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Grassroot Wavelengths: Highly Networked Grassroots Community Radio through a scalable digital platform

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New technology supports community radio in small rural communities

Radio is the lifeblood of culture, but can be expensive and administratively difficult. A new internet-based system addresses these problems.

Digital Economy

Local media, especially radio, help define and sustain remote communities and minority cultures. Due to commercial difficulties, such media are in decline in many parts of Europe. Consequences include the loss of local journalism and the homogenisation of culture. Many rural communities in Europe only receive centralised radio that is poorly interactive and indifferent to local issues. Community radio, organised by local volunteers, offers an alternative way of providing local news and representation. But community organisations face many financial, technical and legislative difficulties establishing local radio stations. The technical challenges can be considerable, since radio stations require costly studio facilities and powerful transmitters. Although internet radio partially solves these problems, many parts of Europe still have limited internet or mobile coverage. The EU-funded GrassrootWavelengths project developed an effective and affordable alternative to conventional radio. The concept allows for studio-less production and broadcast of FM radio and eliminates much of the expensive equipment associated with commercial radio stations. The project adapted, refined and brought together many cloud-based technologies, explored and fostered local communities’ adoption of them, and devised models for the technologies’ eventual introduction across Europe.

Cloud-based radio production

The project is based on the RootIO system, a set of open hardware and software technologies designed for creation and transmission of radio programming without a physical studio. Project researchers updated RootIO to comply with EU broadcasting standards, and tailored it to address the needs of local groups. RootIO has two major components. One part is a web platform that allows amateur producers to create their own radio content – either live or pre-recorded – and to schedule broadcasting from a local FM station. Since a studio is unnecessary, producers can work from anywhere. RootIO also includes a cloud-data system, which sends digital audio from the web platform to a low-power FM radio transmitter. Listeners can use any normal FM-radio receiver. They may also listen via internet live-streaming, and interact with the station using the web application.

Community benefits shown

Project researchers trialled the system at seven rural locations in Ireland, Portugal and Romania. These trials demonstrated the benefits of local radio programming to communities too small to be served by a radio station. The addition of local stations brought citizens more information about their own communities. This introduced local content, including news and announcements – particularly health advice programmes, which proved invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic –, oral history, and much more. “This type of radio brings people closer,” says John McCarthy, one of the project coordinators, “because any individual can be simultaneously a broadcaster and/or listener, which puts people back at the centre of radio.” The team also created a sophisticated and realistic-sounding text-to-speech (TTS) system, which allows the automated reading of online content. Among many potential uses, this could automate time-consuming broadcasting tasks, such as emergency alerts, leaving producers free for content development. GrassrootWavelengths demonstrated a social need, and market, for the concept. The new platform greatly simplifies the once technical complexity of radio production, making it cheaply and easily available to remote or minority communities.

Keywords

GrassrootWavelengths, community, radio, RootIO, smartphone, text-to-speech, TTS, FM

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