Broadcasting in Sierra Leone is Going Through an Evolution

Feb 32011

Let’s look at radio first. According to a “2010 Media Use Survey,” commissioned by Fondation Hirondelle and Cotton Tree News (CTN), the peak times for radio listening are between 6:00 and 7:30 a.m. and between 6:00 and 8:30 p.m. That’s no real surprise… and the most important, most reliable and most used source of information for Sierra Leoneans is the radio.

Other statistics from that same report, prepared by research consultant Graham Mytton, include:

  • Radio is listened to by 82% of Sierra Leoneans, 5% more than in 2008 (the last batch of statistics).

  • 86% of men and 78% of women are listeners; both figures have increased since 2008.

  • Radio listening is at the highest levels in Moyamba, Pujehun, Tonkolili and Kenema Districts. It is lowest in Koinadugu and Kailahun (where transmitters continue to have technical problems).

  • Well over half the radio audience did not go to school.

  • Most listening is at home. 75% of the listening audience have a radio set at home.

Unfortunately, the program development in radio has been bested by developments on the television side of broadcasting… an interesting and perhaps misdirected approach, but still, “we’re working on it,” as they say.

“Old” radio programs include the former flagship UN radio program, Teabreak, which airs at 9:00 a.m. and continues to host important news and current affairs issues. It’s probably the most listened-to radio program of the day.

Other programs include Nightline with DJ Bass, On the Spot, Salone Satellite, The Machine, Atunda Ayenda and several other local language programs. Nightline is an interesting mix of “youth programming” featuring local musicians and local issues. It runs from 11:00 p.m. through about 3:00 a.m. On The Spot and Salone Satellite are news programs that feature reports from the provinces… and “live to air” reporting from events and activities – usually government-related or NGO workshop oriented.

Television broadcast has seen the greatest change.

From Graham’s “Media Use Survey” we’ve learned a thing or two. Most TV viewing is in the evening. It peaks between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. That might not be news to most… but here’s what else we’ve learned about the “new” medium of SLBC TV.

  • 26% watch TV at least sometimes, an increase from 16% in 2008.

  • Viewing is highest in Freetown where 29% ever watch and lowest in Bonthe and Pujehun where less than 1% ever watch.

  • Most viewers watch TV in the homes of others or at community centers, bars or cafes. Only 9% of all viewers watch at home.

  • Most TV viewers have at least some education; even so, 39% of the total TV audience never went to school.

  • Only 26% of all TV viewers, 7% of all respondents, had seen TV on the day before the interview.

The new crop of TV shows include Tell it to Rachel, Chatroom with Ellen, National Encounter, U Sabi Dance (outside producer), and Sunday Night Variety Show. Now, we’re a long way from HBO, NBC or even Fox TV but it’s a start.

These new programs tend to focus on “gossip” or “congasa” (in Kreole) and are fairly popular. Tell it to Rachel recently featured in-studio guests talking about cheating partners, best friends, make-up tips and even a segment on domestic violence. It’s mostly “light fare” to be sure… but by all accounts via call-ins and text messages, this is what’s popular. Chatroom with Ellen is much the same… a female host interviews friends on topics such as online dating, best friends, relationships and so on. Both of these shows feature “the red couch,” in-studio interviews and call-ins. I can’t say this is the best of TV but again, “we’re trying.”

A new addition to the TV line-up is a program called National Encounter, which features in-studio guests hosted by the Head of Television, Sam Valcalcel. National Encounter is supposed to feature informed debate on issues of national importance… and it follows the same formula as others – studio guests and call-in opinions.

SLBC-TV retained several shows from previous incarnations of broadcasting including, Watin de Docta Say, a Kreole language show on health. It’s unfortunately another live, in-studio discussion program – with a doctor – hosted by the previous Head of Administration. A great deal is possible with this type of show and we’ll eventually get to the point where we actually go out to discuss health issues with people on the street.

SLBC journalists do get out and around and one of the TV shows that’s immensely popular is Viewfinder, a local language program that features news and information from the villages and towns across the country. The camera work is shaky and the sound is often inadequate but there’s a sense of “our country” in all episodes.

Still the reigning champion – from an informal survey – is the half hour program of birthdays and obituary announcements. These paid-for announcements seem to be at the heart of a lot of Sierra Leoneans. “It’s a way for us to learn about each other,” says one avid viewer. And, with such a strong familial connection or village connection between so many Freetownians, it’s a way of finding out what’s happening with family and friends.

As I say, we’re a long way off from real public service broadcasting… but “we’re trying” and experimentation seems to be the modus operandi for now. There’s no question we have a long way to go… and one day… we’ll get there.