Radar’s Origin Story – an interview with Libby Drew, founder of Radar
14th October 2022
We talk a lot about origin stories at Radar, and in this interview with Libby Drew, the founder of Radar, we hear about the train journey where the idea for the organisation first emerged. Libby shares her experiences as a young journalist, the early concerns around disinformation and citizen voice, as well as the power of collaborative storytelling and her hopes for Radar as we look ahead to the next 10 years.
I was never going to be the best person to make a decision of whose voice was most important on FGM, or who should be given a platform to speak on women’s rights in the Middle East, or indeed, which words were the ones that mattered most in a two-minute interview.
In December, Radar will be celebrating a decade of amplifying community voices and shifting the power. As we begin to reflect on this time, can you take us back to 10 years ago and tell us how the idea for Radar first came about?
I started my journey working in humanitarian aid and international development. In that space, and particularly during my time working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I met with many unheard communities who were struggling to document the harm that they were experiencing.
It is a difficult job to bring health and medical equipment into a conflict zone, often travelling through blockades and through checkpoints. Yet, while delivering this equipment into the Gaza Strip and the refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank, I became aware of an equally important job and that was to bring information out of those displayed zones. I was able to do something they couldn’t do, which was move back and forth across blockades and barriers to carry their stories and share evidence of need.
So those early trips and project environments gave me a real understanding of the power of community voices. I helped to set up a film unit, which was working in a collaborative way with communities who were experiencing violence and conflict and helping them to document their life through film, audio and written word. This prompted me to decide to become a journalist so I retrained, but then spent several quite difficult years working as a mainstream journalist focused on human rights and international development.
Why was this particularly hard? Not only is journalism quite a solo job when you’re often working on your own as a freelancer, but also, you’re the one choosing sources and selecting voices and words. Clearly, so much of this is to do with your own perception of what’s important, leaving a lot of threads to fall on the cutting floor. I was never going to be the best person to make a decision of whose voice was most important on FGM, or who should be given a platform to speak on women’s rights in the Middle East, or indeed, which words were the ones that mattered most in a two-minute interview. There was no time or funding, to go back and really tell this person how their story had been used or why we hadn’t used it. There wasn’t space for genuine community care. People were treated as sources of information and then they were left behind as the story ran. Finally, it was my name on their story, my name on the byline of each article and I would’ve far rather that person had been heard in their full voice and been acknowledged for their own story.
So that took us forward to a particularly difficult press trip in Sri Lanka where I was reporting on the anniversary of the Civil War. During this time, I spent many hours with the different communities who had taken me around the mass graves, the shells of their houses, and fragments of their economy that had been completely shattered. To then simply file a short 400-word piece that just felt far too reductive. It was on the train back from Northern Sri Lanka, that I decided that I was going to try and blend the strength of collaborative community storytelling with the power of the media and influential platforms. Radar emerged from these concepts and has bloomed.
One of Radar’s first websites.
The landscape in 2012 will have likely looked a lot different to what it does now yet, still, the call for changing how we tell stories and make decisions remains the same. For you, what issues were arising that made shifting the power so urgent at that time?
Humans have always been storytellers. Many of us don’t work well on hard, granular, quantitative facts alone. They’re important but only in the context of a wider story. We need journalism to add context and bring to life issues that may be far too broad or complex to understand without a human lens. That’s always been the case. Back then, in 2012, when Radar first started, the growing prevalence of the mobile phone and emerging social media spaces brought with them the idea that citizens were taking control – with revolutions in the Middle East and an increasingly devolved information infrastructure through the internet.
These quite uncharted spaces brought with them an amazing rush for voice and, whilst that seemed so radically exciting – we were hearing from people all around the world for the first time at the touch of a button – we were still missing the same people that have been left out time and time again in our institutional conversations – people of colour, people with disabilities, women, and those who are very young and those who are older. We were still struggling to hear from those critical spaces. Therefore, the idea of citizen journalism, and intentionally targeting those who were left behind, felt like a very exciting concept.
This was coupled with the fact that citizens now had the tools to produce quite high-quality content, in their pockets – a mobile phone. Simple handsets were becoming more and more within reach of communities. Their stories were valuable and could offer genuine, usable and portable information to media houses and institutions that was, importantly, from a citizen lens.
We often talk about the Arab Spring as being that really critical moment where all those things collided. A street eye view from people who were experiencing something, not removed somewhere up on a balcony, but actually there in the midst of things. How the rawness of their lived experience combined with the different textures of hearing people shouting into a phone from a packed square in the middle of a revolution was so different to hearing from a seasoned reporter observing from aside. Our perception of what was real, authentic and urgent was shifting dramatically.
Bringing lived experience to the forefront (in media, programme design, research and advocacy) challenges how many people have often thought about and approached communications. What were the reactions to Radar as you first began pitching and developing the organisation? Were there any concerns?
These two things combined became our way of saying to the naysayers, we can create something of high quality whereby lived experience is critically retained within that.
There were concerns at the beginning about the model. When you are sourcing information from people who aren’t part of an institution or a system, the first thing that people ask is, how do you know it is true? And that was definitely something we had to tackle at first. Even today, there is a huge lack of trust in citizen-led or user-led content; which is important, we should have that, that alarm going off at all points. So to counter the noise of fake news and still amplify community voices, we tried a few things.
Firstly, we always ensured that we weren’t seen as a breaking news agency. We agreed very early on that it was critical that we took the time to verify information that could have a profound effect on the way people viewed an issue or acted or behaved. This might have involved talking in more depth to local reporters, using local partners on the ground to verify information as well doing desk research.
Secondly, we train in localised groups. Groups who share similar life experiences and operate in similar geographies. Because of this, it is easier to draw upon peer knowledge and capacity, either asking them to go and check that someone was interpreting something in the right way or using that local knowledge to know whether or not we were likely to be getting accurate information. So the idea of using local networks, whether they were partners or fellow citizen journalists, was really important. This also meant using our own integrity as an editorial team to check whether what we were hearing and seeing was indeed backed up by desk research. By not being a breaking news agency, we could major in on how something had impacted people’s lives. In that way, there was less chance of us wading into the dark territory of false facts but instead offered a chance to listen to people’s perceptions and opinions, and frame them in that way.
There was also an issue around quality. Why would people commission something that they were worried about or put money into resourcing the production of something that they thought would not result in high-quality content? As much as people want to have good stories, they also want them to be framed well so they can share them with their audiences with credibility. This was difficult, we were working with communities who had rarely spoken outside of their own localities, let alone be able to produce something of broadcast quality. That’s where the collaborative model kicked in. As trained reporters, we understood the ‘rules’ of what would be accepted and could help to capture and frame stories so they would be published. The community reporters held the other part of that asset coin – the local networks, the lived experience, and the ability to gain trust and interpret a cultural, social, or economic nuance of their area. These two things combined became our way of saying to the naysayers, we can create something of high quality whereby lived experience is critically retained within that.
In that first year, who were some of Radar’s biggest supporters?
It was increasingly clear that this is of interest to the general public and funders; it is valuable to the media, it’s valuable to NGOs, and we could see that it was having an impact on the communities as well.
In the first few years, Radar’s support came from all sorts of different places and, in some ways, that’s its strength – the diversity of people who supported and, at times, also wanted the services and the content we could provide. We had a mix of early support through funders such as NGOs plus donors who had an interest in a particular group, whether it was disability and the success of those who were disabled reporters, or women and girls, and hearing their voices. We also had a really wonderful crowdfunding campaign which raised £10,000 for Radar, and that was just everybody from all walks of life coming forward to support us.
Early on, we also had very good relationships with the British press, working closely with the mainstream news channels, even in some of our earliest stories. We broke into this space through the Sierra Leone elections, using SMS to chart a different perception of polling day through a first-time voter lens. This gained us lots of support in West Africa as well as in broader editorial groups that had an interest in governance and citizen-led pieces.
Al Jazeera’s coverage of the election reporting in Sierra Leone.
That was an exciting era for us, to see who was coming out of the woodwork and where we could have value. It was increasingly clear that this is of interest to the general public and funders; it is valuable to the media, it’s valuable to NGOs, and we could see that it was having an impact on the communities as well.
It was in Sierra Leone where Radar’s first community reporter network began to take shape. As communities previously overlooked shared their experiences of the election, the model and frameworks that Radar uses to this day began to take shape – can you walk us through what this involved?
Our Sierra Leonean reporter network has led this journey from the very start. We ended up working there because, at the very start of my journalistic career, I had won a place on a Guardian Journalistic Award on international development, and we had been paired up with an NGO that was working on a key topic. In this instance, my pairing was with Leonard Cheshire – they were specifically looking at how challenging it was to support young people with disabilities in West Africa, where belief systems could really hold back the idea that young people could indeed participate in society to their best ability, given the right support.
I was given the opportunity to work with Leonard Cheshire’s West African team and to get to know the young people that they were supporting. It was an extraordinary first press trip. We went from North to South and East to West, speaking to young people with disabilities about their lives and community action. But as a white person with a press pass who was being supported on this trip, it was jarring and did very little towards getting under the skin of the story.
While the article won the competition, there was something profiling that was missing from the process, so when the idea for Radar emerged, the first thing I wanted to do was go back and meet those young people again, and instead of interviewing them for their story, offer to train them up as a reporter network. Over 40 of them registered and the first Radar Network emerged from that.
It’s been such an incredible place to surface ideas around rights, freedom of expression and citizen engagement. Since launching, the network has covered their first independent election since the Civil War, faced the Ebola outbreak and, more recently, the Covid19 lockdown.
It’s been challenging but the people in this network still continue to come forward with a desire to speak, not just on their own stories, but on stories crowdsourced from their communities too. We’ve tested cutting-edge technologies which, we always say, “if we can do it in Freetown, we can do it anywhere” because of the electricity disruptions. The network has matured and grown up with us over the last 10 years. Now, they also do independent work, taking those skills into their workplaces, their activism, and their education, and it’s extraordinary to witness.
How does it feel to be celebrating 10 years of Radar? What are some of your proudest moments?
I had my youngest daughter at the very start of Radar…I’m very proud that now, as she and her sister grow up with the confidence to speak their minds. I’m able to show them the journey that they went on with me as a working mother. Hopefully, the world that those two little girls will inherit will be better because we are listening more closely to the people who are at the front lines of our most urgent crises.
To turn ten as a small organisation is a massive achievement and I think the team should be incredibly proud to have survived not just a hostile environment but an ever-uncertain and changing time for small and medium businesses, especially not-for-profits. Radar is not just a collection of people but it’s also a methodology that puts community voice at the centre of decision-making and our social conversations. In that way, this milestone is also celebrating that concept; it is still as relevant today, if not more relevant, than in 2012 when we started.
I remember thinking that we were utterly alone in trying to do this work. People would celebrate us as ‘innovative’, but rarely would they see this as something that was essential, scalable and sustainable. We have shown them that community voice is essential to society and unlocking community insight is a valuable act. A decade on, we have developed something very mature, something that is relevant not just to the media but also to government, research, social movements and campaigns. It’s a very exciting time for Radar and for community voice.
It has always been so important to be an interdisciplinary organisation. There are very few organisations that are holding the whole process from start to finish. From building the confidence of a community member who might feel afraid of speaking out, to working through connectivity challenges so they can track their real-time experiences using mobile, to building their capacity through reporter training. Critically, we don’t stop at that capacity building but then work side by side with them to craft their story into a shape where it can fly and reach the most relevant audiences.
So as we turn 10, I think very much about the journey behind us, but I’m also thinking about what comes next. We remain a female-founded, female-led organisation, and to have done so over the last 10 years, feels like we’ve contributed to the feminist movement and put women’s and girls’ voices at the heart of our organisation and our work. With that in mind, there’s also a personal sense of pride. I had my youngest daughter at the very start of Radar, so I’ve also been a mother throughout that period, and I’m very proud that now, as she and her younger sister grow up with the confidence to speak their minds. I’m able to show them the journey that they went on with me as a working mother. Hopefully, the world that those two little girls will inherit will be better because we are listening more closely to the people who are at the front lines of our most urgent crises.
Having stepped back from the organisation and now part of the Board, what are you most looking forward to for the next 10 years of Radar?
We are building an organisation that is ready for a new era and that is a tough challenge. A critical part of the infrastructure of any organisation is its decision-making and its governance. It might not be the sexiest part but it is a critical one. Radar’s coming up to some really important moments which will define its impact and journey over the next 10 years, and I couldn’t be prouder to be working with our current team. We are expanding the Board, both in terms of skills and life experiences, to make sure that community voice, a richer blend of lived experiences and interdisciplinary skills are all embedded across our organisation.
Finally, now looking at the current landscape more widely, what do you think still needs to change in the sector? Do you have any advice for organisations or groups struggling to amplify and implement community voice in their work?
The most urgent challenge is to acknowledge that it is the same groups and demographics who are routinely left out of the public conversation. This is a systematic issue and it has to be addressed through a redesign of our systems.
It’s a very good question – there are still the same entrenched patterns of marginalisation that repeat again and again throughout the ages and the silences are still defeating.
The most urgent challenge is to acknowledge that it is the same groups and demographics who are routinely left out of the public conversation. This is a systematic issue and it has to be addressed through a redesign of our systems. Community voice is a brilliant indicator of a healthy society. If we’re only hearing from a privileged minority then not only are we lacking abundance and diversity of thoughts, opinions and perspectives, but we’re also missing critical information that could help us work towards a fairer, healthier world.
This work cannot just be driven by the belief that everyone has the right to speak. It has to be driven by a desire for marginal and hidden knowledge. For those designing housing and homelessness services, the experts are those with the experience of seeking out and using those services. As a voting public, it’s vital that we hear from those who are or have the potential to be most harmed by the policies that we are voting for. We need the insight held by those who are at the forefront of our most complex societal challenges.
Harnessing their knowledge will take systemic adjustment of how we listen, and who controls our information platforms. That is long hard work, and Radar is ready to carry that into our next decade.
Find out more about our first project, #WeDecide, here