Most South Africans listen to radio to get their information but, with very few exceptions, radio journalism is appalling, says Franz Krüger, director of the Wits Radio Academy.
The phone rings. Brring, brring, it says. Not a large vocabulary, my phone.
“Hello?” I say. A voice: “Is this Franz Kruger?”
“Yes,” I confess. “This is Lamebrain Smithalezi, Radio Empty. I was hoping to get your comment on this and that media issue. Is that OK? I’m recording. Please count down from five, and then start.”
I’m floored. There’s no question, nothing. Just dial-a-quote. Sorry, I say, if you can’t be bothered even to ask me something directly, I can’t be bothered to guess what you’d like to know. Try another slot machine, not me.
I’ve now had this kind of exchange several times, and they illustrate how impoverished most radio journalism is. Radio newsrooms generally consist of a small team, barely enough to keep the bulletins on air the required 12 to 15 times a day. To feed the hourly beast, they can’t do much more than rework material from the wire agencies and clip a bit of audio from one of the 24-hour TV news channels.
Once in a while somebody may make a call to get a soundbite, but it had better be quick. So who’s going to get their say? Politicians, spokespeople, experts – anybody with a phone and reasonable reception. Leave the newsroom to go into the real world? Forget it.
With some notable exceptions, that’s the pattern on commercial radio stations, which tend to see news as an irritating requirement imposed by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), and is something that costs money the station would rather not spend.
The SABC is, as everybody knows, the gorilla in the room, with a huge newsroom in both television and radio. It is far and away the most important source of news for the majority of South Africans, and speaks to them in all official languages, and a couple more.
But it’s not doing nearly enough to put its advantages to use. There’s too much reporting that is terribly worthy and boring. Editors are timid, unwilling to take risks, to ask the tough questions. Newsrooms, a frustrated senior editor told me, are full of clockwatchers. Craft levels are low: audio, the medium’s great opportunity to take listeners to places they may otherwise not reach, is poorly used. It all has a lot to do with the general governance and political malaise that has affected the SABC for some time.
Then there’s community radio, a sector that now reaches a massive 8.3-million listeners and which has a mandate to offer local listeners something unique and distinctive. A Wits research project last year looked at how much local news there was on community stations, and the results were pretty disappointing. We looked at 13 stations in Gauteng and the Western Cape: some campus stations, some geographic community stations and some religious stations.
Across all the stations, we found that the proportion of local stories, generated by the station’s own reporters, was a mere 14.5 percent. The worst performing group of stations were the campus stations, which managed no local stories at all – even where there was a journalism department that could help.
The best group were in fact the geographic stations, those in poor areas, but even there, only one station, Theta FM in Orange Farm, came even close to meeting its licence conditions. They had promised 60% local reports, and managed 58%. For the rest, the news bulletins are overwhelmingly just lifted from the internet. Often, the will is there on community stations, but they struggle with a lack of facilities and skills. The pressure to meet licence conditions by filling hourly bulletins – often in several languages – poses a tough challenge. News has become a matter of lifting, compiling and reading – reporting has largely disappeared.
So there are different factors at play in different sectors of radio: a lack of skills, political and organisational factors, the pressure of the bottom line and struggling with licence conditions.
Here’s a newsflash for radio managers: listeners value news on what is happening in their world, but it does cost money to bring it in. It’s possible to report news at a relatively low cost while keeping some journalistic integrity, but it won’t ever be free.
Here’s a newsflash for Icasa: the idea that radio stations must include news is a fine one, aiming to extend the range of information available. But as currently constructed, it’s not working; the demand for hourly bulletins just pushes people to lift material wholesale. Perhaps it’s time to consider a greater emphasis on longer but less frequent news shows?
Radio remains the most powerful carrier of information in SA, reaching people at all levels of society with a speed and flexibility that other media can only dream of. More South Africans, a researcher worked out, have radios than mattresses. It’s cheap and interactive, and can adapt easily to the opportunities of the online world.
The matrix of different kinds of radio stations should provide a rich diversity of news, discussion and information. But it’s not happening. Listeners to Ukhozi and to UJFM, to Jozi and to Jacaranda FM get much the same stuff: it’s a ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’ kind of journalism that’s fast but unsatisfying.