Internet Enabled Radio in Mali

I’m no longer working with Geekcorps, but I remain a passionate fan and supporter of the work geeky volunteers are doing around the world. One of my favorite ongoing projects is the one Ian Howard, coordinateur de programme, geekcorps Mali (”les volontaires de l’informatique”) is overseeing in Bamako, Mali.

Community radio is a tremendously important medium in Mali. It’s one of the best ways for people in rural areas, especially non-literate people, to get information about local and national affairs, as well as about health and agricultural issues. There are hundreds of stations in the nation – some broadcast 24/7, others a few hours a day when power is available.

One of the huge challenges radio stations face is providing content for their listeners. It’s hard to pick up the New York Times in Timbuktu, or even subscribe to the AP Newswire. So radio content is often limited to pirated cassette tapes and news the broadcasters are able to gather on their own.

Providing Internet access to radio stations would allow broadcasters to report national and world news to their communities. It would also allow programming from one radio station to be shared over the ‘net and broadcast by other Malian stations. Finally, it would give Malians living abroad the chance to hear about the events in their home communities.

The challenge? Lots of these stations are way, way off the grid, powered by solar or generators. And phone lines are unavailable, unreliable and impossibly expensive. So Ian and crew are putting together a plan based around low-end computers, open source software and long distance WiFi links. Here’s an update Ian sent last night to the global team (literally – he’s got help from everywhere from Denmark to Vanuatu…) helping him out:

We now have a computer installed in a radio station! Radio Guintan

Magnambougou, in Bamako, Mali.

That doesn’t seem like a great effort, but really it is.

Pierre and Rian have been working diligently since their arrival, with

great support from our virtual team to prepare a system for use in a

radio station. This system, whose components were back-packed-in by the

three of us is a Pentium 2, with 128 MB of RAM running Mandrake LINUX.

The system has been designed to have a simple interface (using XFCE)

that uses a minimum of resources, which it does. The computer works

beautifully considering that it is only a P2 with 128MB of RAM — good

work!

After a bit of a struggle to find a microphone and some power cables, we

hooked up an old monitor that was at the station and the computer came

to life.

A large group from the radio station soon gathered as Rian and I gave a

demonstration. We briefly demonstrated XMMS for playing audio files,

grip for putting a CD onto the hard disc (and converting to ogg if

desired), gnome-toast for burning cds, Firebird for web browsing and

email (not available yet) and the file manager.

Then we started Audacity, the multi-channel audio editing program. Until

late last week little interest in a studio editing system was shown.

Internet, as marketed on the lips of all the young here had been their

only interest. After a rally held by Pierre last week their

understanding and thereafter interest grew markedly. Rian demonstrated

how to record from a mini disc player into Audacity, a microphone and

then how import an audio file. We quickly pieced together a recording

and saved it to disk. The audience of radio station ‘animateurs’ (French

for radio station programmer/DJ) were impressed and quickly took the

helm trying it for themselves.

We left the computer for them to continue to play with and will return

this coming week to spend more time with them teaching them how to use

this computer. In a few weeks we will install a connection to the

Internet, first by telephone and then by wireless to test those

technology solutions that we are developing.

Congrats Ian, Pierre and Rian – it’s an important first step and I can’t wait for the day I can hear Malian radio over the Internet… :-)

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