Interview with Jennifer Bakody on the Intimacy of Radio

UNESCO is pleased to make the audio and text of this interview available copy-right free for the celebration of World Radio Day 2019. Radio stations are especially encouraged to broadcast the interview, either in its totality or by exacting the answers and announcing the questions themselves.

UNESCO had the chance to speak to Jennifer Bakody, a Canadian journalist who believes so deeply in the many attributes of radio, the United Nations and responsible media that she wrote a book about it! She is the author of "Radio Okapi Kindu: The Station That Helped Bring Peace to the Congo", which honours the achievements of Radio Okapi, a radio station set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo by the U.N. and a Swiss non-governmental organization, Fondation Hirondelle. She lives in Singapore.

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Q. Thank you for being with us today, Jennifer. As a radio journalist, you’ve spent some years working for Radio Okapi in the DRC. Could you tell us a bit about your time there and what inspired you to write a book on your experiences?

Absolutely — first, let me properly introduce Radio Okapi for anyone who doesn’t know it or who is interested in knowing a bit more about its backstory. Radio Okapi is a national radio network that was set up in 2002 by the United Nations Mission in the Congo, which at the time was called MONUC, and from the Fondation Hirondelle, which is the Swiss NGO that runs radio and media training programs in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world. These two actors specifically designed Radio Okapi to bring this country together through years of war which has caused years of destruction and here is where radio can help. The very fabric of the country had been torn apart. The radio flagship program called Dialogue entre Congolais, (Dialogue among Congolese) aired for the very first time as various factions of civil society, representatives and governments throughout the region met in Sun City, South Africa to discuss how the Congo would proceed with the transitional government with the view towards elections.

Now, me myself, I arrived in the Congo in 2004, and when I walked into Radio Okapi’s main newsroom in the capital Kinshasa, one of the first things I took in was the segment that the station was using like a jingle in-between programming and music. It was called Okapi message where people could go to the UN office closest to them to drop off written messages for family members that they had lost contact with in the war that they hadn’t heard from since the war. Basically just saying, “I am alive, here I am,” in Kisangani, Shabunda, Mbuji-Mayi, Kindu where I would be initially based. So Radio Okapi did that — it created infrastructure from that most basic way to the production of more sophisticated programming, becoming a platform for ideas and concerns to be raised, discussed and debated. It was obvious that infrastructure, this neutral platform, was vital to the culture and exchange of information in the country. And in the three years that I had the pleasure of witnessing, contributing and learning from Radio Okapi, the radio and its journalists certainly did the job impeccably.

I wrote the book because I said to myself, “This story needs to be documented.” There are lessons, best practices in media and responsible journalism as in the state of democracy for other countries, communities and governments to grasp and potentially emulate. What Radio Okapi accomplished is a massive achievement that needs to be celebrated. And from what I as a journalist and as a citizen had observed elsewhere in the world is that we can get stuck in our ideas. I thought it was likely that a significant segment of the population had come to discount innovation in the Congo and in radio as a medium. That would be a mistake. It is not because something is strongly rooted or has seen its fair share of hay days that it is irrelevant for modern time.

Q. And from your experience, which aspects of radio make it such a strong medium for promoting discussion and dialogue?

There is no doubt when we consider literacy, economic and technological barriers that radio has access on its side. Radio is the mass media reaching the widest audience in the world, but the virtues of radio go far beyond access. The best examples of dialogue on radio are by brainstorming or the free flow of largely unfiltered discussion; different voices are heard, actual voices, we hear them. What they said, how it is said, with no lens, no filter.

I have heard it said, maybe you have too, that Greenland should be called Iceland, and Iceland should be called Greenland. That’s because Greenland, they say, is actually covered in more ice than Iceland, whereas Iceland is in fact greener than Greenland. Is this true? The answer is beyond scope of expertise, but I will tell you, if we were to play this same name game with radio and social media, I would submit that radio as a medium is more social than social media. Consider first what happens in cases where social media depends on the written word. I type something, uninterrupted, unchecked, sent. Perhaps you don’t respond, perhaps you do, with an emoji? And if you do choose to write something back, I can then choose to respond or not respond. I certainly choose which aspects I wish to respond to, or launch myself into some other tangent entirely.

But it doesn’t work like this in radio. For starters, most times with radio, there is a dialogue, whether it is an interview like this one, or a panel discussion, a call-in show, which necessarily means a few things. Like, interruption, direct questioning, objection, clarifying questions, self-editing, which is more than an auto-correct on a machine. And of course in radio, there are verbal and sound indicators – tone - that you just don’t get when messages are sent. Now the other main pillar of social media is image, photos and videos, and while these elements often come into play in radio, the backbone of radio is not image of course, but script and audio, where audio is found in voices, their pauses and stuttering. Coming together to communicate, not just meaning through words, but meaning through emotion. Think how powerful it is to hear crying, radio is intimate. Its sound waves fill the space you occupy, whether that is in a room, outdoors or directly into your ears by a headset, like a podcast. It forces you to create pictures and images and imagine.

Q. Taking Radio Okapi as an example, how do you think radio contributes to restoring peace to a post-conflict region?

Can I use an analogy? I am an individual. You are an individual. You, listening to this, an individual. So let’s look at conflict among individuals. After any conflict, you just want to talk. Maybe you need a cooling off period, which is very common, but at some point, you are going to want to vent. And most importantly, you want to be heard. You want to make sure that you were heard. Build bridges. We love to talk about that at the United Nations and in development, but it is true. After conflict, there are gaps the size of oceans. How do we do that, bridge that gap? We unpack. A dear friend of mine in beautiful Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, who has been hosting a community radio show for 20 years, he calls this “living an examined life”. I love that. We unpack, we examine. And as we do, we or others, usually others, start talking about moving on. So this is a loaded term, moving on. But certainly, life keeps moving — there is no stopping it, like radio waves in motion. Now another thing about radio, it is so wonderfully diverse. Radio skits, radio drama, comedy, documentaries, interviews, rapportage, and it is purposely focused. Radio is where culture meets politics. It allows communities to take stock of themselves, for grass movements, grass root movements to form, to examine our lives and to set priorities. For the people who represent our interests, to know those interests, and through journalism, to hold them to account. For me, these are all the building blocks for peace.

Q. There are a number of indigenous groups in the DRC. Are there any indigenous-specific radio stories that come to mind?

Yeah, so I often hear people say that maybe the Congo solution is to divide it along indigenous or ethnic lines. After all, we often come across new stories that speak of ethnic fighting in the Congo, making mention of the fact that the Congo has more than 250 ethnic groups. But, do we not all know by now that the answer is not to divide people along ethnic, indigenous or frankly, any lines? Be it gender, religion, place of birth, education level, income brackets? Think about it. In places where we see trends moving in this direction all over the world, how is that working out? What if instead, we were to consider one of Radio Okapi’s core tenants — pluralism. As a system where multiple group values or sources of authority coexist, anywhere you name the country throughout history, the problem is division. And the solution is the equitable, fair and rights-based distribution of public resources. Resources that belong to all of us. The public airwaves belong to all of us.

You asked for an example of the indigenous specific radio stories I came across so many at Radio Okapi every day from every location. Here is one. And it is actually a case of a group not being recognized. Not its rights, not being recognized. So, it was heading into the Congo’s presidential and legislative elections back in 2006. I was in Kindu. We at the radio were covering the voter registration process, and one of the reporters in our team had found a group of people who were born in the Congo, raised in the Congo, as were their parents, their grandparents, maybe even their great grandparents, but because of their ethnic group, the fact that their ancestors, far off ancestors, had been brought in specifically to work in mines that were now in today’s Manye and Kibu provinces, their names weren’t on any voter lists. And as egregious as that seemed to them, they said they were perhaps more upset that they were not going to be issued an official voter card which would have been a vital form of identity, one they never had. Without it, they were stateless. Radio Okapi gave them voice. That for me was very powerful.

Q. The theme of World Radio Day 2019 is “Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace”. What is your World Radio Day message?

My five-year old daughter says all the time, she’s hungry, she wants candy. I say, fine go ahead and have a bit of candy at some point, but if you were hungry, forget it. Candy is not food. Radio is food. It feeds the most basic humanity that is in all of us. It is a natural platform for dialogue and when it is done right, radio pulls us into emotion, voices, the shared sounds of life beyond any one word message or opinion that is put across. We hear others. We hear what isn’t said. We come to understand. And in a world where there is so much extraneous noise, this is the basis for tolerance and peace.


Thank you very much, Jennifer!


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