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African and Arab media audiences conference

April 23, 2009

It’s a long way from the cybercafes of Damascus to the Ghanain televangelists of Aurora, Colorado and the breadth and diversity of the recent African and Arab media audiences conference spanned this vast range with aplomb.

The University of Westminster tops the UK league table for media studies research in the latest Research Assessment Exercise, so it is no surprise the conference attracted high-calibre researchers. They have a common cause: all are grappling with the problem of audiences that are shrinking yet becoming more specialized and harder to please, as advertising revenues tare evaporating.

Uganda-based George Lugalumbi of Makerere University discussed the power of talk radio to promote what he called ‘deliberative democracy’ though live interactive debates with policy-makers and opinion-formers in the studio. His paper profiles the audience and shows how participation creates a set of values that are needed for consensus. This paper is especially fascinating for me since I am embarking on a new radio project called Talking Africa, with journalist Michael Decker (formerly of Joy FM in Accra and Colourful Radio). It aims to reach the African diaspora in the UK and promote discussion around politics and development issues as well as celebrating music and culture.

Pirate radio’s pivotal role in ending apartheid in South Africa is the subject of Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoath’s paper, recalling the days when the ANC’s Radio Freedom was banned. He painted a vivid picture of groups of black South Africans huddling out of sight around transistor radios where even at low volume the distinctive signature tune (a crackle of AK47 gunfire and the words ‘Amandla! Hamba Kahle Mkhonto’) heralded a message of hope.


Of course one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist: there was indignation amongst the Arab delegates when German researcher Carola Richter of the University of Erfurt presented the results of her audience research on the Muslim Brotherhood’s websites. The Muslim Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt and not allowed to publish a newspaper but the website  is tolerated. The presentation showed an impressive set of data from users in different socio-economic groups ranging from Cairo taxi drivers to businessmen and university students, and claiming a strong correlation between logging on to this website and engaging in political activities. Egyptians and Arab researchers were skeptical – how could a western woman, even with fluent Arabic, really gauge the role of a website in creating support for Islamism during a taxi ride? (Answer: it was a series of long taxi rides with different drivers). How could she get a focus group on the university campus, where the authorities would not allow such as thing? (Answer: by getting permission to use the university library for academic research and then distributing questionnaire informally amongst willing groups of students). I thought this showed great resourcefulness but the feeling amongst colleagues from Egypt was that she had gone to a great deal of unnecessary effort to prove something that was already known.


Another research method that raised eyebrows was the use of plastic Lego bricks to enable British teenagers to build models depicting their identity and show how their media use reinforced their tastes and attitudes. This was in the opening presentation by the University of Westminster’s David Gauntlett, and he is also using ‘identity boxes’ modeled from art and craft material, in a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Equally innovative is UoW TV lecturer Jane Thorburn’s use of docu-soap to engage a West African audience in the UK. Her presentation of the drama ‘The Family Legacy’ showed how a Nollywood-style TV show can carry vital health messages (in this case about the need for sickle-cell trait screening) in a way that is not heavy-handed or patronizing.

Henne Brunning spoke of the high ‘infant mortality’ of newspaper start-ups in Mozambique where, he argued, even a tiny elite readership justified their existence. This is because the whole population needs to feel that there are reporters who will hold to account the politicians and big businesses, a need that has been felt more acutely since the assassination in 2000 of campaigning journalist Carlos Cardoso who had been investigating the privatization of banks.

BBC Hausa

No international media conference would be complete without somebody having a go at the BBC, and this time it was the corporation’s role in Northern Nigeria. Paradoxically the research indicated that the BBC’s Hausa broadcasts were rated as the most credible of all news broadcasts available in the region, yet held in the lowest esteem! As in the UK, it seems Auntie is valued as an Aunt Sally to be pelted as the medium takes the blame for the message.

By the end of the two-day conference I felt I had travelled across the continent and realized that my stereotyped ideas about media audiences in the Arab and African regions were simplistic and out of date. The networking opportunities provided great arguments – ‘Should a media celebrity such as Madonna be allowed to adopt another orphan from Malawi?’ ‘How can western-style focus groups get Arab listeners to say what they really think, when there is no culture of public criticism?’ ‘How can media researchers get funding in the economic downturn?’ These were just some of the questions tackled in a lively atmosphere buzzing with ideas and I am sure that the debates will continue amongst new colleagues and in fresh research collaborations.

by Jane Whyatt

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