There is a dormant broadcasting industry in South Africa, and this industry is suppressed by over-regulation and a degree of “nannying” by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA).
And while it serves the interests of some licensees (particularly former SABC stations, Talk Radio 702 and those who were granted “Greenfield” licences in the late 1990s) to have ICASA continue along the path it is taking, this robs the listeners of choice between – and diversity of – competitor stations.
ICASA has commissioned a feasibility study to determine the possibility of issuing new licences in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape (“Radio horoscope”, The Media, October 2008). The possibility of increased competition is encouraging. However, ICASA should not be dictating formats. It would be similar to preventing a publisher from bringing out a commercial magazine/periodical unless it covers certain subjects.
Whilst ICASA is to be commended for trying to encourage a diversity of “voice” and “style” within the broadcasting environment, there are aspects of these aims that should be served by community stations or by the SABC as a public service broadcaster.
Commercial radio should be more competitive. In the USA, commercial radio is a competitive fi eld with listeners having the benefit of a choice of stations within a format band. Broadcasters have to be more relevant to the lives of their listeners and they have to provide better programming and more exciting marketing than their competitors if they want to secure an audience, which they can then take to market and attract advertising revenue. This does not prevent a station from becoming a dominant force within its market (city or region), but most certainly ensures that there are options.
In a free market system, when one offering becomes successful and starts to attract a market, competitive forces will enter that sector (format) in order to gain a share of the lucrative market. At a certain point, the market can get too fragmented and the format would become unprofitable, forcing a re-think of strategy.
My question to ICASA is: What’s wrong with that? In the South African context, such an approach will give advertisers more options, and will give audiences the opportunity to vote with their dials. It will ensure that stations have to be more creative in their programming (and marketing). And it will encourage some investors/entrepreneurs to look at smaller markets in which to set up radio stations.
ICASA would argue that there is limited space available on the frequency spectrum. I’m unconvinced. In a city like New York, in the early 1990s, there were over 100 FM stations within a 30km radius.
If ICASA examined frequency spectrum management plans as implemented in several markets elsewhere in the world (and even the model I previously suggested), they could easily manage the spectrum more efficiently and effectively and allow for more commercial radio broadcasters.
Would this approach increase the difficulty of regulating the market? It certainly would. But then again, managing the radio industry was never supposed to be an easy task.
Lance Rothschild is a former station manager of 5FM, who has also worked in television, print and online. He runs a marketing and communications consultancy in Johannesburg.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (December 2008).
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