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Messaging The World

Global Recordings Network has a history of ingenious methods for delivering the gospel to hard to reach places. These days they’re hoping to go viral.

By

16 October 2013

Story: Mark Davie & David Hughes

We just hit the 30th anniversary of the compact disc. It had a good run, but it’s already hitting the pile of obsolete media, alongside tape and vinyl. Global Recordings Network (GRN) knows obsolete media all too well. When you’re trying to spread a global message like the gospel to the furthest reaches of the earth, a little old-fashioned ingenuity goes a long way. In the ’60s it was CardTalk, a simple cardboard record player that could play phonograph records without electricity. The folded piece of cardboard — connected to the device’s needle — doubled as an amplifier. No motor was necessary, just a sharp stick to turn the record. Hundreds of thousands of these were distributed worldwide.

In the ’70s and ’80s GRN brought out a range of hand crank robust cassette players, the Messenger, which bumped up the quality and continued to let the message spread without electricity.

While these might not be considered ‘modern’ technologies — even in their day — the introduction of any technology into these tribal groups provided a few humorous moments. “In the western world it is largely understood that if machinery of any type is not working, it needs to be repaired,” said GRN Australia CEO Christine Platt. “But for those with a limited knowledge of technology, this is not always the case. One tribal group encountered a problem when their Messenger cassette player failed to work. Their strong belief in the spirit world led them to the conclusion that it had been afflicted by an evil spirit. The evil spirit could be cast out of the machine by either throwing it into the fire, or smoking it out. Needless to say, neither was helpful to the Messenger. Another tribe believes that healing comes through immersion in water — also not helpful for a sick Messenger!”

In its 73-year history, GRN has distributed over 13 million records, cassette tapes and CDs in over 6000 languages (Ethnologue’s catalogue of known living languages tips the scales at just over 6900), and has most recently developed and produced robust, hand-wind mp3 players.

These days though, everyone has a mobile phone. There are over four billion active around the world, and on each of those phones is an audio player. Even places which have been historically difficult to access, like Mongolia, Afghanistan and Vanuatu, have a high penetration of phones. In Tanzanian families, the penetration rate is 98%. “Even where they don’t have electricity connected, people will pay the one person in the village with a generator to charge it for them,” GRN’s Mobile Strategist James Thomas said.

CARDTALK

A needle attached to a folded cardboard backing that doubled as an amplifier, supply your own rotating stick.

THE MESSENGER

A hand-cranked cassette player was hardy but wouldn’t survive tribal electronics servicing.

MP3 PLAYER

The next-gen messenger still required a bit of hand-cranking, but was hands free when travelling.

MOBILE REVOLUTION

Now even hard to reach areas have mobile phones… with audio players.

FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS

While the possible reach into the third world is much greater, GRN’s distribution problems have turned entirely first world: First, there’s the technical challenge of being ‘cross-platform’. You think it’s bad having to code for Apple and Android devices, spare a thought for the guy that has to think about old Nokia bricks, and Motorola flip phones. “In addition,” said Thomas, “Internet bandwidth can be quite slow in many locations, so we have challenges relating to the compromise between audio files sizes and their quality.”

Then of course, there’s the challenge of their message vying for attention amongst the Katy Perry’s and Rihanna’s of the world. Though wouldn’t you rather have a song in your own language, recorded with your traditional music, over a pop princess bleating about partying on a Friday night with her posse of ‘bitches’? “When we record their languages we often record some Christian songs with their traditional music, so they also enjoy hearing their own songs,” Thomas said.

GOING VIRAL

Currently, GRN is working on a mobile outreach website, (5fish.mobi), an Android app, and continuing work on GRN’s main website (globalrecordings.net). All house free-of-charge audio recordings of the gospel. And the hope is that like a good lolcat or OK GO video, once the recordings touch down in a community, they’ll go viral.

Thomas: “The phone users are familiar with the Bluetooth transfer of popular music and so can use the same methods to transfer our materials.

“It is not an easy task to make millions of people aware that our materials are available. We need to put more work into making GRN easy to find on search engines like Google. And we need to continue developing relationships with the missionaries and churches on the ground who are reaching these groups, so that they can make use of the materials. We are confident that the effectiveness of the materials speak for themselves, so once they become initially aware of their availability, the materials can spread by word of mouth.”

GRN also does its own audio editing training for young people keen to get some hands on experience. While the more adventurous can get trained and tooled up as field recordists, travelling to some of the most remote regions on earth. Not a bad day job.

Another tribe believes that healing comes through immersion in water — also not helpful for a sick Messenger!

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