As the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures are checked each quarter, groans of anguish are heard over ongoing bloodletting in the print sector. That is, except for the whoops of celebration in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), home to South Africa’s most successful media story.
If they could, South African media bosses would be injecting the mojo that makes Ukhozi FM one of the world’s largest radio stations and the magic that makes Isolezwe leave former newspaper poster child Daily Sun in the dust. But the problem is finding that special ingredient.
ABC’s deputy president Gordon Patterson highlights – in his August presentation on second-quarter (April-June 2013) ABCs – the older newspaper citizens such as The Star, Beeld and Pretoria News continuing their double-digit declines. And Daily Sun and its weekend version, Sunday Sun, are losing readers at 17% over the year.
Contrast that with vernacular titles, which have grown by more than 16% in the year, selling a healthy 94 000 copies extra. Vernacular titles exclude Afrikaans and the growth mentioned takes into account the rollercoaster fortunes of Ilanga, which is still recovering from devastating strike action in October last year, according to Arthur Konigkramer, managing director of Mandla-Matla, the company that owns Ilanga.
“We’ve weathered storms before,” he says feistily, referring to the controversy in 1977 when the IFP bought Ilanga and many staff members walked out. As for speculation that the now Sekunjalo-controlled Independent News and Media South Africa might capitalise on Isolezwe’s success by launching more vernacular titles, Konigkramer is pragmatically businesslike: “We welcome competition – it’s a fact of life and good for us.”
“Things are tough out there,” agrees Isolezwe editor Sazi Hadebe, especially as the past year saw the demise of both umAfrika and iSundayTimes langeSonto.
“The problem with the Sunday Times Zulu edition was that they simply translated the newspaper into Zulu without adding another layer of value,” he says.
For Hadebe and his staff, capturing hearts, minds and wallets is about more than linguistics.
“Isolezwe has always been more than just a newspaper, and for the people who work on it, it’s not just a job. Isolezwe staff literally live the title.”
Staying closely in touch with their readership makes Hadebe confident about Isolezwe’s balance of global and local issues. “Readers rely on us to keep in touch with global issues, but it’s not a focus of our offering. You won’t find the royal baby or even the violence in Egypt on our front page. Our news agenda is guided by what affects our readers’ lives.”
When Isolezwe was launched more than a decade ago, it was considered highly risky. Several greybeards in the Independent group’s management doubted it could fly, though they now cheerfully celebrate their misapprehensions being disproved.
For starters, it flew against the fashion of the time for broader integration of titles, spurred by the impetus of nation-building. Under threat, for example, were the Tribune’s Herald and the Sunday Times Extra, both Sunday supplements aimed primarily at KZN’s Indian market.
“It was the readership that essentially fought back, demanding their community’s own media space,” recalls Mary Papayya, a veteran of the KZN media landscape for nearly three decades and now KZN regional general manager for Times Media Group. “They wanted to see their own achievements reflected among their cultural and leisure preferences. And it’s a good business decision – local small, family-owned businesses support it with advertising because they feel more comfortable there and it can be more affordable than buying into the main body.”
While readers can enjoy accessing general news and features in the papers’ main body, these supplements provide “a very diverse showcase”, notes Papayya. From traditional festivals and food to soccer, Bollywood and “pimp my ride” style motoring coverage, they provide a weekend lifestyle read combining leisure with high-profile community news. Distribution in Gauteng reflects both its strongly rooted Indian community and economic migration.
This socio-cultural response has also been noted by Aakash Bramdeo, editor of POST, proud to have increased his paper’s ABCs for the sixth quarter in succession, reaching 44 072 for Q2 this year.
The POST may have been an Independent sleeper while they doubted Isolezwe’s potential, but Bramdeo has been making a huge effort to breathe new life into the title that’s approaching its 60th birthday – and on which he started his journalistic career nearly 20 years ago before defecting to TV.
“We focus on 10 things that encapsulate Indian culture, from entrepreneurship, success and family, young and old, to Bollywood and food,” he explains.
“We work hard tailormaking national and global content for our community. So with the issue of the beef created in a lab, we didn’t concentrate on flavour – instead, we asked Hindu, Muslim and Christian leaders whether this would be acceptable from a religious point of view.”
Beyond being a mouthpiece for community news and debate, Bramdeo has positioned the POST as a community champion.
“Drugs are such a big problem in Chatsworth and last year [then] KZN Premier Zweli Mkhize went out of his way to highlight the need to tackle this when he visited the area,” Bramdeo recalls. “But I realised that this community would be too afraid to respond directly to the appeal to help the police crack down. So I told readers to send me their information, which I’d send to the premier.”
POST’s campaign resulted in the seizure of drugs worth nearly than R10 million and the arrest of three local druglords. POST’s “constructive support” was acknowledged by Mkhize in his State of the Province address in February and there are initiatives to reproduce the model it constructed with media elsewhere in the province.
At Lotus FM, station manager Alvin Pillay is credited with turning the station around and rebuilding sales revenues.
“You have to understand this is quite a mixed bag – so I do take a lot of flak!” he says. “There’s the mix of South African roots with affection for the old ‘mother country’; the Bollywood Top 20 beside the social cohesion messages; the religious mix of Hindu, Islamic and Christian; the north-south Indian divide that results in five extra vernacular languages: Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Telegu. Part of our community service is broadcasting an hour’s vernacular teaching each evening because 95% of SA Indians speak English.”
Almost 90% of Lotus’s 357 000 listeners are LSM 7 to 10. Similarly, when Isolezwe launched in 2002, it could capitalise on rapidly transforming opportunities and higher disposable incomes in its target market. It helped transform the vernacular print media by fusing tabloid style with a more ‘street’ form of Zulu and boasted an ABC figure of 110 764 for Q2 this year. This dwarfs the second quarter ABCs of stablemates the Mercury (30 121) and the Daily News (31 383). Licking their wounds at around the same place on that league table are two other venerable titles, the Cape Argus and the Cape Times. Isolezwe also clearly outsells Gauteng’s Sowetan (99 517) and The Star
(102 498) – and that’s without looking at the success of Isolezwe’s Saturday and Sunday editions, which yielded ABCs of 78 127 and
90 092 respectively for the period.
That means Isoleszwe ngoMqibelo, Hadebe’s “real hero” with 5% year-on-year growth, comprehensively outsells its stablemate Independent on Saturday’s 45 543 and nudges Saturday Star’s 82 839. Isolezwe ngeSonto outsells its Sunday Tribune stablemate’s 78 944 and Ilanga Langesonto’s 77 345. It’s also worth considering that the combined Isolezwe weekend editions also project them into the territory of the Sunday World (151 291) and Sunday Sun (207 294).
The Isolezwe difference for editor Hadebe is that staff feel “a personal obligation to deliver up-to-date, accurate relevant news – we live in the communities and the pressure’s incredible. If we put a foot wrong, miss a story, slip up on any detail – readers are all over us.”
Hadebe balances grassroots appeal with big-name columnists – recent catches include Fred Khumalo, plus former Isolezwe editor Thulani Mbatha giving his sports views. More traditional elements, such as a religious feature on Thursdays and regular profiles of maskandi artists on Saturdays, have proved a hit.
This doesn’t surprise Bonginhlanhla Mpanza, station manager of Ukhozi FM, whose 7.4 million listeners make it comfortably SA’s largest radio station and put it up among the global players. Having hovered for about 18 months around seven million, Ukhozi’s next target is breaking
7.5 million by early 2014. Mpanza’s placing his faith in Ukhozi’s “well-oiled machine” of programming ranging from its traditional funeral notices and gospel to giveaways of tickets to international superstar R Kelly’s Durban gig and weekly entertainment news from Ukhozi stringers in the US and UK.
“We do work to empower local artists, but we also now reflect what’s happening in music globally, so our Top 20 chart show is no longer South African artists only,” Mpanza says. “We believe we can’t try to keep our listeners locked in a box, especially if we know they’re enjoying international music. We regularly make little tweaks to take account of on-air interaction with listeners and feedback from our events.”
Ukhozi events are traditionally well attended, but the station surprised itself during its Gauteng Invasion promotion at the end of July, says Mpanza. About 10 000 people unexpectedly turned up at a simple outside broadcast at the George Goch Hostel between Johannesburg and Germiston, making Mpanza rethink future events by providing more security and on-stage live performances.
Given Ukhozi’s pulling power and its approximately two million LSM 7 to 10 listeners, Mpanza is saddened it remains an uphill task capturing a fair ad spend share. Having come from a sales background himself, he believes negative selling by opposition focuses on the low end of Ukhozi’s LSM 2 to 10 range to obfuscate the numbers of its higher-end listeners by comparison with other stations. This experience could make life difficult for Durban-based commercial radio station Vuma FM, which launched out of community radio station KNI almost a year ago.
“Thankfully, our readership’s spending power and commercial value has become more apparent, which makes it easier to attract ad spend,” says Isolezwe’s Hadebe. “A wide range of national and local advertisers support us and our advertising base is growing every year.
“We don’t insist advertisers use Zulu, but we’ve seen some great vernacular ads from the likes of KFC and MTN recently. It’s a trend we’d like to see grow and we have no doubt it will help those businesses grow as well.
“The bottom line is advertisers get response from Isolezwe. It’s largely through advertiser support that we can try new things and grow our titles further so we appreciate that.”
Even so, like Ukhozi’s Mpanza, Hadebe agrees LSMs haven’t done Isolezwe any favours.
“Looking at our combined audience, 28% are in one single bracket – LSM 6. Our non-urban readers mightn’t have dishwashers, air-conditioners and swimming pools, but they have cash to spend and look to advertising to make choices. An alternative to LSMs would help us get more of the national advertising pie and ease some of the massive bias towards Gauteng.”
Given KZN’s position as the country’s second largest provincial economy, that bias is painful to many regional businesses. But it also underlines the footprint extensions that several titles and stations have set up over the years to Gauteng and beyond, including Lotus leveraging its links within the SABC for TV slots on shows like Eastern Mosaic.
At East Coast Radio (ECR), South Africa’s biggest regional station, with 1.9 million listeners, GM Trish Taylor believes brands diversifying beyond and within their market drive innovation. For ECR, its hallmarks have been community involvement through programming and across media.
“We back this with events which we own ourselves, rather than simply being a media partner,” says Taylor.
Their flagship ECR Discovery Big Walk attracts 35 000 walkers. Their most unusual venture has been into publishing, with Erica Platter’s second book for them, ‘East Coast Tables: The Inland Edition’ just out and selling like proverbial hotcakes nationally. Like Ukhozi’s Mpanza, Taylor is considering invading Gauteng – in her case leveraging long-held loyalties, such as an expat Sharks fans event.
Against other provinces like the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, which also experience economic migration, KZN’s stronger economy allows the region’s media to extend beyond vernacular radio and community press. Its mainstream brands rival competitors on the national stage by setting their own agenda. They do this by combining the role of community champions with capitalising on the local pride and interests of those who have chosen to build family lives, careers and businesses in the Zulu Kingdom. The KZN media’s geographic extensions are often based on getting in touch with their diaspora.