January 29, 2007

Open source Campcaster empowers independent radio broadcasters

Author: Nathan Willis

Can you run a radio station entirely on free software? Thanks to Campcaster, broadcasters all over the world can answer that question with a yes. The open source radio station system plays a key role in enabling independent and community-owned media to compete with better-funded government and corporate outlets in emerging democracies.

Campcaster is the product of the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), a non-profit organization that provides financial, technical, and advisory help to developing nations' journalists across the globe. When Campcaster 1.1 -- codenamed Freetown -- was released last month, the MDLF's Douglas Arellanes was in Freetown, Sierra Leone, training radio station staff from the Cornet community network in the installation and usage of the software package.

Meeting the needs of emerging radio stations

In brief, Campcaster is a playout system -- the means through which radio station personnel control the audio feed to the transmitter, be it live content (either local or remote) or recorded programming (played interactively or scheduled in advance). Campcaster is built to run on Ubuntu Linux, though it should work on other distributions as well. You can install and run Campcaster on any hardware with a working sound card (it supports multiple cards for radio station work), or try the live demo online.

The software's name comes from MDLF's new media division, the Center for Advanced Media--Prague (CAMP), of which Arellanes is the head of research and development. His recent trip to Freetown is merely the latest in CAMP's ongoing effort to equip fledgling media groups with reliable tools. CAMP's other projects include newsroom publishing, periodical distribution management, and customer relationship management systems, all of which are available at campware.org.

Campcaster is intentionally free software, but reliance on a free operating system is no accident either. Arellanes says many community radio stations in developing countries currently use pirated software. In some areas, it is the rule rather than the exception, and not merely for economic reasons. He related one story from a radio station in Kyrgyzstan in the former Soviet Union, whose staff told him that even if they had money with which to buy software, not even Microsoft had a sales representative in the nation.

But for many radio stations, the costs of computer hardware and software are dwarfed by the power bills that accompany running an FM or shortwave transmitter. Of the 11 stations Arellanes visited in Freetown, those without support from an organization like a university were often able to broadcast only a few hours each day.

Challenges in developing nations

Still, community radio can make a tremendous difference to its listeners, thanks to the low cost and ubiquity of receivers. In regions without the copper-wire infrastructure of the telephone and cable companies common to North America and Europe, radio is by far the most pervasive mass communications medium.

Arellanes points to Kantor Berita Radio 68H (KBR) in Indonesia as a success story for CAMP. KBR has grown into a network with more than 300 affiliates and a satellite channel. Arellanes describes their team as amazing. "They're committed, smart, and agile."

For the nascent stations he trained Freetown and, subsequently, Dakar, Senegal, the first step was to get the station in touch with locals who can offer the ongoing tech support that Arellanes and his Prague-based team cannot. Frequently they partner with eRiders.

"In Freetown, for example, we're working with the Sierra eRiders, and in Dakar, we're working with the eRiders of Xamxam-Africa, and in South Africa, we have worked with the eRiders there." eRider teams, he explains, are "focused on results and making do with what they have; they're not exclusively focused on FOSS, but they are quite active in promoting it."

Training on the Campcaster application takes as little as two hours for those familiar with the conventions of radio station work. "We spent an inordinate amount of time on the user interface, which was designed by master's candidates at the Digital Design Department at the Parsons School of Design."

Where it all goes from here

CAMP believes strongly in the value of focusing development efforts on implementing the specific needs of its users. For example, Campcaster's ability to control broadcasts remotely stems directly from a user's need. "The guy who wrote the functionality spec for Campcaster is from Belgrade, and is the chief engineer at Radio/TV B92. You might remember B92 from the Milosevic era. They were the only station to oppose Milosevic, and managed to stay on the air despite a very hostile situation.... It's based on his personal experience having to remotely control a transmitter; when the authorities shut down B92's Belgrade transmitter, they managed to keep on the air by setting up a transmitter just over the border in Bosnia, and controlling it using Timbuktu. So when we had the idea of making Campcaster, he said, 'You absolutely have to make the station remotely controllable.'"

The developers at CAMP have a detailed road map for Campcaster, each milestone signifying implementation of specific features. But as with most non-profit organizations, CAMP is dependent on donor support to set the pace of development.

The majority of CAMP's financial support comes through grants from institutional donors to MDLF, but the organization is open to all kinds of assistance. "(Ahem) we have a PayPal button on the Campware site (ahem)," he jests. The project can also use volunteers. As the Jobs/Volunteer page at Campware.org puts it, if you want to both work on free software and simultaneously promote freedom of the press and human rights, Campware may be the project that you are searching for.

Category:

  • Open Source