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Innovative Radio Talk Shows Give Ugandans a Public Voice

A combination of radio talk shows and SMS (text messaging) technology is seeking to empower Ugandan citizens to hold their public servants accountable for the country's problems.

Uganda’s lively radio shows have always tried to get people talking about the issues of the day. But now, an innovative new pairing of radio and SMS technology is allowing Ugandans to voice their opinions in a way that was never possible before.

Every Thursday, listeners of a popular radio breakfast show in Kampala are asked a question about some aspect of public life. The questions probe issues like public transportation, the state of health care, even the performance of individual politicians.

Hundreds of listeners can respond by sending in a free SMS text message to the show, and visual representations of the answers are put together as the texts start rolling in. The software that makes this possible is called Trac FM.

“For instance, if we have a question like, ‘Where is the worst street in your city?’ Then people send in the name of the street, and the presenter gets an overview on a map and on bar charts where people think is the worst road, and he discusses these issues during his talk show," said Wouter Dijkstra, a Dutchman living in Kampala who developed Trac FM. He got the idea three years ago while researching new media in Uganda.

“During the research I went to several places to see where this interaction between government and civilians is most possible. You see that a lot of radio feedback is used by inviting politicians or policymakers over to radio stations, and people who are allowed to phone in. This is where I saw there was a lot of energy for dialogue," he said.

Trac FM is currently being used by two radio stations, one based in Kampala and one in northern Uganda. The project is run as an NGO, and access to the software is free to radio stations who want it.

Dijkstra says that thanks to widespread use of both radios and mobile phones, even in villages, this method of opinion polling gives a voice to ordinary Ugandans who have no other way of speaking out. “In Uganda you do have relatively free media, but for the ordinary person they tend to not really get involved in the public debate about these kinds of issues, especially issues of service delivery. People complain, but they don’t have a channel to really reach the people who can make a change," he said.

Last week, Kampala listeners weighed in on the subject of electricity bills - a timely topic in a country where the cost of power has just spiked, and extended power cuts have recently caused riots.

Seanice Kacungira, one of the show’s hosts, says that what makes Trac FM so successful is that it is easy and free for anyone to get involved in public debate. “I think the fact that it’s free is very important, so people feel like they can always get involved and it doesn’t cost them anything, which is very important right now in tough economic times. So it helps inform our discussions, it helps us know what the pressure points are," he said.

Sometimes the answers can be surprising. Last year, listeners were asked what they thought of Dutch aid cuts to Uganda. An overwhelming 82 percent texted in to say they approved of the cuts, and that they would rather have no aid at all than aid that supports a corrupt government.

Host Seanice Kacungira says many of those who respond to Trac FM’s questions have a surprisingly low level of confidence in public officials. “Perceptions that I find interesting are the levels of disillusionment with government, with their ability to provide services. It’s a lot worse than I had initially thought," he said.

At least some of this information does make it back to the officials and institutions concerned. Kacungira says that she and her colleagues will be sharing the answers they get about electricity billing with Umeme, Uganda’s power distribution company.

Dijkstra says that even if the polls do not directly influence politicians, he still hopes that they will encourage Ugandans to be more vocal in voicing their opinions.

Dijkstra says he plans to expand to other countries, and has had interest from as far away as Tajikistan and Indonesia. With a platform adapted to work in different languages, he says, it is an idea that could work practically anywhere.