What is World Radio Day and how can audiences and broadcasters get involved? 

Tuesday the 13th February is UNESCO World Radio Day (WRD), an event that has run annually since 2012. This year’s celebration will focus on the theme “Radio and Sport” and how the effective broadcast of sports content can help to strengthen diversity, inequality, peace and development around the globe.

But to what extent can radio coverage of sports help to further these goals and what challenges lie in the way? PMA’s Kristian Porter spoke to UNESCO’s Media Development and Society Chief, Mirta Lourenco, to find out more.

KP | Hi Mirta, thanks for joining us,

Mirta, as Chief of UNESCO’s Media Development and Society section, you’ve been at the forefront of these events, can you explain to us what World Radio Day is and why it has been organised?

ML | WRD is a day to celebrate radio and all the services radio has provided for humanity. Radio is a fantastic means of communication that reaches even the most remote populations that people can interact with irrespective of educational levels and rival media platforms.

So every WRD we try to both celebrate radio and highlight different issues where radio is a pioneer or where radio can develop a bit more – these are celebrations with a message.

So you see radio as a universally accessible format with a wide reach, is that why your focus this year is on sport?

 Yes exactly, but also the theme is, in a way, “sports and broadcasting” because we have many sporting events this year that have the ability to unite hearts and minds of people –the Winter Olympics, FIFA World Cup, Sumo championship and so on – so we thought it’s a year in which the media is already interested in sports so let’s bring them closer together. Both are popular – people love radio, people love sports.

WRD is a day to celebrate radio and all the services radio has provided for humanity.

That makes complete sense. It says on the WRD website that the theme is a means of bringing communities together, as a means to inspire participation and inclusion, especially regarding gender equality. Do you have a particular example where sports programmes or content have helped to improve or raise awareness about gender equality?

 Yes, well it’s not just raising awareness of gender equality but also being gender equal in sports broadcasting, I think this is the real challenge. For example: to have more women commentating sports. It’s as if having a woman commentating football or rugby on radio is less quality than if it was a man, and this is a stereotype we would like to break! You can be a woman and you can be an excellent commentator. If you go to our website you will see interviews with Barbadian sports commentator Donna Symonds and American sports commentator Christine Brennan, who is also an award winning columnist.

We have to dare to put women on radio commentating on sports. Television does feature more women but that’s because of image, where the camera focuses on the body, which is not what we want for gender equality. For radio it is more difficult, perhaps because it is only voice. We also need greater coverage of women’s championships and women’s matches – most sports radio coverage focusses on men’s sports, even when playing the same sports such as football or rugby, it will be less covered.

The theme is particularly apt with the recent revelations regarding pay gaps within broadcast organisations so this is a good opportunity, World Radio Day, to talk about the unequal situation in both broadcasting and sport.

 Absolutely, and the other aspect which is a bit pathetic, is that when journalists interview a female athlete, even if the athlete has won a gold medal, the questions will mostly be on her private life, her appearance – her coach will be congratulated, her husband, her boyfriend –  even today I heard a French radio interview with a female skiing athlete who didn’t speak the language so her boyfriend was interviewed instead. So we have these strange situations when it comes to women – it seldom happens, if not ever, that when a man wins a gold medal that he will be asked about his private life.

It’s completely ridiculous, I agree. Is there any way that radio stations can be more inclusive other than, say, employing more women or offering the same level of pay? Is there something else that UNESCO thinks radio stations can do?

 When it comes to inclusion we also think it’s important to include coverage of events that promote peace and development. There are many sports events and matches among refugee communities and refugees against local populations, and perhaps local radios could cover these events rather than just covering elite games. These events are closer to the population and there is as much fervour as there could be with an international championship.

The other thing worth covering is traditional sports and grassroots sports – these are sports that connect people with their cultural heritage and promote freedom of expression and diversity through cultural expression.

And do you see public media organisations as having a particular role in promoting traditional or local sports? Are they in a better position to cover local events?

 Absolutely, there are many good examples when it comes to covering traditional sports and sports to do with peace and gender equality. It is perhaps because public broadcasters haven’t got the same pressure as commercial and business groups or because they don’t have the same type of benchmarks or performance targets that commercial radio has. So perhaps that is why they can be more daring.

But there are examples of traditional sports that have been covered and become more widely popular. For example, podcasters in India began covering Kabaddi, a traditional contact sport. Everyone thought it would be a failure – and now it has become most popular, with a national league in cooperation with broadcasters and hope that coverage will reach hundreds of millions of people every week! It’s a question of daring!

You’re right, this is a great example of coverage that ties people to their heritage while introducing something new at the same time.

 Yes and if you think of the refugee team that participated in the 2016 Olympic Games, this was a powerful example that inspired millions of people around the world and put a human face on the refugee crisis!

Are there any examples of radio stations that have improved in their coverage of refugee games or diaspora groups since the Olympics? Has it improved?

Yes – a Syrian online radio station, Rozana Radio, covers matches organised by civil society as well as those by the government. So despite differing political opinions or tensions within a country, these are the type of initiatives that not only cover the sports performance but help to transmit the universal values of non-violence, solidarity, of tolerance. This radio station covers as much as possible regardless of who is playing.

These are the type of initiatives that not only cover the sports performance but help to transmit the universal values of non-violence, solidarity, of tolerance

And have any of the matches featured two opposing groups?

 So far there has not been a match that brings the two sides together but they are hopeful that this will happen. They also have female commentators!

Do you see any challenges to radio and its reach in the years ahead? Perhaps from technological change and digital transition – could it leave people behind?

 No, I think radio is the success story actually. Radio is the medium that has really taken advantage of new communication technologies. Radio today can be used in marginalised or remote places, where there is a lack of other connectivity. Radio today is also a podcast, a website, an app, a platform – so with a click of your mouse you can be listening to London, Nigeria or Barbados or… anywhere.

So rather than being left behind, you see radio as being truly adaptable – it’s a format that will keep on growing becoming more accessible?

 Yes and at the same time it still exists on transistor! In remote parts of Africa – UNESCO has projects in Tanzania, DRC, Rwanda and others – stations broadcast in local or indigenous languages, which are sometimes not available on national radio. So radio is still providing these services even to remote populations. We also have to remember that in times of crisis and emergency the media that continues to broadcast is radio!

We also have to remember that in times of crisis and emergency the media that continues to broadcast is radio!

What are you hoping to get out of World Radio Day?

 Two things: from the side of the radio stations and from the side of the audience.

We hope radio stations will organise broadcasts that showcase cultural sports or that they will hand the microphone to women broadcasters or that they will cover women and mixed sports or that they will celebrate by remembering historic sporting moments. But in general, I hope that WRD will help radio stations reflect on how they can strengthen diversity in sports broadcasting.

And from the side of the audience, that they have a very important interaction with their favourite radio stations, especially as this interaction becomes more fluid through the use of listeners clubs or the possibility of contacting radio stations through websites, letters to editors, ombudsperson and so on. So we call on audiences to use these channels to call on radio stations to cover more women’s sports: criticise radio stations when they interview female athletes or coaches and ask personal questions about life, children, their hairdresser and so on. Listeners can really help radio stations evolve and encourage them to cover diverse sporting events so that we don’t only receive coverage of elite sports and sports people.

Listeners can really help radio stations evolve and encourage them to cover diverse sporting events so that we don’t only receive coverage of elite sports and sports people.

This is certainly the next stage of radio, in a way, and developing public media into that where the public are able to participate more, especially as the technology changes and as accessibility grows. Are you saying that listeners should become more actively involved in radio?

 Yes, and call on radio stations to cover sports for peace and development, to cover traditional and grassroots games and to be more gender equal when it comes to covering female sports, athletes and coaches and even break the stereotypes we hear about women in sports.

Mirta, thank you for your time, it has been brilliant to talk and we look forward to World Radio Day. Will there be a follow up to the event?

 Yes – listeners can connect to www.unesco.org or www.worldradioday.org where they will find a range of interviews and articles about diversity and sports broadcasting, which are copyright free for broadcast and educational use.

Mirta, thank you for your time.

Broadcasters can head to the World Radio Days website for a range of promotional content and ideas on how best to celebrate.

Header Image: World Radio Day Hero Image. Credit: UNESCO