For a couple of weeks in March and April 2011, the world's eyes were turned towards West Africa. Laurent Gbagbo, the President of Côte d'Ivoire, was arrested after months of unrest, Nigeria's parliamentary polls were postponed amidst logistical woes, Senegal celebrated its Independence Day and, for the first time, a woman became the Prime Minister of Mali.
One media outlet delivered exceptional coverage throughout, keeping West Africa and its diaspora informed, whilst at the same time making some news of its own by launching an new, innovative news platform.
That organisation was West Africa Democracy Radio. Their new platform is founded on Sourcefabric's open source software Newscoop and Airtime, and uses SoundCloud, an web-based audio hosting service, to get the word out to the subregion and beyond, allowing listeners to hear, share and react to developments as they happen.
WADR are often first to the story, as was witnessed with an interview with Ahoua Don Melo, spokesman of Laurent Gbagbo, which was picked up by various international agencies and rebroadcast. WADR's station manager Peter Kahler told Sourcefabric how they compete despite limited resources:
"National broadcasters have the tendency mainly to focus on national stories, more often than not taking foreign content from the big news agencies and radio stations. Our own approach is to provide content that is gathered by nationals from within countries and our 30 partner radios. We can provide information that major media broadcasters in the country's capital cities will not be able to have access to."
Sourcefabric's brief, as with all of its implementation projects, was to maximise the amazing human resources of the organisation with workflows, technology and training that allowed the WADR journalists to get on with what they do best.
At the heart of the project was a centralised, open source workflow. Sourcefabric dispensed with the old website and its bottleneck of one webmaster updating pages which were lost forever after they became out-of-date. Instead, they installed the newsroom content management system Newscoop - it handles all the maps, pictures, audio attachments, bilinguality (the site is in French and English) and complex archiving required by the WADR team, with the added bonus of an intuitive backend interface accessible via any web browser.
Every journalist now has access to the website backend and can create articles, whether they are in the newsroom, at home or in the field. Newscoop's workflow means articles can be submitted to an editor if necessary before publication to the web. Instantaneous sharing to Hootsuite, Facebook and Twitter makes sure the stories get out to the people the moment they are published.
Being a radio station, WADR's site focuses on sound as much as the written word. To this end, Sourcefabric chose SoundCloud as a cloud audio host for its excellent api, embeddable players, waveform comments system, social networking and vibrant community.
A specially developed plugin allows editors and journalists to attach audio files from the WADR SoundCloud account directly to articles, without leaving the Newscoop interface. If metadata needs editing, the plugin handles it and an intelligent use of SoundCloud sets helps to keep everything organised.
Peter Kahler and the team were enthused: "Newscoop, the new website and working with Sourcefabric on these open source technologies has provided us now an opportunity. We will involve more people into participation, into development, into content gathering and into the dialogue about the issues being raised by the news and the information we release."
SoundCloud's API is explored to the full with a variety of embeds on wadr.org itself. From full programme archives, to mini-players in articles, to a front page box featuring recent bulletins, Newscoop and SoundCloud were dovetailed to provide sounds that are easy to find, play and share - even on low bandwidths.
Newscoop's sister software is Airtime - an open source radio scheduler. The real eureka moment came when the Sourcefabric team realised that if they could record and upload shows from Airtime directly to SoundCloud (taking all the valuable show metadata with it), the station technicians could be freed up to do the work they were trained for, rather than labour-intensive file management.
The Airtime developer team set about the task and developed an Airtime/SoundCloud plugin to complement the Newscoop one. Airtime was firstly reworked to be able to record scheduled shows. The ability to automatically rebroadcast a show was developed simultaneously in response to several community requests. The plugin was developed - a simple checkbox allows the technicians to select which programmes will be uploaded to SoundCloud.
Shows can be uploaded automatically to the SoundCloud archive - metadata intact - and the journalists write accompanying articles in Newscoop, add the SoundCloud file to a set and publish on the web. The entire process now means shows can go online minutes after broadcast, rather than days.
SoundCloud's sharing capabilities automatically share the sounds to Facebook too - users can listen to them directly within their Facebook walls, and the potential for sounds to reach hundreds of listeners worldwide within seconds becomes a reality. "We are impressed with the number of visits and comments and the various statistics of the entire website," said Peter Kahler. "We're glad to know we're pioneering something that will become widespread."
Promoting and enhancing the dialogue the station has with its listenership was an important part of the implementation. wadr.org articles are organised by country, topic and programme for listeners to get to the news that concerns them, RSS podcasts of every show are available and polls allow for the presenters to gauge public opinion. Comments on the site are handled by Disqus and there's strong social network interaction via SoundCloud, Facebook and Twitter - so much so that the station are considering a show dedicated to discussing this feedback on air.
The circle is completed with Airtime's JQuery widget, a box on the website that dynamically updates with the latest programme that is on-air, meaning listeners and website visitors are now closer than ever before, building a community that's generating real interest.
WADR platform is flexible, scalable and merges analogue broadcast with digital journalism - all at a fraction of the cost of a proprietary system. The station are free to increase the number of contributors, share the software or build improvements that benefit other users, meaning their listener community can grow alongside their content-gathering community. It's a model that others are soon sure to follow, one that can start to influence real change.
"We've had requests from people to come and visit our radio and see how we've been doing it," said Peter. "At the moment we operate a network of about thirty radios in eight countries and we're looking forward to being able to use social media to speak to people. We can even talk about spurring on citizen journalism with these kind of these technologies. The media in West Africa has now evolved to the level where it is being seen as a true partner in changes that will bring about open and democratic societies."
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