Copyright: Ian D. Richardson Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
(First published in the Daily Telegraph, London, July 26, 1997)
It is reasonable to assume that if you were one of the 160 million people living in the 20 or so countries of Francophone Africa you would get most of your news from a dreary state-controlled local radio network or from Radio France International (RFI).
But hang on a minute, didn't that new local radio station you just tuned into begin its news bulletin with the words "Ici BBC Afrique"?
Yes, it's the BBC World Service in French - and being heard in studio-quality FM, rather than the notorious crackle-and-fade shortwave frequencies.
The BBC, to put it in the popular English vernacular, is "on a roll" with its French for Africa service. And this is bad news for RFI and not a little disappointing for the Quai D'orsay, headquarters of the French Foreign Ministry.
Ironically, the French are indirectly but substantially responsible for creating this opportunity for the BBC by insisting that aid for West African countries be linked to a programme of democratisation.
Partly because of this and partly because of the availability of cheap new broadcasting technology, French-speaking African countries began to deregulate their broadcasting services to allow local commercial FM stations and foreign broadcasters to open up operations.
And they have looked to London as much as Paris to help them fill the frequencies.
The BBC World Service, historically a minority French-language broadcaster to the region, with audiences ranging from as little as 1% to about 15%, was quick to grab these opportunities.
In 1994, the first BBC FM relay station was set up in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast.
Almost overnight, BBC Afrique's regular audience in Abidjan more than doubled to 44% of the city's adult population. This put the BBC neck-and-neck with RFI and just five percentage points behind Africa No 1, a commercial music station based in Gabon.
Since then, two other West African countries have allowed the BBC to set up FM relay stations: in Brazzaville in the Congo and most recently in Dakar in Senegal.
At the official opening of the Dakar relay last month [June 23], the BBC World Service's Managing-Director, Sam Younger, described FM as "a key element in the BBC's strategy for an increased presence on the African continent".
This strategy works on two levels: using relay stations, which are owned by the BBC and transmit a continuous stream of World Service programmes, and local rebroadcasters, who "cherry pick" the BBC programmes for inclusion in their own schedules.
Though the number of relay stations is still small, the number of rebroadcasters - or partners, as the BBC prefers to call them - has reached double figures and is steadily climbing.
For the World Service, ever anxious to convince its Foreign Office paymasters that the British taxpayers money is well spent, FM broadcasting provides extraordinarily good value and a powerful means of spreading British influence abroad.
Most of the African rebroadcasters are small-time private operators, but anecdotal evidence suggests their lively and loose style is attracting large audiences for the BBC programmes, which are a mix of news and African music.
Typically, a rebroadcaster operates from a ramshackle building with just one or two studios, a sound mixer and some CD players - plus, of course, a satellite dish to pull down the BBC Afrique signal.
"They are really like community stations," says Michel Lobelle, BBC World Service's Rebroadcasting Manager for Africa.
"They have lots of volunteers and lots of enthusiasm, and in addition to our programmes, they play music and have lively discussion programmes that can go on for hours.
"Radio is still the medium of Africa because radios can be run on batteries, and there are also the clockwork radios that recently came on the market.
"TV is still mostly limited to the well-off minority in big cities with an electricity supply," Lobell said.
While FM may seem the frequency of the moment, the World Service's Regional Head for Africa, Barry Langridge, stresses that the BBC's shortwave signal will be around for many years to come as the backbone of the World Service's programme distribution.
But the problem with shortwave signals is that they are expensive to transmit and have to be bounced off the ionosphere, which floats up and down in space as the sun circles earth.
Consequently, listeners often have to keep switching frequencies to find the strongest signal.
FM, on the other hand, is the cheapest form of broadcasting currently available and provides a crisp, firm signal over a radius of anything up to 30 miles from a transmitter on top of a hill or high building.
"FM is wonderful because it is bringing us a huge new audience for a very small financial outlay, but I have to admit that FM rebroadcasting is also a dangerous game," said Langridge.
"With relays and rebroadcasters, there is always the risk of the local transmitters being cut off just when our programmes are most needed by the audience.
"This is particularly so during wars or periods of civil or political turmoil," he said.
The clearest confirmation of Langridge's fears has come with the recent mysterious disappearance of the signal from the Brazzaville relay during the recent fighting there.
The signal is now back and although Michel Lobelle has yet to establish the cause of the break in transmission, he says the explanation is not necessarily sinister.
"There's a war going on, and it could simply be that there was no fuel for the electricity generator."
Another example of the perils of rebroadcasting comes from Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, where The Voice of the Handicapped re-broadcasts the BBC for 12 hours a day.
During the recent coup there, one of the station's DJs was shot at, and the station had a visit from three sinister men implausibly claiming to be officials who'd come to take the manager "to see the Minister".
The manager, a blind man, hid under a desk in the studio control room until his unwanted visitors gave up and left.
Despite such problems, Barry Langridge says there is plenty of evidence that once the BBC is established on an FM frequency in Africa, governments are reluctant to interfere with the transmissions.
Langridge is anxious not to unduly upset his friendly rivals at RFI, so chooses his words carefully when asked why so many listeners in Francophone Africa should wish to get their French-language news from a British station.
He likes to think it's because his programmes are better, but admits to what could also be a key factor: a sense of disenchantment with French foreign policy and its effects on Africa.
A further element appears to be the fact that the World Service transmissions to Francophone Africa include some programmes in English, as well as English lessons.
"We are finding that many people in the region are turning away from France and the French language and want to learn English because it considerably improves their job prospects and can be used just about anywhere in the world," Langridge said.