Community radio stations abound but how did they come about and how do they survive? Joanna Wright finds out. In 1993, when community media was virtually unknown in South Africa, three very different community radio stations began to broadcast illegally.
In Cape Town, Khayelitsha was in political turmoil and staff of the Zibonele Clinic in the township found it difficult to do their rounds. So Radio Zibonele began to broadcast health information in Xhosa from under a bed in the shipping container that housed the clinic.
Not far away, Bush Radio was broadcasting to the community of the Cape Flats. Those working on this political station were harassed by the security police, their equipment confiscated and the owners arrested.
In what was then the Transvaal, there was Afrikaner nationalist station Radio Pretoria. Radio Pretoria was viewed with suspicion by the government, who apparently saw it as a mouthpiece for the Conservative Party. When its public broadcasting licence was revoked after three days, it went on broadcasting illegally. Reportedly, right wing supporters patrolled its premises to protect the station from police raids.
These stations, all three of which now legally broadcast to their respective audiences, have little in common in terms of who their listeners are and what they have to say. But they all show what is important about community radio – they are accessible to and directed by the people they aim to reach and teach, as is their mandate. They all made a contribution to changing the post-apartheid media and establishing the diverse community arena widely considered so important to democracy.
Wits radio academic, Franz Kruger, underlines the sector’s importance. “(Today), community radio adds to the richness of our media landscape. It’s a vehicle for information at a local level, especially in more isolated and media-starved rural communities,” he says.
Community radio was a product of Codesa (the negotiations to end apartheid) that set up the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), now Icasa, in 1993 to regulate the liberalising of media. In 1994, the IBA set up provisions for public, community and commercial radio, which was unprecedented, as the state had had a chokehold on the media during apartheid. Would-be community stations could apply for temporary licences that had to be renewed annually. There was a flood of applications and by 1995, the IBA had granted 82 licences, the first to Radio Maritzburg. Some of these, such as C Flat, which shared a frequency with Bush for four years, did not survive and by the year 2000, there were about 65 stations. The sector seems to have found its feet and there are now 172 listed on the South African Audience Research Foundation’s radio audience measurement survey (RAMS).
Today, the stations run the gamut of listeners and interests: from Radio Jozi, which boasts over half a million listeners in the Soweto area, to far-flung rural stations with a few hundred listeners. They are divided into three categories: geographical, community of interest (such as religious stations like Radio Islam) and campus stations (TUKS Radio is a particularly professional example).
Community radio receives support from a range of sources. There has historically been a lot of support from government (local and national), as well from the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA). In return, government uses community radio to disseminate health and welfare messages. A thinner stream of revenue comes from non-governmental organisations. In some cases, the communities fund the station that serves them.
But it’s really private sector advertising that most stations rely on to sustain them. And obtaining this advertising is often a struggle. Even the respected and entrenched Bush Radio has troubles: they announced last year that they were on the brink of closure. At the time, managing director Brenda Leonard blamed their troubles on a lack of advertising. Bush was rescued by the approval of R1.3-million’s worth of funding from the MDDA and are now looking at diversifying their income sources; for instance, by extending their successful training arm to members of the public.
The problem is, says Willem Erwee of Radio Tygerberg, that media planners and buyers view community media as backyard organisations. Stations remote from the media centre of Johannesburg are more likely to be ignored by or unknown to planners and buyers. “Media planners don’t give us a chance,” says Erwee.
But Tygerberg can offer definite advantages for advertisers, he adds. “Because we are a community station, we’re more dependant on our community than a commercial station is. This is a strength. All our listeners are within an 80km radius. This gives us a reach and closeness not available to an RSG or 5FM.” Radio Tygerberg has a listenership of about 355 000, almost rivalling that of a commercial station, and their listeners are firmly within LSM 7 to 10 – a desirable profile for any advertiser.
Rachelle Jaques of radio ad sales agency Media Connection, says adspend in the sector is growing. “There’s a nice improvement in community radio from when it began. Stations used to pop up and down. These days they have become more stable and attracted more listeners. It makes it more viable. I can’t remember the last time a station closed.”
She agrees, however, that there could be more spend in the sector. “The price comparison is great and advertisers can get in exactly where they want to be for less money. But there is reluctance among media planners and buyers (to consider community media). It used to be that there were disadvantages to advertising on community stations, like compliancy issues and not being able to measure reach. But now our compliancy department has ensured 90% compliance among our stations.”
Media consultant Paul Wilkins describes how he came up with an idea to aggregate all the stations in a province – whether community, public or commercial – and sell them to media owners en masse. Community stations get passed over in research because of sample size, he argued, but if included in the profiles of larger stations, could dramatically expand the reach of advertisers. He says it was a potentially profitable model for community stations, but it never got off the ground because organising community stations was like ”herding cats”.
This points to the challenges faced by community stations being non-profit organisations often staffed by volunteers who may lack sales skills and professionalism in general. Successful community stations need to be run like businesses – but very special businesses with their own flavour. This is the opinion of Jerry Jones, managing director of KZN Capital 104FM in Pietermaritzburg. He was also involved in Radio Maritzburg, which folded in 2002. He is frank about why that station didn’t make it: “The people who ran it were only interested in copying a commercial station and making money. This doesn’t work with community radio. They did not have a vision.”
Jones has a vision for Capital 104FM, about which he speaks with obvious passion. He says: “We are not copying commercial stations… To make community radio work, you must focus on the people around you, have direct contact with the community. They can call you up and tell you that you read the news wrong, that you are a mampara.” Jones adds that the station has gone to some trouble to get local community leaders and local government on their board. Large commercial station East Coast Radio is helping them with training their sales staff and presenters.
A good business model seems to be the main reason why some community stations last and others don’t. The most successful ones resemble commercial stations. Erwee says of Radio Tygerberg: “Although we have a community radio licence, we are not run like a community station. We have the business model of a commercial station. For example, our personnel are not volunteers. We have 40 people working around the clock. We have sales teams and marketing.” Radio Tygerberg has a community licence because they serve a community of interest: Christians in Cape Town.
Radio Islam is one of the most successful community of interest stations in the country. At the 2012 MTN Radio Awards, they received no fewer than 23 nominations and won seven. They are firmly rooted in their faith and in their 43 000 listeners. And thanks to a satellite link and the internet, they have listeners all over the world too.
Station manager Ismail Variava says, “Our eyes and ears are in the community; they decide our programming. We have surveys to see what they would like to hear. People are very vocal. We have no outside donors; everything comes from the community.” Radio Islam offers everything from a daytime show for preschool-age kids to interviews with anyone who’s in the news, “right up to the president”, says Variava. They have 14 news updates a day, traffic reports and funeral announcements – all of which have implications for religious observances. “Traffic, for instance, might be guided by our understanding that you have to get to your five daily prayers. This month we are fasting (for Ramadan) – do you have time to get home in time to break your fast? We do our financial indicators for a migrant community from Pakistan and India,” says Variava.
Variava says that Radio Islam is funded mostly by advertising, but added that they do not have trouble finding advertisers. They tend to steer away from big advertisers and their big interests, running mainly ads from local business. Radio Islam pay their staff a stipend and have a board made up of professionals like doctors and social workers. Radio Islam ‘graduates’ now work at CBS and Channel Africa.
Community radio has proved a fertile training ground for staff who move on to jobs at commercial stations, a point of pride for the sector even as it laments not being able to hold on to talent. Programming quality remains a challenge too. But the success of stations like Radio Islam shows that if community can remain devoted to the communities they serve, they can attract advertisers and loyal listeners and stay alive.
This story was first published in the September 2012 issue of The Media magazine.