Today, Media for Development is a leading social media-innovations company, based in East London, near the newly-defined area called ‘Tech City’.
We are a team of dedicated media professionals who believe that the creative power of media can be applied to finding solutions to some of society’s more intractable problems.
We manage radio and TV stations in prisons which offer people new skills and opportunities to change their lives for the better, community film projects which encourage people to think about themselves in more positive ways, and online digital platforms which get young people talking to each other and working out how best to handle life’s everyday problems. We’re pragmatic too, with an in-house film production company which competes with the best of them and earns us some very good income, and we’ll shortly be launching Europe’s first social enterprise that develops apps for smart-phones. So how did we get to this point?
It began with the mix of cricket and a former Jamaican Prime Minister.
In 1994, I was living and working in South Africa as a freelance broadcaster, filing reports and short documentary pieces for different international networks. It was the year of South Africa’s historic first democratic elections and for the election month of April 1994 I was reporting for the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation which allowed me access to the Head of the Commonwealth Election Monitoring Team, Michael Manley, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica.
The only interview I secured with him wasn’t about the elections at all but about the renowned West Indian cricketer, Brian Lara. Once we’d covered the cricket – about which I know nothing at all – we moved on to the possible impact of community radio in Africa. The imminent prospect of the liberalisation of the airwaves in sub-Saharan Africa offered new opportunities, most particularly for isolated communities across the continent that had never had a voice before- something Michael Manley felt very passionately about. We concocted there and then a plan for a new series of programmes, funded by the Commonwealth Secretariat, which would allow people “on the ground” to shape the programme agenda and speak out about issues that were relevant to them. It was a modest start – pulled together on an equally modest budget – but it provided me with the networks, and more crucially the insight into how broadcast material generated from the “bottom up” not only made for more stimulating and relevant content for listeners, but how the process itself could offer individuals new skills and confidence. So at the end of 1994, Radio for Development was established to respond to the new opportunities and challenges that a rapidly changing media landscape in sub-Saharan Africa offered.
Our first big break came the following year when the UK Department for International Development recognised the potential value of using media as a way of engaging one particularly hard-to-reach group: rural women. The project we developed was in support of rural women in Zimbabwe and South Africa to help them realise their own potential in creating income-generating activities and small businesses.
To achieve this, we built the capacity of local small business support organisations by developing vernacular language materials which could be used for teaching new business skills, including the production of a radio soap opera. The successful, underlying principles of this project – strong local partnerships which help us to reach the communities, inform the project design and content, and sustain the activities beyond the funded period – were then carried through to all of our international development work. To date, we’ve worked in over 30 different countries worldwide, across multiple development sectors, and supported by private foundations, inter-governmental agencies, and corporate funders.
During the ten years when our work was completely focused in the developing world, I often wondered how applicable our approach would be within the UK, most particularly with communities similarly isolated by geography or higher rates of illiteracy. In 2003, we were given the opportunity to find out with the launch of Radio Wanno. Based inside Europe’s largest prison, HMP Wandsworth in south London, our brief was to use media to support disaffected learners back into the world of education and training, and into employment on release. Our approach – documented here – was an overwhelming success with students not only far exceeding the national pass rate for the exams which the course required them to take, but also producing audio content for broadcast within the prison of an outstanding quality (one programme was nominated in 2011 for a Sony Radio Academy Award).
Today we’re working across multiple media platforms (reflected in the launch of Media for Development in 2005), and I’m supported by a team who continue to push the boundaries of innovation and concept. Although the geographical balance of our work has shifted – we currently undertake more work in the UK than we do internationally – we hold true to the original community-focused, partnership-based approach. I think Michael Manley would approve.