A crash course in humanitarian radio


FRR field trial participants interview an NGO representative in the makeshift studio (© IOM 2014/ Photo by Naomi Mihara)

By Naomi Mihara

You have 30 minutes to set up the station and start broadcasting.  Now GO, GO, GO!’.

After a mass scramble as we tried to remember what we’d practiced in the classroom the week before, like magic, we were live on air.

You wouldn’t believe how simple it is – yet how effective – to start up a radio station, as long as you have some key pieces of equipment.  Armed with a ‘radio in a suitcase’, a transmitter, antenna, and one week of training in disaster response radio, our group of 15 people – some with experience in radio, others working for humanitarian organizations, but all of us new to ‘humanitarian radio’ – broadcast for three days out of a classroom in a school in the city of Tagbilaran, Bohol, in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines.  Of course, we were also helped along the way by experienced technicians and trainers from First Response Radio, a group of experts in humanitarian broadcasting who have been responding to disasters worldwide with emergency radio broadcasts since 2004’s Indian Ocean tsunami.

The island of Bohol in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines was hit by a powerful earthquake in October 2013 which caused widespread damage to homes and public buildings and left nearly 350,000 people displaced.  The ‘field trial’ was an opportunity to put into practice what we’d learned about two-way communication and the role of information as aid for disaster affected communities. Divided into three groups, we took turns broadcasting to the citizens of Bohol on topics ranging from how to enroll in local government skills training schemes to earthquake safety in schools.  It quickly became evident through interviewing members of the local community that even after eight months many questions remain, with damaged homes and a lack of long term, sustainable livelihoods a major issue.  Our role was to bring the concerns of the people to the relevant government or humanitarian agency for them to provide answers, thereby improving the efficiency of the relief effort overall.  There was a strong emphasis on community feedback, with listeners encouraged to text or call into the show to discuss their experience of the earthquake, to talk about a problem they are facing, or simply to request a song.


An elderly lady living in Maribojoc, an area of Bohol that was particularly badly hit by last October’s earthquake, explains how the disaster affected her (Photo by Aaron Aspi)

The radio ‘studio’- a mixing desk, microphones and a laptop, literally housed in a suitcase – is specially designed to be easily portable when the needs arises for a rapid deployment.  Tacloban City, the town that was flattened by last November’s typhoon Haiyan, was the first place in the Philippines where a real deployment took place.  The aftermath of the typhoon brought chaos as a lack of reliable information left rumours circulating about mass looting and thieves on the rampage.  Within a week of the typhoon, which shut down electricity across the region and destroyed communication channels including TV and radio stations – some of which still remain off the air – First Response Radio had started broadcasting from Tacloban City Hall.

The success of that initiative can be seen by the fact that the radio station, rebranded as ‘Radyo Abante’, is still up and running, now run by local journalists who lost their jobs due to the typhoon and were subsequently retrained in humanitarian radio by FRR.  The feedback received by the station is highly valued by aid agencies as it paints an immediate picture of how effectively the needs of the typhoon-affected community are being met.

By the second day in Bohol, we began to realise how significant First Response Radio was becoming to the people in the local community.  The station was receiving text messages from 12 km away, and had already gained a loyal following, with people asking us for the schedule for the rest of the week.  Unfortunately our field trial was for a limited duration only, but even in that short space of time we strongly felt the power of radio as a tool for information, as well as, importantly, a comfort for people suffering from trauma months after a disaster.  If our brief time on the airwaves had that much impact, eight months after Bohol’s earthquake, then think how crucial it must be in the immediate aftermath of a life-changing disaster.  In the Philippines, the next emergency is always just around the corner.  At least when it comes there’ll be a new batch of humanitarian journalists ready to respond and get the vital information that communities need.

For more information about First Response Radio, visit http://firstresponseradio.org/

For more information about Communications with Communities (CwC), visit http://philippineresponse.iom.int/communications-with-communities