Like a Bell that Calls: Participatory Youth Radio in Ethiopia

Left: jesikah maria ross, Right: Esther Obdam
Here’s a youth media challenge: create participatory youth radio in a country where the government controls the media and cultural norms discourage youth self-expression.
Most youth media projects we’ve been involved with include a cast of characters—media educators, organizational partners, community media outlets—who all fundamentally support the idea of young people using media as a tool to explore, analyze, and create change in their worlds. This wasn’t the case on our last project, where UNICEF Ethiopia asked us to create a participatory radio project which brought Youth Dialogue groups and professional radio producers together to create compelling youth-oriented radio programming dealing with sensitive social issues. This task was all the more challenging because we had to accomplish this in a country where community media channels don’t really exist and where media makers are concerned about making missteps, not helping young people gain access to the medium.
It is vital in countries like Ethiopia to nurture relationships with media gatekeepers. It’s these relationships that result in young people gaining greater access to larger platforms, carving out a space for youth-produced radio on state-run channels country where young people are expected to do as they are told. This requires building rapport with adult media partners and finding creative ways to overcome their reluctance of letting go of ingrained production norms and control over the end result. In this article, we share the lessons we learned about building youth-adult media collaborations in a difficult environment in hopes that it will inform youth media educators how to open a channel with media professionals and gatekeepers in the U.S.
The Backstory
Youth Dialogue is a successful program operating for years in Ethiopia that brings together 50 to 70 young people in their late teens or early twenties from a geographic community (a neighborhood or village) to discuss critical social issues and come up with ways to address them. These groups meet bi-monthly and are led by trained youth facilitators who help participants analyze, problem solve, and create plans to deal with the challenges they face—such as extreme poverty, lack of access to education, and the threat of HIV/AIDS. But the information, actions, and empowerment generated in the Dialogue sessions tend to stay within specific communities rather than spread over larger areas. So Youth Dialogue facilitators and funders started looking for ways to increase the impact of their program by communicating participants’ ideas and experiences to a wider audience.
Because radio is the medium with the widest reach in Ethiopia, it’s the obvious vehicle to connect youth voices and actions across villages, cities, regions, and generations. But virtually all radio stations in Ethiopia—national, regional, as well as educational—are maintained by the state [1]. In order to amplify the messages and views of Youth Dialogue participants via these “mainstream” channels, we needed to link Dialogue groups with adult radio professionals to co-create programs that voiced youth perspectives.
Interestingly, virtually all Ethiopian radio stations produce youth programming, but none actually involve young people in generating and selecting content, determining program formats, or doing hands-on production. That’s mostly because the stations have very strict editorial policies on what can and cannot be said and what formats are deemed appropriate. Since radio producers and programmers are held responsible for what goes on air, giving control over content and production choices to young people is a risky proposition. Media jobs are hard to find and—in a country with such high unemployment and strong government oversight of the channels—they can be easy to lose.
In addition, most of the radio stations have very limited resources in terms of equipment, studio space, and staff time. But they all need to build their audience base and are under pressure by the government to increase community participation in program making.
Our pilot project had to:
• Train Youth Dialogue facilitators in basic radio production, how to involve their group members in producing youth radio, and how to collaborate with adult media makers.
• Train adult radio producers how to effectively partner with youth to make media that communicated their ideas and issues in acceptable ways.
• Demonstrate to radio producers and station management how involving youth in producing radio programs would advance their own goals.
Introducing PY Radio
The project involved 25 Youth Dialogue facilitators and 23 radio producers from national, regional, and educational stations [2]. The majority of the young people had no experience with media production. Most of the radio producers created programs for youth, but had no background working with youth. Since the cultural norm in Ethiopia is very top down—adults speak; youth listen and follow—our project aimed to help youth engage adults with confidence and to coach adults on how to share power with young people, viewed as production partners.
Over the course of seven months, we facilitated a series of training activities that developed the capacity of both age groups to collaborate on producing radio programs based on ideas emerging from the Youth Dialogues. The actitivies included separate trainings for each group, an intergenerational radio production, a “playback/feedback” gathering with youth-adult production teams, and a weekend evaluation workshop involving project participants.

Youth participants decided that the best way to reach their peers on taboo topics would be to create radio that was entertaining as well as informative, incorporating stories and language that would catch the ears of young people “like a bell that calls.” They engaged in hands-on radio production training and produced short pieces that experimented with a variety of radio formats and storytelling strategies. They labeled their work PY-Radio, participatory youth radio, and wanted it to feel different, sound different, and have its own brand, which is a sea of change from the usual programs in the country.
Toward the end of the training the youth created a manual that covered radio production techniques, the production process, and tips for working with adults. Producing the manual synthesized what they learned, gave them something tangible to walk away with, and bolstered their confidence. It also created a field guide for involving their peers and collaborating with radio producers to make participatory youth radio in the future.
However, to get this participatory media project off the ground, we needed the buy-in of radio professionals. To achieve this, the benefits of involving young people in making youth radio programs had to become apparent to them. So we encouraged participants to create a list of the potential benefits of this collaboration (a few of them are listed in the table below). Drawing a clear connection between how youth involvement could help producers and programmers meet their needs and those of the station build momentum and interest in the project.

But being aware of the advantages of youth participation was not enough. The radio producers had to be able to partner with young people in a productive, respectful way. The adults signaled that this would be a challenge since both sides often expect a deference to authority (i.e., age and experience). So we brought youth trainees into the latter half of the producers’ training to give both groups a chance to get to know each other and practice making radio together. During this trial run, issues about language and tone (“yo pals!” vs. “good evening gentle listeners”) started to surface. Format selection proved to be a sticky point —the youth preferred jokes and jingles but the adults wanted radio drama. The professionals were also worried that their schedules and reputations would be compromised if the youth didn’t show up on time for recordings. The young folks expressed concerns about being bossed around on the job. Everyone wondered how production decisions would ultimately be made.

These interactions raised important doubts that needed to be addressed head on before the project could proceed. To allay concerns, we asked the whole group to map out a realistic plan for the community-based production slated for the following month. Together they developed a step-by-step process, stressing the need for open communication and collaboration between young people and adults in all phrases of production.
The Challenge of Youth-Adult Participatory Radio
The co-facilitators revealed how PY Radio would play out in practice, following the steps the group had agreed upon during the training and working with young people to record their programs. Through the process of developing youth generated radio, young people demonstrated to media stakeholders their capacity to create interesting, appealing programs of broadcast quality. Consequently, the radio staff gained greater trust in the youth as partners in radio production. However, when editing the final program, it was evident that the challenges of participatory radio resides in the level of control adult radio producers enforce.
For example, the upbeat and colloquial narration of one dialogue group, was totally rewritten by one of the professional producers to be more conservative and didactic. Some of the personal stories of people living with HIV/AIDS recorded by another dialogue group were considered to be too depressing by the adults and were rejected without discussion from the final edit. Their rationale was that the station management wanted positive stories about people living with HIV/AIDS and what the youth produced was too negative.

The Importance of Playback/Feedback Gatherings
After the community productions were completed, the young people and radio producers came together to share their experiences and provide feedback about each other’s radio productions, resolving issues that came up in the process. Although the adult producers had become big fans of the participatory approach to youth radio programs, they still struggled with old habits. During the listening sessions, for example, they tended to tell youth what they “should have done” and how programs “should sound” instead of soliciting young people’s views or simply sharing their concerns. This, of course, upset the young people.
But because the youth had developed a sense of pride in their work and trust in the group process, they were able to point out that this authoritarian approach went against the spirit of collaboration. They asked adults to not be “fault finders”, but instead to act as coaches who start their feedback with what they appreciate and then move to areas for improvement. Since this type of constructive criticism is not the norm in Ethiopia, the group came up with the some phrases adults could use to give feedback and stimulate discussion about style, content, and reaching target audiences. For example:
• I like this piece because… I might try doing it differently by… because…
• What I think works well is… What I think could be improved is…
• What stood out to me is… What I think could be stronger is…
• How would you feel if your grandmother heard this?
• How do you think your peers would react to this?
• How do you think people who know nothing about this issue would respond to this piece?

This session culminated in a set of guidelines generated by the group for doing PY-Radio which addressed various challenges that surfaced during the collaborative media-making process (see box 2).

By the end of the project, 25 Youth Dialogue facilitators learned radio production and involved about 300 of their peers in PY Radio through a series of community production activities. Twenty-three radio producers from eight different stations learned the aims and techniques of participatory radio and collaborated with youth to produce 14 radio programs, all of which aired on mainstream media channels.
Because these programs were vastly different in style than what listeners typically heard across the Ethiopian radio dial, they sparked a lot of debate with communities and among station staff. Stations received letters and calls about the language and content, both positive and negative. Station staff were moved by the programs—some were delighted by hearing new voices, new formats, and new storytelling strategies; others were disturbed by it. The youth radio makers were approached on the streets and at home about the programs, which generated discussion among peers and families about the taboo subjects raised.
All this buzz cut two ways. Some parents and station management felt that the style was inappropriate for the general public. On the flipside, management recognized how the programs drew in large audiences, leveraged their limited staff resources, inspired producers to try new techniques, and fulfilled the government’s desire for greater community participation in local programming. In either case, the significant response signalled that the group had achieved the project goal of increasing the reach of the voices and visions of the Youth Dialogue groups beyond their immediate vicinity.
In terms of youth development, the Youth Dialogue participants developed a new set of technical and social skills. Through radio production work and peer learning, they had to learn to sift through what they wanted to say, decide how to say it, consider their audience, and involve different people. This required negotiation and planning skills, the confidence to speak out, as well as being accountable for their actions and expressions. They also had to collaborate with people whose interests were not necessarily the same as their own. They had to learn to work with adults in an environment of dialogue, respect, and compromise, which added to their personal development.
Radio producers expanded their knowledge and skills in radio production and formats, and tapped into a new source of information for their programs and new partners in their productions. They saw the potential of young people as media producers and the audiences youth participation could bring to their programs. As a result, they became advocates for youth media within their stations. Struck by the enthusiasm of their staff and being mindful of their need to involve the public, station management started to discuss how they might continue to take a more participatory approach to their youth radio programs. At the close of the project, the majority of the participating stations committed staff time and airtime to doing PY Radio. To build on this enthusiasm and provide additional support , UNICEF funded a staff member who had participated in the project to travel to the different dialogue sites for the following six months to provide technical assistance and help station staff connect with the dialogue groups in making on-going youth radio programs.
Lessons Learned
Most people might assume that getting a participatory youth radio project off the ground is primarily about providing tools and training young people—that adult professionals already have the skills and will help transfer them to the youth. But what we found was actually the reverse. The young people embraced new technology, were hip to the latest global sounds, and liked to experiment with form and content. The adults, not so much. Much of our efforts were devoted to encourage adults to let go of their preconceived notions of radio and open up to fresh ideas. They had a vested interest in maintaining their status and holding onto production habits they honed over the course of their careers. This made it tough for them to embrace an untested approach and share control over their programs.

Here are a few lessons from our project that might help other youth educators get adults stakeholders and gatekeepers on board.
Focus on Trust-Building. While establishing mutual respect is key for participants in any youth media endeavor, it is trickier to do in intergenerational projects, especially when cultural norms and media policies discourage creative self-expression. To counter the tendency for young people to self-censor and for adults to exert control, engage the intergenerational group early on in teambuilding activities that establish a safe environment to take risks, share experiences, and, if necessary, express doubts and grievances. This sets the stage for open communication, experimentation, and partnership. In the first series of meetings, include exercises where they explore each other’s backgrounds, limitations, and aspirations to strengthen bonds and foster a sense of solidarity. Finally, create opportunities for youth-adult teams to collaborate on hands-on production exercises as soon as possible and have them collectively draw up guidelines for feedback and next steps. These strategies not only helped generate the buy-in that was key to our project, but also developed the level of trust needed to make it a success.
Play Up Project Benefits for Adult Partners. Youth media practitioners typically focus on project benefits for youth. But in countries where youth voices will only get out through mainstream channels, it is important to foreground how such projects benefit professionals working in the field. There has to be a clear benefit for the people involved either at a personal level (gaining new skills, learning new storytelling strategies) or at station level (reaching new audiences, attracting new funding sources, improving programs to better deal with the competition). What the benefit will be depends on the particular setting, but we discovered that discussing possible benefits up front—and periodically reminding media makers how working with youth can benefit them—cultivated their sense of ownership and investment in the project, ultimately making it more sustainable.
Stay Connected with Power Brokers. It is vital in countries like Ethiopia to nurture relationships with media gatekeepers. It’s these relationships that result in young people gaining greater access to larger platforms. When working in a hierarchical system, aim for the top. Keep radio station management involved through regular communication (via email or phone) by providing project updates and soliciting their insights and feedback. Engage them by visiting their stations, talking up their participating staff (if appropriate), and discuss how their interests are served by the project. This helps reinforce the benefits stations can gain from the project, address concerns as they surface (e.g. equipment access, funding for air time), and lobby for continued support of participatory youth radio. Management not only has to get on board but stay enthused for their staff to feel comfortable heading in new directions.
Explore What Participation Means. The degree to which adult facilitators unconsciously shape youth produced media is a hot topic in most youth education circles. In Ethiopia, we needed a way to begin the conversation about how we’d address this issue. We used sociologist Roger Hart’s “Ladder of Youth Participation” to examine how much adults control the youth media landscape and explore ways to faciliate greater youth voice and editorial input. The ladder shows levels of youth participation in youth-adult collaborations. Beginning with the lower rungs where youth serve as decoration or maybe advisors to mid-level where they wield more youth have more influence in decisions to the top where projects are youth-initiated but jointly governed by youth-adult teams.
In our project, this simple graphic and associated degrees of youth participation galvanized reflection and discussion, causing all of the producers to realize that they were operating at the low end of the ladder. The ladder metaphor reinforced that you can start anywhere and take small steps to make big improvements. It likewise gave producers a concrete vision for the level they wanted to reach and helped them generate strategies for how to get there. We made it clear that while it is ideal to work at the top of the ladder, the level of youth participation will vary depending on resources, skills, and program goals.
Give Media Professionals the Chance to Become Youth Media Advocates. Most mainstream media makers working on youth-oriented programs have a genuine interest in young people’s needs and growth. What they don’t always have is a mindset that views youth as capable production partners. It takes recurring positive interactions over time to shift this mindset. Fold into projects repeated opportunities for youth and adults to try new things, learn from one another, and work as a team—such as the intergenerational production activities, collaborative radio making in the community, and feedback sessions we piloted in our project. Set up these interactions in ways that give adults the chance to get to get to know the youth as individuals, rather than as people who are many years younger.
For example, do warm up exercises where small youth-adult groups spend time talking about shared experiences—what is/was going to high school like, relationships with parents or siblings, career aspirations, hobbies. Facilitate training exercises, like learning how to conduct interviews, where youth and adults have a chance to ask questions about each other’s struggles and achievements. And make sure adults are present at key moments in the production process so that they can experience first-hand the powerful impact media-making has on young people. For example, arrange for adults to be with youth after their field recording or when radio programs go on air. When adult professionals witness the intense excitement, pride, and hope that media making generates in young people, they’ll advocate for participatory youth media with their colleagues and managers which, in turn, contributes to building the youth media movement.
A Final Word
While Ethiopia’s media landscape might seem like a world away from what many of us deal with as youth educators, the reality is that in most countries young people are not seen as equal participants in civil society. Negative stereotypes and assumptions of youth perpetuate the challenge of fostering youth leadership and civic engagement. Media continues to be one of the best ways for young people to insert their voices in decision-making processes that affect them and their communities. But enabling their voice to be heard means putting energy into training adult media professionals to become youth media advocates through building youth-adult collaborations to make it work.
jesikah maria ross is the Training Coordinator of UNICEF/RNTC Participatory Radio Project. She is an educator, media maker, and community development practitioner. She works with schools, non-governmental organizations, and social action groups to create participatory media projects that generate critical literacy, civic engagement, and social change.
Esther Obdam is the Project Coordinator of the Radio Netherlands Training Centre. She is a development practitioner with over 10 years of experience working on issues of child rights and children and young people’s participation, including participation in the media. RNTC is a centre of excellence in the field of media, education, and development.

[1] In 2005 the country opened up the possibility for community media, granting three broadcast licenses to nonstate-run stations.
[2] The project took place from November 2006 to May 2007 and involved youth and radiomakers from three distinct regions–Amhara, Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region.

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