How Radio ARA powered its pandemic programming with the help of multilingual volunteers

Working with citizen presenters and engineers enabled a local radio station in Luxembourg to disseminate COVID-19 news in nine different languages.

May 19, 2020

This case study is part of Resilience Reports, a series from the European Journalism Centre about how news organizations across Europe are adjusting their daily operations and business strategies as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. 

In a nutshell: Radio ARA created a daily COVID-19 news bulletin program by recruiting volunteers from nine different language communities to translate, produce and record pandemic-related news.


With three official languages and almost half of the population born outside the country, Luxembourg is a linguist’s paradise. Squeezed between France, Germany and Belgium, it is home to European Union institutions and finance firms that attract expats, as well as refugees, from all over the world.

Such a broad demographic makes producing radio a complex task for Radio ARA, a local and independent radio station based in the capital.

When the pandemic hit in March, Radio ARA turned to volunteers for help in creating a multilingual news bulletin about COVID-19. Operating on a shoestring budget with a majority of programming produced by citizen presenters and engineers, the team was able to serve the information needs of underrepresented audiences and grow their Facebook audience at the same time.

What is Radio ARA?

Founded in 1992, Radio ARA is the only independent radio station in Luxembourg. It offers multicultural and participatory radio shows in multiple languages and reaches up to 30,000 listeners a month. Programming runs 24 hours a day and is available on analog and digital radio.

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has three official languages — German, French and Luxembourgish. Almost half of Luxembourg’s population of 620,000 are born outside the country and represent over 170 different nationalities.

Known as the crossroads of Europe, Luxembourg is not only a global financial hub, but also home to a number of EU institutions, including the General Secretariat of the European Parliament. 83% of Luxembourg’s foreign population is European. In recent years, the country has also taken in a high number of refugees per capita. Between 2015 and 2018, 7,419 refugees were granted asylum, meaning language communities like Arabic, Spanish and Tigrinya (spoken in Eritrea and Ethiopia) have grown in prominence.

In February 2020, Radio ARA acquired City Radio Productions, a company founded in 2000 to produce English-language broadcasting via ARA City Radio. Prior to February, City Radio Productions rented airtime from Radio ARA, having previously failed to obtain a license for English radio in Luxembourg.

The station employs 15 full and part-time staff members and relies on up to 180 volunteers. Most work for financial institutions, the government or the EU and have a passion for radio. One volunteer, for example, is an American that works in finance who uses a pseudonym to play ’60s and ’70s music during a slot on Friday night. Another volunteer is a tax collector for the government, who hosts a show on a Friday night called “Over the Wall” where listeners with relatives in Schrassig Prison, the country’s only closed jail, call in and dedicate songs to their family members. The afternoon youth program, “Graffiti”, is run by two social workers and a rotating group of young people who learn how to conduct interviews, work the tech and ultimately produce a radio show.

Before COVID-19, Radio ARA’s programming included English, Arabic, Italian and an Indian program presented in English. In 2017, in response to the growing number of Arabic speakers in the country, the station launched a weekly radio show in Arabic, English and French called Salam.

Radio ARA relies heavily on advertising and sponsorship to fund its programming. The station receives no governmental aid due to the fact that no legal or financial structure for community radio support exists in Luxembourg. The station is currently seeking funding from other sources and may have to shut if this funding doesn’t materialize.

How did Radio ARA cover the COVID-19 crisis?

When a government lockdown was put in place on March 15, a day before the results of the country’s first positive COVID-19 case, Lisa McLean, the managing director of ARA City Radio, knew she needed to tell Luxembourg’s international community what was happening. As well as a daily bulletin covering local Luxembourg news in English, she began to create a COVID-19 news bulletin. She then approached the team from the weekly Arabic Show Salam to see if they could also translate and record the COVID-19 daily bulletin in their native language.

The station then started to think about how they could reach the country’s different language communities. Within 24 hours, native speakers representing seven additional languages offered to help translate, record and present the COVID-19 bulletin remotely. In total, the bulletin included Albanian, Arabic, English, Farsi, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Tigrinya. Volunteers were trained in basic skills via online calls using Zoom. The bulletins are played in each of the languages from 1 to 2 p.m. and again from 5 to 6 p.m.

(Courtesy: Radio ARA)

The team also produced short videos of the bulletin on Facebook each day in the afternoon. Since the station introduced the new languages, they have seen a boost of 3,000 new Facebook followers on their page.

How has COVID-19 changed the future of Radio ARA?

Radio ARA has lost a significant amount of revenue in advertising and sponsorship since the pandemic began. It now has just one sponsor — Tango, a mobile phone operator — and one advertiser — the government promoting its stay-at-home messaging. It is seeking various forms of funding, but so far has been unsuccessful.

Before COVID-19 struck, the radio station already knew it needed to do more to reach the various language communities throughout Luxembourg. While it had brainstormed ideas, limited resources and a lack of staff that spoke these languages stopped the station from pursuing these listeners. So far, the station has had positive feedback, mainly via phone calls into the station, about the expansion into those new languages.

As people in Luxembourg stopped commuting to work and began working from home, Radio ARA has noticed that listening habits have changed. To accommodate this, the team decided to push back the morning programming from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. With more people likely to work remotely after the pandemic, the morning programming could continue to be presented at 7:30 a.m.

The station plans to continue this daily news bulletin if volunteers are able to commit to doing it. Many of the volunteers for the bulletin are refugees, and see it as a way of raising their personal profile and giving back to the community. Volunteers also receive a positive reference written by the station manager, which is useful when applying for jobs. If the station can secure the funding, they would like to offer a stipend to each volunteer for the work they do.

Radio ARA, Graffiti and ARA City Radio all have separate websites. However, they are currently building one new website and plan to roll out an app that will have SMS push notifications to notify listeners when certain programming is airing.

What has the team learned?

“We do many community projects, and we had this idea of extending the weekly shows for the different communities, but we were unsure how to make it happen. Sometimes it takes something to push you, but if you ask people to help, and show them the skills they need, it is amazing what you can achieve. Digging deeper into our audiences and seeking out these harder to reach language communities has been a really positive experience, I believe for all of us involved.”

– Lisa McLean, managing director of ARA City Radio, the English programs on Radio ARA  

Related reading

This case study was produced with support from Evens Foundation. It was originally published by the European Journalism Centre on Medium and is published here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Poynter Institute is also the fiscal sponsor of the Verification Handbook.