Sitting in the University of Virginia’s WTJU radio studios last week, Kwesi Ghartey-Tagoe’s face lit up with pride as he described some of the success stories his community radio station has seen during its 18 years on air in Charlottesville’s sister city – Winneba, Ghana.
In the rural community of Gomoa Adam near Winneba, residents were traversing miles of treacherous roads just to get potable water. Some women or children occasionally were injured or even killed in traffic accidents as they trekked to fresh water sources.
Radio Peace, the station that Ghartey-Tagoe directs, worked with UNICEF to sponsor a session earlier this year that brought Gomoa Adam residents and government officials together to draw attention to the problem and brainstorm solutions. After that program, residents formed a committee and continued lobbying government leaders. Now, a new pipe system brings fresh water directly to the town center and a new, safer road connects the small community with a major thoroughfare nearby.
“We helped them identify the problem and define their challenge, and they carried the work on from there and got what they needed,” Ghartey-Tagoe said. “It was very, very satisfying to see.”
Gomoa Adam’s journey to fresh water embodies the community radio model that Ghartey-Tagoe has embraced since starting Radio Peace, which broadcasts to more than 700,000 people in and around Winneba. The station plays plenty of music, ranging from traditional songs to hip-hop, but its primary focus is development, particularly within the poor rural communities that are home to more than 52 percent of Ghana’s population.
Ghartey-Tagoe was in Charlottesville to share this model of community radio with WTJU and WXTJ, UVA’s student- and community-run radio stations.
Ghartey-Tagoe and the 30 staff members and volunteers at Radio Peace go out into their communities, hear residents’ concerns and bring them on air to discuss the issues they are facing. Often, the radio programming helps these communities connect directly with elected officials and find the best person to help with their problem.
That approach is particularly helpful in Ghana, where a decentralized government system often conflicts with the traditional roles of tribal chiefs and elders and generates confusion about which officials can help with which problems.
“In our early discussions, we realized that many people did not know that a council member, or someone elected to the District Assembly, could help them,” he said. “Radio helps people participate in discussions about issues they face and bring those issues to the forefront using their own voices.”
“What Radio Peace is doing in Winneba is so inspiring and instrumental to community development there,” WTJU General Manager Nathan Moore said. “I wanted our volunteers and UVA students to hear about that firsthand.”
Winneba – located in Ghana’s Central Region, about 40 miles west of the capital, Accra – is one of Charlottesville’s four international “sister cities.” Ghartey-Tagoe’s visit is just the latest example of many partnerships that have sprung up across the Atlantic, including exchange programs, public works projects and visits between municipal governments.
In Charlottesville last week, Ghartey-Tagoe served as a guest on two WTJU broadcasts and spoke with students in UVA’s media studies and global development studies classes, sharing success stories similar to the progress made in Gomoa Adam. One rural town, for example, partnered with Radio Peace to talk about health care. They had no clinic in their community and pregnant women and sick children often had to forgo critical care. Today, thanks to work sparked by Radio Peace, there is a community clinic with a resident nurse.
Of course, those stories do not come without challenges to overcome. Ghartey-Tagoe also told students about the difficulties of operating in an unstable economic climate, including securing consistent funding and sponsorships and broadcasting amid frequent electricity outages. He said retaining volunteers is also a problem for the station; many leave once they can apply their new broadcasting skills in a paid position.
“Now, we have an open-door training program for young people who want to go into broadcasting, but we ask that they stay with us for at least two months afterward,” he said. “That has helped us build a staff of younger people filling the gaps between volunteers.”
As he wrapped up his visit with WTJU, Ghartey-Tagoe said he was particularly inspired by the station’s robust program of public events, such as the Freefall Music & Art Festival held every Saturday in September and October in Charlottesville’s IX Art Park.
“We have not done that many events yet – only a few with local bands, and not on the scale that they do here,” he said. “I think we will embrace that and use that.”
As for WTJU, Moore said he hopes Ghartey-Tagoe’s visit will spark discussion among student and community broadcasters about how they can use their platform to promote positive change in the community.
“How can we better serve the genuine needs of our communities? I really hope our students and community stations here can take this idea and run with it,” he said.