HAMNET Report 18th February 2024

As we celebrated World Radio Day this week, themediaonline.co.za reported that radio is thriving across Africa. Exact figures are difficult to come by because audience research differs across countries. But studies estimate radio listenership to be between 60% and 80% of the continent’s population of 1.4 billion,according to a group of researchers from the University of the Western Cape, and the Universities of Mauritius, Nairobi, Indiana, Namibia, and the Ghana Institute of Journalism.

In contrast to many western countries, where there has been a shift towards streaming and podcasts, traditional radio continues to be widely embraced in Africa. Because of poor literacy levels and uneven access to the internet and technological infrastructure, old-fashioned radio remains a reliable and inclusive medium.

This year’s celebration of the 100-plus years of radio offered the researchers an opportunity, as African media scholars, to reflect on the historical significance, cultural relevance, political power and social impact of the medium on the continent. In their report, they homed in on examples from the regions they studied to demonstrate this rich history.

In early years, radio in Africa served colonial interests, and allowed Europeans in their colonies to connect to home, their culture and their languages.

In the early 1920s amateur radio enthusiasts had already begun tinkering with the technology. The first official broadcast seems to have been on 18 December 1923 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Western and eastern African countries were quick to follow. Colonial powers such as the UK and France upped their radio transmission efforts after the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The 1940s were marked by the introduction of indigenous language broadcasts by colonial powers wanting to influence public opinion and garner support for their war effort. While the British broadcast to Africa in some African languages, France broadcast only in French.

This laid the groundwork for future developments. After the war, the British officially adopted a policy of extending broadcasting services across most of its African colonies.

The 1950s saw the expansion and transformation of radio in Africa. Radio stations across British, French and Belgian colonies rapidly increased as people under colonial rule increased their efforts to achieve independence.

From the late 1940s to the early 1960s the number of radio-receiving sets increased fivefold, from 90 sets per thousand people in Africa to 450.

In some respects the 1960s was a golden era for African radio. A wave of independence movements birthed new nations as radio technology was becoming more affordable.

Many newly independent countries established national broadcasting services. This expanded the reach of radio and the opportunity to embrace local languages, music and cultural programming.

These days, digital convergence is reshaping radio consumption, blurring audience patterns.

This isn’t happening uniformly across the continent. Digital platforms face challenges, such as the digital divide and economic inequality.

Radio’s influence is likely to endure, with podcasts complementing rather than replacing traditional broadcasts. A 2022 survey across 34 African countries found radio was “overwhelmingly the most common source for news”. This is a testament to its enduring influence and unique ability to connect with diverse audiences – even a century after its introduction.

Thank you to themediaonline for this summary of their article.

Associate Professor Nathaniel Frissell of the University of Scranton’s Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering is a well-known radio amateur in America, with call sign W2NAF. He has built a science of using amateur radio to study propagation and ionospheric characteristics, and has drawn a large cohort of amateurs into the studies.

In April this year, a large portion of the central USA will experience a total solar eclipse, and Frissell has created a set of interesting studies to determine the effect of the eclipse on our atmosphere, and on our communications and on natural science. The studies consist of 4 fields.

Chron.com news says that amateur radio citizen scientists will be focused on listening to the eclipse rather than watching it. In Earth’s ionosphere, the upper region of our planet’s atmosphere, the Sun’s energy knocks out electrons from atoms, making the region electrically charged, or ionized. This helps radio transmissions travel long distances. However, once the Sun gets blocked out by the Moon during the eclipse, those communications will be affected. 

Radio amateurs making as many contacts as they can during the eclipse will test the strength of radio signals to observe how the ionosphere changes. The studies should lead to a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun, the ionosphere, and radio wave propagation. That research should benefit hams, professional broadcasters, satellite operators and many other users of radio spectrum.

In a second study, eclipse viewers on or near the path of totality can help scientists map out the Sun using nothing but their smartphone camera. Photos of the solar eclipse uploaded to the database of an app called SunSketcher, which was developed by students at Western Kentucky University, will be analysed to allow scientists to sketch out the true shape of our nearest star. Doing so will help study flows in the solar interior since material flowing within the star is what alters its shape. The project also aims to gather more information about the Sun’s gravitational effects on the planets. 

Thirdly, crowdsourced images of the total solar eclipse will be stitched together to create a film of the once-in-a-lifetime event. The NASA funded Eclipse Megamovie 2024 seeks to “discover the secrets of solar jets and plumes,” according to its description. These solar phenomena tend to disappear or change as they form on the Sun and move out in solar wind. Photographs taken by volunteers will be used to identify solar jets as they leave the Sun’s surface and solar plumes as they grow and develop.

The movie is a sequel to Eclipse Megamovie 2017, in which citizen scientists reportedly submitted tens of thousands of photos of the last solar eclipse visible in the U.S. Their work aided studies of the Sun’s corona, which can only be studied during total solar eclipses. 

And fourthly, the NASA-funded Eclipse Soundscapes Project will study how solar eclipses affect life on Earth, revisiting research from the 1930s that observed the effects the sky’s sudden darkening during the day had on wildlife behaviour. During the upcoming total eclipse, experts will collect audio recorded by citizen scientists on or near the path of totality to analyse the affects disruptions in light have on circadian rhythms and ecosystems. 

So there is plenty to study, and lots to gain from observing the effect of the eclipse on our earth. What a pity very little of the research can be done from South Africa. We can of course attempt to make DX contacts during eclipse time, and aid studies of the potential collapse of the ionosphere during totality, but that’s about it.

This is Dave Reece ZS1DFR reporting for HAMNET in South Africa.