For much of the past month I have been working with journalists at The Society for Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. Most people here refer to the station as 98.1, but its name is a nod to its origin. The station was set up 16 years ago, in the middle of the civil war. It first broadcast in secret, from a location near the airport. The aim was to promote democratic values and human rights. A mission that remains important today.
Many of the employees are so young they can’t remember much of the war that ended in 2002. Some are paid $50 to $100 a month. Others are volunteers.
Stories are focused on human rights issues. Most programming is in the country’s de facto national language of Krio (Sierra Leonean Creole), with the aim of reaching as many people as possible.
The main local news content is aired at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.. Bulletins contain three or four stories, gathered by the station’s team of a dozen-or-so reporters and producers.
Radio Democracy takes BBC World Service news bulletins at the top of most hours, and airs the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme at 1700 GMT. Freetown is on GMT all year ’round, because Daylight Saving is not observed in Sierra Leone.
Reverend Matthew Quattay is the court reporter and a Methodist Minister. He is a mentor for many of the younger staff members. Some of the women call him their “boyfriend.” He prefers the term “father.” One day he told me about a court case involving a man who allegedly tried to cut off the testicles of another man. The case had to be adjourned because the victim was in court and was in too much pain. After work that evening, Reverend Quattay went to deliver a sermon at his church.
The headquarters are on Upper Waterloo Street in Freetown’s chaotic city centre, but all the action happens up the hill at the studios in New England Ville. The equipment is basic, when compared to a station in a developed country. USB keys replace the Internet and network drives. Employees often have to improvise to get a story/programme to air.
There is a real team spirit at the station. When Keziah Gbondo couldn’t go on a JHR reporting trip to Bombali District she gave her story to Mabel Kabba. The following week, Mabel gave one of her story ideas to Keziah.
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