom 10 in the world.

Freedom Fone looks like it could be a useful platform to assist with this scenario and will be used to complement the current missed call numbers. Since limited funds currently rule out free to caller options, Freedom Fone will initially be used to manage voicemail and SMS. Over time Radio Ergo may take advantage of Freedom Fone's voice menus to offer an information on demand service comprising short audio clips. Given their small staff the project needs to be careful not to create production demands that cannot be sustained. Nonetheless this is definitely an area of interest and one still to be explored and trialled.

VoIP services do not appear to be an option in Somalia and Kenya at present so 3 OfficeRoute SIP devices will be used to set up 12 call-in lines - 4 Kenyan mobile numbers and 8 Somali mobile numbers. One OfficeRoute and the Freedom Fone server will be located at Radio Ergo and two OfficeRoutes will be sited in Mogadishu, ideally hosted by an ISP or partner with good Internet bandwidth.

Mohamed & Fatuma putting their training into practice

Fatuma & Mohamed putting their training into practice

As part of the training workshop in Nairobi, Radio Ergo's Kenya-based server and OfficeRoute were set up and connected to the Internet at their offices. If the Somali-based OfficeRoutes are connected to a good Internet connection, this configuration will enable calls/SMSs received by the Somali numbers to be routed to the server in Nairobi. The Nairobi-based server will be used by Radio Ergo production staff to: manage all voice and SMS communications; respond to callers; forward requests to the Radio Doctor; respond to feedback in upcoming broadcasts.

Radio Ergo intends to publicise the new Leave-a-Message channel from early June 2013. They will craft public service announcements (PSAs) that incorporate role-playing to help listeners understand how and why to use the voicemail service. Listeners will be encouraged to leave their questions, requests, opinion and news via voicemail and SMS.