Cellphones As Radios: Immigrants Dial In To Native Stations : All Tech Considered ZenoRadio hooks up more than 1 million listeners to radio stations around the world by making a call to a U.S. phone number. The company founder came up with the idea when he realized that most U.S. cellphone plans have unlimited calling, and many immigrants have cellphones but no on-the-job Internet connection.
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Cellphones As Radios: Immigrants Dial In To Native Stations

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Cellphones As Radios: Immigrants Dial In To Native Stations

Cellphones As Radios: Immigrants Dial In To Native Stations

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Being an immigrant in American can be lonely. They're often cut off from family as well as the news in music of home. Baruch Herzfeld, an entrepreneur in New York City, had a novel idea. He figured out a way for immigrants to connect to radio stations in their home country using nothing more than a cheap cellphone, and not even a smartphone. NPR's Margot Adler reports that the company, ZenoRadio, allows immigrants to livestream radio stations from around the world.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: I'm on the street right next to Penn Station with ZenoRadio employee Atif Enin from Egypt. He walks by several Halal meat stands and hands out cards. One side is Arabic, one side English. There's a list of countries, each has a U.S. phone number.

ATIF ENIN: This is for local Egyptian station. This is for Lebanese, Moroccan, then Syrian, Yemeni, Algerian, Iraqi and Somali.

ADLER: Cooking some vegetables at one of the halal carts is Ahmad Mohammed.

So what station do you listen to when you listen to ZenoRadio?

AHMAD MOHAMMED: The music for Egypt. The Quran, too. It's nice.

ADLER: How long have you been listening to it?

MOHAMMED: Almost one month. When I listen to the Egyptian music every day, I feel that as if I'm living home, I'm back home. What's the story with the virtual machines? Are they done yet?

ADLER: ZenoRadio has its offices right across from Penn Station. Fourteen people work there. Enin helps me dial up an Iraqi radio station.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ENIN: And this is a welcome prompt saying, welcome. You are listening right now to the Iraqi radio.

ADLER: So I just pressed one.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Please wait a moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ENIN: This is a radio competition. He is making a quiz. And people are sending him messages with the answers. It's about a famous city in Iraq.

ADLER: ZenoRadio works because most people with cellphones have combined data and calling packages, many with unlimited minutes for phone use.

BARUCH HERZFELD: But they figure, who's going to be on the phone? It turns out my guys will be on the phone for 12 hours a day.

ADLER: That's ZenoRadio founder and CEO Baruch Herzfeld. He's in his 40s and he's a character. An orthodox Jew, he ran a bike shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called the Traif Bike Gesheft, the non-kosher bike shop. He also ran a trailer park for artists in Brooklyn. Herzfeld can get very excited when he thinks about the world his company opens for people just by dialing a U.S. number.

HERZFELD: If you press extension one, you're listening to one radio station, two is another one, three is another one, four is another one. You press star and change it.

ADLER: How? Zeno assigns a U.S. phone number to the radio station's Internet stream. And who are his listeners?

HERZFELD: You can go to a taxi driver and say, who's running for mayor of New York? No idea. But who's running for president in your country? They'll know like the 10 or 11 guys.

ADLER: And he revels in the many languages, tribal dialects and cultures of the some 2,000 stations on ZenoRadio. The company won't share its financials, but it gets money from advertising and from investors. And they get a couple of cents per call from telephone routing companies that have space and want more business.

Boubacar Ba, from Mali, is in charge of all the French-speaking radio stations on ZenoRadio - about a hundred - many from West Africa.

BOUBACAR BA: If I check on my board, I see Radio Nostalgie from Guinea is my number one station. They have right now in the New York area, 29 people - 31 now. It's constantly updating.

ADLER: And then number two?

BA: And number two is Zik FM from Senegal.

ADLER: Boubacar Sanogo - also from Mali - drives a yellow cab 10 to 12 hours a day. He's been here 13 years, has a family, a college degree. He listens to ZenoRadio maybe five hours a day. He has about 20 Mali radio stations to choose from.

BOUBACAR SANOGO: I listen to the news from my country. Then after that, I listen to French news for a while.

ADLER: How has it changed the shape of his day?

SANOGO: A lot. Driving the cab for 12 hours is really boring. So with this radio, I can see the time flying.

ADLER: In fact, conversations with passengers were once the only break in monotony. No longer.

SANOGO: Usually, if I'm listening to the news, I don't want them to talk to me.

Many of our listeners are in solitary jobs and they feel culturally isolated. So it may not even be the most exciting content in the world but it provides him solace as he spends his day.

ADLER: And given how many people have cheap cellphones compared with computers, Herzfeld says the possibilities for global expansion of ZenoRadio are endless. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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