The SABC enjoyed a monopoly from 1936 until at least the early 1990s when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) started licensing several commercial radio stations.
All of a sudden, the SABC had to learn how to deal with competition, repositioning its remaining radio stations in preparation for the new broadcasting order.
At that time, however, the regional African-language stations were still slumbering. Although they were repositioned in 1996 and changed names, the majority of them had never experienced real competition before as they enjoyed monopolies in many areas. For instance, Thobela FM was the only radio station broadcasting in North Sotho in Limpopo.
Also, the majority of people who speak and understand one language and are illiterate (we still have many such people in rural areas today), are likely to only listen to a radio station that speaks their language. There was a sense of “forced-loyalty”.
In 1997, Icasa introduced the second phase of commercial radio stations. That was when YFM, Kaya FM, Classic FM, Heart FM (formerly P4 Cape Town), 567 Cape Talk and Gagasi FM (formerly P4 Durban) came into operation.
Again, the SABC had to reorganise its radio portfolio. By then it had become clear that commercial radio would be part of South Africa’s broadcast system forever.
However, the regional SABC African-language stations in Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga were still enjoying monopolies.
This was until last year, when three new commercial radio stations received licences to broadcast in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West, changing the picture completely. Now Thobela FM, Mungana Lonene FM, Phalaphala FM, Motsweding FM and Ligwalagwala FM cannot sit on their laurels any longer. They have to compete with competition right at their own doorsteps in the form of Capricorn FM in Limpopo, M-Power Radio in Mpumalanga and Radio North West.
More and more young people are no longer confined by language barriers and the African-language radio stations have been trying to reinforce their on-air staff with a young crop of DJs.
For instance, Ukhozi FM employed Sbu Leope, a popular YFM DJ. Initially, some listeners complained that he was not speaking pure isiZulu but the station came to his defence, arguing that he was adding value to its programme line-up.
On Thobela FM, which broadcast in my home language (North Sotho), I regularly come across presenters who tend to use English words – even in instances where I feel that a North Sotho word could have been used. The majority of these are young DJs. Often, bad language usage infuriate older listeners, who argue that the radio station is slowly alienating them.
However, this does not mean that these listeners will migrate to the new competition. Also, it will take a while for the newcomers to start eating into the SABC’s advertising pie. Advertisers want proof that the stations are stable and have a growing audience. I think that in the first two years, the three stations will concentrate on building their reputation.
Meanwhile, the African-language radio stations in these provinces will need to think strategically on how to contain the threat posed by the new competition without compromising their public service mandate. This is tricky because their listeners range from children (who want children’s programming) and the youth to middle-aged and elderly people. Also, their listeners fall into different LSM groups which makes its audience harder to market to an advertiser.
Their station managers will need to keep in touch with the needs of their communities while at the same time keep a close eye on their new competition.
Gilbert Mokwatedi, now based in the marketing and communications department at the University of Pretoria, is a former radio lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology.
Ã¢Â–Â This article was first published in The Media magazine March 2008 Radio Collection.