When South Africans launch online radio stations, they compete with the world. That is unless they offer something special to a particular community.
The internet is swamped with thousands upon thousands of stations catering to any taste imaginable. Online radio dates back to 1993, when Carl Malamud launched Internet Talk Radio – a talk show featuring computer experts. Music soon followed with a live internet broadcast of a Rolling Stones concert in November 1994. Since then, listening to radio via streaming has slowly taken off in South Africa as well, but its popularity remains a conundrum. While most commercial South African radio stations offer online streaming, this is merely an add-on to its traditional offering. However, a few radio stations are opting to broadcast via streaming only, including Afrikaans online station Radio Oorboord and the fully South African brand, Interwebsradio.
Is online radio commercially viable? According to Shaun Dewberry of Interwebsradio, it certainly is no goldmine. “Income? What’s that? We’re currently not profitable, but we have advertising slots that we try to fill to cover most of our costs. We also have a budding affiliate programme where we get commission for referred sales of music at various online music stores.”
Eugene Posthumus of the Afrikaans online station Radio Oorboord agrees. “We don’t [make money]; it is just for fun. And we pay the licence fees to broadcast as a personal expense. It is important to me not to operate as a ‘pirate’ station without paying the licence fees as many internet stations do. Music isn’t free, and artists need to pay their water and lights too.”
Both Interwebsradio and Radio Oorboord play music only and don’t make use of presenters. “We give our DJs and selectors creative control of the music selection played, unlike most terrestrial radio stations where the DJs are confined to a playlist that gets compiled by an accountant,” says Dewberry.
Posthumus follows the same approach. “We do not have irritating kakpraat DJs, just wall-to-wall music. And we also play Afrikaans music, which does not get exposure on the more mainstream channels.”
But how popular are these stations? While Posthumus says he doesn’t bother to crunch stats for fear of discovering that he is the sole listener, Dewberry reveals that listenership is very low compared to traditional commercial radio stations. “The Digital Media and Marketing Association tracks listeners as Qualified Sessions, which are connections lasting longer than one minute. We see a lot of drop-offs between one and two minutes so we work on a connected-for-two-minutes-or-longer measurement. January 2013 saw a total of 3 359 two-minute “qualified sessions”. Of those, 8.2% (995) listened to our station for over an hour and 7.8% (949) tuned in for between 30 minutes and an hour. If you want to average that out it is 109 listeners in a day.”
Dewberry says they plan to change this. “We always want to grow the listenership. We want to engage our listeners more closely to give them more influence on the music we play. We’re expanding our network of DJs and selectors to the same end. Ideally we’d also like to have one or two stable sponsors that will allow our ‘head of music’ to apply more of his time to the station.”
Despite online radio not having taken off en masse yet, Posthumus reckons it gives consumers more choice to fit their own tastes. Dewberry says web-based radio won’t have a measurable impact on conventional radio; at least, not yet. “We don’t think it is changing traditional radio, but it is changing the listener [who now has] a vast selection of content to choose from. Streaming radio also allows for far more accurate listener demographics than traditional radio’s ‘listener diaries’ method. This offers far superior targeted opportunities for advertisers. Once the advertisers start shifting perhaps then traditional radio will change.”
Both Interwebsradio and Radio Oorboord rely heavily on word-of-mouth and social media as marketing tools.
While online radio seems to struggle to get a foothold in the South African market, trends in the United States suggest that it might change sooner than we think.
According to an article published in PC Magazine in November 2012, 50% of the US’s internet population aged 13 and older listened to an internet radio or on-demand music service in the previous three months. “The popularity and convenience of internet radio appears to be cutting into traditional music listening,” the magazine says.
Judged by past music consumption trends, it will take South African listeners anything between 10 and 15 years to catch up with US trends.
So, for now, fans of local music and Afrikaans alternative music who turn to online to saturate their thirst for something different, will remain a small and largely unknown audience.