Harnessing the Power of Radio in Times of Crisis

Following Liberia’s devastating civil war, two organisations, Mercy Corps and IREX, helped establish and strengthen community radio stations across the country. After the crisis these were flagship projects, aiming to give communities greater voice in development and peacebuilding.

Many of these stations again partnered with the two organizations under the Ebola Community Action Platform (ECAP), funded by USAID, which was Liberia’s largest consortium of organizations working on the Ebola response. 

Building trust through community radio partnerships

At the start of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, there was significant suspicion and mistrust of Government health information.  Myths and conspiracy theories abounded, with many denying the existence of Ebola. 

Aid workers were blamed for bringing the virus to Liberia; treatment units were feared as sources of transmission and many hid their sick and their dead from the authorities, which contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. It was a terrifying time across the country.

To rapidly build trust, the ECAP program partnered with known local organizations, so that messages and information from the Ministry of Health could be better shared and received within the communities. Through IREX, this included partnerships with 27 community radio stations, which produced and aired dramas, talk-shows and jingles relating to Ebola.

Localizing content increases legitimacy of health information 

This localized approach proved critical to turn the tide of the virus, and bring communities onboard with Ebola preventive practices and treatment. It also strengthened the capacity of local media to share critical public health information.

“In the past partners typically produced messages in the capital and we simply aired those messages. The unique thing about ECAP was that it allowed community radio partners to air and produce our own content, in our own languages, and communities themselves were involved in its production,’ says Zinnah Cassel, Station Manager of Radio Bomi.

“We used opinion leaders, community leaders, youth, elders and women and religious leaders. We asked Survivors to share their stories and to tell the people about the importance of living by the preventive measures. Through this approach, people became receptive to the information they received on the Ebola virus.”

Achieving scale in a rapidly evolving emergency

Recent research conducted by Mercy Corps finds that community radio is not only the most prevalent but also the most trusted media in Liberia.

The fact that radio is seen as the most significant source of news and information in Liberia is not surprising: illiteracy rates are high, especially in rural areas, and infrastructure challenging. However the specific importance of community radio is revealing.  

In the survey, 7 in 10 people said they prefer community radio to national radio, attributing this to the availability of locally relevant news and information, as well as the use of local dialects. Roughly 80% of respondents say that community radio stations effectively cover local issues and allow people to engage in broader social discussions. 

We know too that the community-centered approach has been effective. 970,000 people heard our health messages on the radio during three months of our latest campaign and over 90 percent of these respondents said that their understanding on targeted health issues increased as a result.

These are remarkable achievements that show the important role community radio stations can play in building awareness and cohesion, during a crisis, recovery and beyond. This is why Mercy Corps, together with IREX, has invested heavily in local radio through ECAP 2, the second phase of its program, which aims to rebuild trust in the health system following Ebola.