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How Radio ARA powered its pandemic programming with the help of multilingual volunteers
This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organisations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.
Founded in 1992, Radio ARA is the only independent radio station in Luxembourg. It offers multicultural and participatory radio shows in multiple languages and reaches up to 30,000 listeners a month. Programming runs 24 hours a day and is available on analogue and digital radio.
The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has three official languages — German, French and Luxembourgish. Almost half of Luxembourg’s population of 620,000 are born outside the country and represent over 170 different nationalities.
Known as the crossroads of Europe, Luxembourg is not only a global financial hub, but also home to a number of EU institutions including the General Secretariat of the European Parliament. 83% of Luxembourg’s foreign population is European. In recent years, the country has also taken in a high number of refugees per capita. Between 2015 and 2018, 7419 refugees were granted asylum, meaning language communities like Arabic, Spanish and Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia) have grown in prominence.
In February 2020, Radio ARA acquired City Radio Productions, a company founded in 2000 to produce English-language broadcasting via ARA City Radio. Prior to February, City Radio Productions rented airtime from Radio ARA, having previously failed to obtain a license for English radio in Luxembourg.
Part of the Radio Ara team
The station employs 15 full and part-time staff members and relies on up to 180 volunteers. Most work for financial institutions, the government or the EU and have a passion for radio. One volunteer, for example, is an American that works in finance who uses a pseudonym to play 60s and 70s music during a slot on Friday night. Another volunteer is a civil servant for the government, who hosts a show on a Friday night called “Over the Wall” where listeners with relatives in Schrassig Prison, the country’s only closed jail, call in and dedicate songs to their family members. The afternoon youth programme, “Graffiti”, is run by two social workers and a rotating group of young people who learn how to conduct interviews, work the tech and ultimately produce a radio show.
Before COVID-19, Radio ARA’s programming included English, Arabic, Italian and an Indian programme presented in English. In 2017, in response to the growing number of Arabic speakers in the country, the station launched a weekly radio show in Arabic, English and French called Salam.
Radio ARA relies heavily on advertising and sponsorship to fund its programming. The station receives no governmental aid due to the fact that no legal or financial structure for community radio support exists in Luxembourg. The station is currently seeking funding from other sources and may have to shut if this funding doesn’t materialise.
Example of multilingual schedule of Radio Ara
How did Radio ARA cover the COVID-19 crisis?
When a government lockdown was put in place on 15 March, a day before the results of the country’s first positive COVID-19 case, Lisa McLean, the Managing Director of ARA City Radio, knew she needed to tell Luxembourg’s international community what was happening. As well as a daily bulletin covering local Luxembourg news in English, she began to create a COVID-19 news bulletin. She then approached the team from the weekly Arabic Show Salam to see if they could also translate and record the COVID-19 daily bulletin in their native language.
The station started to think about how they could reach the country’s different language communities. Within 24 hours, native speakers representing seven additional languages offered to help translate, record and present the COVID-19 bulletin remotely. In total, the bulletin included Albanian, Arabic, English, Farsi, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Tigrinya. Volunteers were trained in basic skills via online calls using Zoom. The bulletins are played in each of the languages from 1–2 pm and again from 5–6 pm.
The team also produced short videos of the bulletin on Facebook each day in the afternoon. Since the station introduced the new languages, they have seen a boost of 3000 new Facebook followers on their page.
Radio Ara Facebook
How has COVID-19 changed the future of Radio ARA?
Radio ARA has lost a significant amount of revenue in advertising and sponsorship since the pandemic began. It now has just one sponsor — Tango, a mobile phone operator — and one advertiser — the government promoting its stay-at-home messaging. It is seeking various forms of funding, but so far has been unsuccessful.
Before COVID-19 struck, the radio station already knew they needed to do more to reach the various language communities throughout Luxembourg. While they had brainstormed ideas, limited resources and a lack of staff that spoke these languages stopped them from pursuing these listeners. So far the station has had positive feedback, mainly via phone calls into the station, about the expansion into those new languages.
As people in Luxembourg stopped commuting to work and began working from home, Radio ARA has noticed that listening habits have changed. To accommodate this, the team decided to push back the morning programming from 6 am to 7:30 am. With more people likely to work remotely after the pandemic, the morning programming could continue to be presented at 7:30 am.
The station plans to continue this daily news bulletin if volunteers are able to commit to doing it. Many of the volunteers for the bulletin are refugees, and see it as a way of raising their personal profile and giving back to the community. Volunteers also receive a positive reference written by the station manager, which is useful when applying for jobs. If the station can secure the funding, they would like to offer a stipend to each volunteer for the work they do.
Radio ARA, Graffiti and ARA City Radio all have separate websites. However, they are currently building one new website and plan to roll out an app that will have SMS push notifications to notify listeners when certain programming is airing.
What have they learned?
“We do many community projects, and we had this idea of extending the weekly shows for the different communities, but we were unsure how to make it happen. Sometimes it takes something to push you, but if you ask people to help, and show them the skills they need, it is amazing what you can achieve. Digging deeper into our audiences and seeking out these harder to reach language communities has been a really positive experience, I believe for all of us involved.”