By Conrad Schwellnus

Week 3 of Radio Days Africa 2020 hit the ground running today, with host Refiloe Mpakanyane talking to Ehizojie Okharedia (BBC News Editor in Nigeria) and Oluwatoyosi Ogunseye (Head of Language Services at BBC World Service in Nigeria) about how the BBC has responded to and covered the onset of the coronavirus on the African continent. Reaching audiences in the millions across a multitude of platforms in various languages, their news teams have had to adapt to the changing circumstances while continuing to do what they can to report on the lived, day-to-day realities of the African people. 

“It’s no longer business as usual,” Ehizojie began. “As an organisation, we’ve had to accept a new normal.” For Oluwatoyosi, the first question they had to ask when the pandemic began was how to keep the newsroom a safe space for their teams. With over 300 journalists working for the BBC in Nigeria alone, an immediate challenge would be applying new regulations into different newsrooms, all the while remaining focused on what they were typically required to do: informing, educating and entertaining audiences. “I can speak really strongly about the resilience of African journalists,” Ehizojie mentioned. “In spite of all the obstacles, we still had journalists who were ready to work [and face the challenges] right away”. 

Operational challenges aside, the BBC team had a bigger obstacle to overcome related to their audiences. As Ehizojie suggested, a large share of people on the ground didn’t believe, and perhaps even still don’t think that the coronavirus is real. “It is our duty to let them know that the pandemic is a challenge that we should all take personally”, he said. This denial, as well as the spread of fake news and myths around cures to people who actually believed that coronavirus was real, would provide a challenging set of circumstances for any journalist or broadcaster to deal with. This ultimately turned into what many would now consider to be an important opportunity. A key consideration emerged about how journalists can challenge and empower people to not only accept that the virus is real and here to stay, but also to learn how to be better at protecting themselves and their families once they had come to terms with the fact that it was a problem that everyone had to take collective responsibility for. 

As the detailed presentation from the panelists suggested, there were a multitude of creative ideas to achieve this, many of which were implemented across all their various language divisions. One such concept was COVID-19 in 60 seconds, which aimed to be a ‘myth busting minute’ backed up with scientific facts, as well as offering viewers or listeners with a useful tip to help stay safe. These tips were often nothing more than an opportunity to be educational on a very basic level. One tip that was featured as part of the concept helped to inform people about how they can use a standard length broom as an effective tool for measuring the correct space for social distancing. 

A similar concept – the BBC Africa Corona Minute – which gave daily fact checked updates about what was happening across the continent through multiple platforms, recently became a staple across 4 languages for the roughly 60 million users of the popular MTN app. This commercial opportunity reiterated a point that came up multiple times during the session today, and was highlighted by Oluwatoyosi when she said that “what has been universal, is that the pandemic presented an opportunity [across the board]”.

This idea of opportunity extends to how the BBC has found ways to connect better with their audiences in the wake of the pandemic through the content they are producing and releasing. A new bi-weekly feature like COVID-19: Have Your Say, which ran during the course of the lockdown, has been crucial to give the people of Africa a voice during this challenging time. Inviting important figures like the Minister of Health in a specific region to a Facebook Live discussion, the feature has two main drivers. The first, is that it provides an opportunity for important updates from a trusted official (which helps to curb the spread of fake news). Secondly, it opened up a public forum where people could question and even call out the official on specific promises that might have been made previously. The ultimate purpose was giving the people a voice, while holding the powers that be to account as well. 

Besides an open platform to voice their opinions, what other types of creative content ideas – specifically in the context of Africa – have people engaging with the most, according to the panel? Oluwatoyosi made a clear distinction between COVID and non-COVID content that she has seen is performing well. For the former, the most engaging content relates to teaching the basics, and importantly, keeping the audience informed in their own native language. In terms of non-COVID content, people are most enjoying updates on “feel good” stories from previous years, as well as inspirational stories which help with spreading thoughts of empathy and compassion. Sometimes, the two even overlap. The panel mentioned that some people are learning new skills at home during lockdown and sharing how they went about it with others, which provides for inspirational and informative content, as well as the actual sharing of skills that can be useful even in a post-coronavirus landscape. A win-win and a great example of the power of the industry in times of crisis. 

These kinds of stories, born from innovation across both the broadcaster and on the audience side, do well to offer a message of inspiration for the power of collaboration moving forward. “All hope is not lost,” Oluwatoyosi said confidently. “These conversations are so important. As long as we [as the journalists] can add value, people will know where they can go to find this”. Ehizojie offers a similar positive reprieve. “[While] the walls of the newsroom are no longer the space it was,” he said. “This is an opportunity for everyone in the industry to grow”. 

On a continent where the opportunities are endless, innovations should act as a way for not only the broadcasting industry and its stakeholders to grow, but also for audiences to find new ways to better voice their opinions, share their experiences, and most importantly of all, collectively learn how to cope in these unprecedented times. As the session today affirmed, the BBC has done well in this regard, continuing to educate, inspire and entertain its audience in the midst of a very unique set of circumstances and challenges for African people of all walks of life.