Charlie Northrip was born in Florida, but he considers himself an Alaskan. He relocated to the 49th state to pursue a career in public broadcasting—drawn in by the rugged landscape and spirit of self-reliance.
After earning several public broadcasting awards for his TV and radio work in Alaska, Northrip ventured overseas. He launched independent news media operations in the Balkan countries of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; supported small business development in Albania; and provided communications and monitoring and evaluation services to two regional USAID ECO-Asia programs in Bangkok, Thailand.
Northrip now serves as EDC’s programming advisor for the USAID-funded, independent Sudan Radio Service (SRS) and Darfur News and Information Service (DNIS), which provide objective news, information, and civic education to South Sudan and Darfur, Sudan.
Although working mainly in Nairobi, Kenya, Northrip travels frequently to the new SRS radio station in Juba, South Sudan. The on-air programming he develops with local reporters, writers, and producers provides a critical service to the people of Sudan and South Sudan, who for decades have suffered under civil war, corruption, and poverty.
How did your previous jobs prepare you for your work in Sudan?
The work that I did in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina was to help independent radio stations and newspapers adapt to a free-enterprise world. They were coming out of a communist-controlled society where the state owned all the media, newspapers, and broadcasting stations. So the private broadcasters and journalists had to learn how to write business plans, sell advertising, and market themselves, while competing with the still active state-owned publications and broadcasting systems.
We did a lot of training, because under communism or socialism, the journalist’s job is to tell the government’s story to the people. To convert the whole tradition to a watchdog press that holds the government accountable is a monumental task, but a very rewarding one.
Has the news reporting changed since South Sudan seceded from the north?
It is more dangerous. And it will continue to be more chaotic in the south, in my view, at least for a while. The idea of creating one’s own country from scratch is a pretty daunting task. Anti-government groups with militias in the south clash with the South Sudan military; the army of the government of Sudan clashes with the South Sudan military. And skirmishes occur along the north-south border where there is oil development underway. You have these multi-fronts because there’s more than one anti-government group. That’s true in Darfur, too.
And in Sudan, a country with a better than 50 percent illiteracy rate, radio is far more effective in reporting on these conflicts and the various peace initiatives than any print media can be.
What challenges do journalists face in this environment?
Some of our reporters have been touched by violence, personally or within their families. So we teach them to be objective in their reporting, not to bring their own experience into the picture. At the same time, they’ve lived under a government model that is very controlling and security minded. Now we’re asking them to report all sides of a story—not just what the government officials say. We teach them to be very careful and balanced in their reporting. Here’s what so-and-so said. Here’s what somebody else said. Here’s what somebody didn’t say because they refused to comment.
What are some of the rewards of your work?
I work on creating one radio drama a week for our Darfur service, and I supervise another. Seeing the staff develop as writers—when they take hold of something and do it well—is very rewarding.
In the last two years, we’ve seen awareness of DNIS grow from 2 percent to 81 percent of citizens surveyed. We are the number two radio service in all of Darfur, second only to the state-controlled, full-time FM broadcaster. And we’re on the air two hours a day. The results are astonishing.
We’ve encouraged our listeners in Darfur to text us what they think of our programming. We’re getting hundreds of text messages that are just heart rending. Things like, “You’re my daily meal of information,” or “I couldn’t survive without knowing the truth.” That’s the sort of thing that makes you sit back and say, “Yes, this is a good thing. Today is a good day.”