Every Wednesday evening at nine, Boubacar Ba settles into his midtown Manhattan studio and prepares his broadcast — Radio Mali USA — a call-to-listen radio show by Malians for Malians abroad.
Accompanied by a tall cup of water and a couple of printed articles, he readies for the unpredictability of open-ended conversation. It’s a few minutes past showtime, and he hasn’t started yet, but already the metrics display a hundred or so listeners.
“My show, sometimes it goes to three hours, because the cab drivers, they don’t want it to end,” said Ba, a political news broadcaster who also serves as the radio station’s director.
Unlike other radio shows, most of Ba’s audience uses an app or dials a local number to listen — a central feature of the 7,000 global broadcasters, across more than 150 countries, affiliated with Zeno Media. The streaming platform, based out of New York, offers global diaspora populations the opportunity to connect to news of their hometowns in their local languages.
‘I would be lonely’
Zeno Media founder and president Baruch Herzfeld says the idea was conceived as a service for first-generation immigrants working in solitary professions.
“If I was a security guard in a building and I didn’t have that much human interaction, I was thinking, ‘What can I provide to this person to entertain them or to make their day better?’” Herzfeld told VOA. “I thought to myself, ‘If I was doing this, I would be very, very lonely.’”
Without the barrier of limited data plans, Herzfeld says Zeno Media is helping to level the playing field for access to hometown news, in a format that he says promotes authentic conversation. According to its website, the media network’s shows average 96-minute session times, totaling 10.5 billion listening minutes in 2017.
“Their world exists in a geography that’s 3,000 miles from where they’re from,” Herzfeld said. “We try and build technology that decreases the limits that geography previously put on staying connected.”
A form of respite
Since becoming a political news broadcaster in 2009, Boubacar Ba says news of their home country is first priority for listeners. Second are U.S. immigration issues.
After President Donald Trump enacted immigration policies such as the travel ban, Ba says there has been a spike in interest on the topic, particularly among undocumented listeners. Sometimes he brings in lawyers or other specialists, but offers his own advice, too.
“Mainly, try to stay underground,” he said. “That’s the main advice we tell those who don’t have papers. Don’t expose yourself too much. Try to focus on what you’re doing.”
Ba’s role as a community leader and broadcaster often intertwine. Without a local station like his, which broadcasts in Fulani and Bambara, he says many immigrants based in the U.S. might not otherwise have an outlet.
However, he notes, the everyday conversations afforded by Zeno Media’s programming are also a form of respite, a way to “pull back from all the noise.”
On Mondays, his show tackles civic engagement; a local language class on Tuesdays — e.g. how to say Congress in Bambara; religion and culture on Thursdays and Fridays, respectively. The weekend is for music and soccer.
“They feel at home because they get their content from their home country each and every day and then they know what is going on in their country,” said Joseph Kwesi Kwentsir, a Kumasi, Ghana-based broadcaster, describing his own diaspora audience of roughly 1,600 listeners per show.
Though the two radio hosts target different listeners, in distinct languages, Kwentsir says their programs allow audience members to engage in meaningful participation, whether in the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom, or locally in Ghana on an FM dial.
“People on the air in the United States are contributing,” Herzfeld added, and “they feel like the people in Ghana can hear their contributing. That’s really, really exciting.”