Podcasts are taking off as a way that anyone, anywhere, can get their voice heard on the Internet. With access to information and communication technology (ICTs) in developing countries growing day by day, and recognition from decision makers that ICTs are a key component in development, podcasting could play a role in the new communication order.
But in areas that don't have electricity, never mind the Internet, how can podcasting and other forms of audio communication succeed?
The science of podcasting
Podcasts are digital audio files that are automatically downloaded from the Internet onto a computer, with the further option of transferring them to a portable audio player like the Apple iPod.
Podcasting started in about 2004, as a way to give a voice to the voiceless, or at least those who didn't have access to large media organisations.
Today, people all over the world are producing podcasts about topics ranging from astrophysics to knitting, and media organisations and institutions are spending time and effort to get 'pod-ready'.
An appealing quality of podcasts is their on-demand nature. "It's attractive for people that they can control when to listen. There's something quite liberating about unlocking the content of your computer and carrying it around with you," says Gareth Mitchell, presenter of the BBC's Digital Planet radio programme and podcast.
Kerri Smith, Nature's podcast editor, says that audio is a great way to communicate complex ideas. "And voice is more compelling to listen to; listening to a conversation between two people feels more immediate than reading on a page."
Power to the people
Podcasting's function in giving people a voice could play a large role in its uptake in developing countries.
The medium clearly has roots, and retains links, with traditional radio.
The importance of radio in developing countries, particularly in rural areas, is well-documented. But it is a one-way medium and doesn't necessarily offer opportunities for local people to get involved.
Traditional radio doesn't necessarily offer opportunities for local people to get involved
Grimshaw adds that radio stations also have a structured and finite broadcasting schedule, allowing little flexibility and limited capacity.
Practical Action found that local enthusiasm for their podcasting is such that the local people asked to be taught how to make audio files, indicating that they felt the podcasts were valuable, and that they wanted to use their own voices to communicate.
"I think it's very important that local voices are used — so it's not just information that we provide but also a facility that local people can use."
But how feasible is access to podcasting equipment for the rural poor? One aspect that makes podcasting more attractive than radio, says Grimshaw, is its relative low cost and logistical ease.
You need a licence to broadcast over the radio waves for example, and there are considerable capital costs in equipping a station, however basic.
"[When setting up podcasting projects] we used open source software entirely so any computer loaded with the — extremely low cost — software, a microphone and some way of recording and saving the information was all we needed."
Practical Action has been working on podcasts for the Cajamarca region of northern Peru since 2006. A poor, rural area, most of the people there rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.
The project was part of another Practical Action initiative, which set up and maintains eight local telecentres in the region. These consisted of a telephone and a solar-powered computer providing two hours of satellite-derived Internet access a day.
On one visit Grimshaw saw that the telephone was much more popular than the computer. He realised that it was audio — voice and stories — that people used to communicate and share information, rather than text, particularly on a computer.
"There was a huge barrier to the prospect of using a computer, in terms of literacy, background culture, gender and age," he says.
So the organisation set about providing information in an audio format.
Practical Action's local office in Peru surveyed local people about the type of information they needed to support their livelihoods — advice on grape cultivation or raising cattle for example. This information was then gathered from experts and recorded as digital audio files that could be sent to each of the telecentres via the Internet.
In areas served by local radio, links were set up so that stations could play the podcast material
At this point the podcast technology had to be adapted to suit the audience. Audio files were recorded onto CD or cassette tape to be distributed, since people in Cajamarca do not typically have digital audio players, but may have a CD or cassette player.
Most of the telecentres had loudspeaker systems, allowing the material to be conveyed to the immediately local area. And in areas served by local radio, reciprocal links were set up so that the stations played the 'podcast' material and the telecentres included local radio broadcasts in their podcasts.
For Grimshaw, it's about using the appropriate technology to get information to people in specific circumstances. "Strictly speaking, this isn't a podcast but it's a blend of some new technology — transmitting voice files from central points out to local telecentres — with old technology."
Mitchell says that as long as the message gets out there, it doesn't matter what combination of technologies you use.
"If it means bolting analogue radio on to the best that the digital world has to offer, and then farming it out to the end-user using cassette, CD or carrier pigeon, then that's fantastic. Maybe podcasting has helped you along the way but it doesn't have to be the whole way."
Podcasting on the move
The Kothmale Community Radio project in Sri Lanka is another example of communication evolving to suit the environment, bringing the benefits of ICTs to isolated rural communities in hilly central Sri Lanka.
The project doesn't just use radio. Members of the team use a tuk tuk — a motorised three-wheeled vehicle — loaded with a laptop computer, wireless Internet, generator, printer, camera, telephone and scanner.
This mobile broadcasting unit, dubbed an 'e-tuk tuk', allows the team to transmit audio information in two ways — using loudspeakers mounted on the vehicle's roof and broadcasting over the radio via the telephone line.
Historically, news in Sri Lanka was distributed by people who would beat out messages and news as they moved from village to village. Ben Grubb, coordinator of the project, describes the e-tuk tuk as a "modern day, internet-connected drum, beating out news and information as it travels".
The e-tuk tuk is a motorised three-wheeled vehicle equipped with a laptop computer, wireless Internet and other communication paraphernalia
And local people are encouraged to develop their ICT skills. "We encourage skill development in communities, so that they are able to plan, record and edit their own programmes," says Grubb.
In doing so, he says, the e-tuk tuk, "encourages participation from those who would otherwise be unwilling or unable to access the [radio] studio, due to caste, gender, time or other cultural and logistical factors".
On-demand information for all?
While the Practical Action and e-tuk tuk initiatives, and others like them, can provide benefits on a community level, it remains to be seen whether podcasting can have a wider impact in the developing world.
In the developed world, iPods and other digital audio players have raised the popularity of podcasts. But electricity is the main barrier to audio players penetrating remote areas, Grimshaw says.
"The key constraint is battery power at the moment. Battery devices need recharging, so you need electricity. And if a device is battery-powered they're expensive to replace when they wear out."
Practical Action are carrying out research into solar power for digital audio players. "Once that hurdle is overcome, and better and better battery power comes along, then I think the spread [of podcasts] is more feasible."
Grimshaw says market conditions might be ripe to facilitate this.
The relative cheapness of today's digital audio players — which can cost as little as US$10 — will aid matters, he says. Using micro-credit, it may be possible to spread the cost of an audio player over a year, a worthwhile investment if the information is economically valuable.
"If you're looking after cattle and the cattle have market value, then information about high-quality feedstock or disease diagnosis and care from reliable sources, is part of a trade-off of adding value from information and being able to afford these devices in a sustainable way," Grimshaw says.
And it's not all about direct money making. Grimshaw points to Zimbabwe, where Practical Action are carrying out research into audio access.
"What if [girls'] lessons are transmitted to them using some audio device so that they can learn while they walk?" says Grimshaw
Heather Arney/WaterPartners International
"We're beginning to explore different ways of getting information over to different groups of people — not just people responsible for livelihoods but for education as well."
"Girls are often kept away from school because they're doing other things for the family such as collecting water and feeding cattle. They're walking — what if their lessons are transmitted to them using some audio device so that they can learn while they walk?"
And this wouldn't necessarily have to be done using the Internet. Where web access is simply not possible, audio files could be delivered physically with other goods.
The image of a podcast trundling its way down a road towards a remote village is a million miles from downloads coasting along the information superhighway.
But this is no surprise to Stephen Buckley, head of the common knowledge programme at development charity Christian Aid. He points out that technology often finds different uses and formats in developing countries.
He points to developing countries' ability to avoid the teething problems of new technologies by 'leapfrogging' to advanced forms.
"Mobile phones are a really good example of what can happen in developing countries. Banking mechanisms for example, being able to send someone money through your phone — it's not a concept that we've got [in the West]," he says.
"Podcasting in developing countries will not look like it does here, but that doesn't mean it won't happen."