This article celebrates World Radio Day, 13 February 2015.
Radio – not internet or television – hits the widest audience in the world. It is a low cost yet powerful communication medium, capable of reaching even the most remote, isolated and vulnerable people. It has infiltrated closed societies, like the USSR and Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and subverted governments that limit freedom of information as a means of preserving their power. In the case of North Korea, radio is the only non-regime source of real-time information and news available across the whole country. A prohibition on non-state radio has made created the need to innovate. Citizens tamper with existing radios to receive foreign signals, smuggle in Chinese radios and craft their own out of wood and basic electronics.
World Radio Day was founded in 2013 to celebrate radio and to recognize its unique and contemporary power to bring together people from every corner of the globe. Voice radio broadcasting began over a century ago with a Christmas concert broadcast by Reginald Fessenden on December 24, 1906. Ships across the Atlantic seaboard were shocked to hear music and voices amidst the usual Morse code dots and dashes. However, it was not until 1920 that the commercial potential was recognized, and the first radio news program was broadcast by the station 8MK (now WWJ) out of Detroit, Michigan. Currently, there are more than 2.4 billion radio receivers and over 51,000 radio stations, with a 28% average annual growth in online radio revenue from 2006-2013. While radio is continually recognised for its value despite the technological changes of the contemporary world, its potential to help marginalized groups has often been underestimated.
North Korea ranks 179 of 180 on the World Press Freedom Index, which shows the negative impact of conflict and abusive interpretations of national security on freedom of information. The index’s lowest ranking countries – Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea – “continue to be news and information black holes and living hells for the journalists who inhabit them.” North Korea is also among 10 countries to receive the worst possible rating in all categories in Freedom in the World, the oldest and most authoritative report of democracy and human rights. When free access to information is banned and harsh punishments are meted out against citizens who access foreign media, breaking free from government propaganda requires an innovative approach.
Radios are allowed in North Korea, but only those that are tuned to the government propaganda stations. It is illegal to own a tunable radio. The regime prioritizes its survival over all else, employing a brutally repressive system of control to deny the basic rights of free speech, free movement, and freedom of information. Extreme measures are employed to ensure compliance, including public executions, torture, political prison camps and collective punishment. But the people are breaking away from regime and transforming North Korea from the bottom up, using unofficial markets to obtain goods outside the government’s control and learning new perspectives and possibilities.
For those who live away from the border regions, a homemade radio replaces smuggled Chinese models. Underground radio-makers are taking an enormous risk to break through the government ideology, as simply listening to foreign radio is a crime against the state.
NK News obtained a homemade radio smuggled into South Korea by North Korean defectors, who purchased it in 2009. While old-fashioned in appearance, the device is simple to turn on and operate. It does have its limitations: it must be connected to an external signal amplifier to catch a strong signal, and the lack of a display screen makes finding channels an exercise in patience and dexterity. However, it is capable of intercepting broadcasts from across Asia.
There are an increasing number of stations available, created by foreign governments and North Korean defectors, such as Voice of America, Daily NK, Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Chosun, Open Radio for North Korea, and North Korea Reform Radio. The information broadcast by the stations varies from encouraging the development of independent opinion within the country to providing vital, up-to-date information on the economy, commodity prices, and international events and politics.
According to Sokeel Park, Director of Research and Strategy at Liberty in North Korea, not only does radio help the North Korean people to hear today’s news today and to understand the outside world, but the listeners then relay the information to those they trust, a significant act of shared disobedience. It is one of the mediums helping to change North Korean society at the grassroots level and combat the disempowering influence of government control.
If radio can be harnessed for social change in even the most oppressive of countries, then there is infinite potential for its innovative application in other situations. Radio is far from being an obsolete technology.
Join us in celebrating World Radio Day on February 13th.