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Radio Gafsa: a new program for a changing society

By Anne Bennett, Hirondelle USA Executive Director

The broadcast schedule of programs is the essence of a radio’s identity. It is also the best measure of a media’s understanding of its listener, and of the quality of its journalists, presenters, technicians and managers. This week, after months of preparatory work, Radio Gafsa, regional station for the Tunisian state public service broadcaster, will launch its new program schedule.

At the Tunisian state broadcaster, Radio Tunisienne, a fundamental transformation has been underway since the revolution that deposed former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, a process undertaken in collaboration with the Swiss NGO Fondation Hirondelle.

Over seven thousand kilometers from Gafsa, the story of the ongoing transformation of the radio will be a topic of discussion at a gathering of international broadcasters and researchers this week in Washington DC for the annual Conference of International Broadcasters’ Audience Research Service. The Gafsa case study will illustrate how audience research has been used over the course of two editorial cycles to design and implement a program grid that is in touch with the changes in Tunisian society.

Fondation Hirondelle’s work with Radio Tunisienne began in early 2011, when the two partners agreed to collaborate to achieve three ambitious goals: ensure full coverage of the historic National Constituent Elections; improve coordination of resources between the national and regional stations that make up Radio Tunisienne; and put in place an internal structure at Radio Tunisienne that contributes to a culture of professionalism, sound management and consultation.

The success of this transformation depended wholly on defining and understanding the mandate, mission and framework in which Radio Tunisienne would play its role as a public service media.

The regional station located in Gafsa, south west Tunisia, was chosen to pilot the process of reform. Specifically, the goal was to establish a post-election programme schedule intended to meet the expectations of Tunisians and to meet international standards, with a full network of correspondents in the cities of Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Tozer and Kibili. Sidi Bouzid is the city where the demonstrations leading to the national upraise started in Dec 2010. By mid-2011, the 9 radio stations that formed the network of Radio Tunisienne had already changed their program schedules 3 times since 2010. As a result, the elections programming was slotted into the existing schedule so as not to further confuse the listener.

To ensure that the new program schedule was based on a sound understanding of its mandate to serve the Tunisian population, Radio Gafsa and Fondation Hirondelle worked methodically on the post-election schedule. A ten-stage plan was developed that started with a structural and organizational audit of the radio, and included qualitative and quantitative audience surveys, focus group work for the staff, training, operational reorganization, and branding.

A lack of vision and strategy at Radio Tunisienne, and the scars of decades of autocratic management, resulted in a situation where the majority of the staff struggled to respond to the question: “How would you define Radio Tunisienne?” This exploration of identity took place both as a broadcasting group and within Radio Gafsa. The process was in two stages: focus group activity with all 9 station directors to establish the fundamental public service mission and model of the Radio Tunisienne network; and focus group activities with the Radio Gafsa teams focusing on identity and based on the “20 questions” personality quiz, as though the station was a person.

Staff at Radio Gafsa identified the profile of Radio Gafsa: a woman, veiled, housewife, primarily occupied with her husband and children, with a basic level of education, who looks older than her age, is nice, and has little interest in political life.

In sharp contrast, the desired profile of Radio Gafsa was described as a woman perhaps best personified by the young Tunisian “change maker” and local humanitarian heroine Sarah Toumi: not veiled, aged 30-40, light make-up, educated, employed in social work or humanitarian field, moving with the times, involved in big causes including political battles.

Fondation Hirondelle plans to track audience reaction to the new programmes carefully over the coming 12 months, with a continuation of the regular qualitative and quantitative studies that were launched in 2011 and 2012. For listeners out of FM reach, they’ll be able to stream the radio live Radio Gafsa and decide what type of woman she now resembles.