Community radio matters. It can contribute significantly to the quality of life of poor communities, through information, education, and entertainment and as a platform for discussion. These stations can be the electronic equivalent of a community meeting, giving voice to people usually ignored by the mainstream media.
But they face enormous challenges; it is no easy task to keep an organisation running in a poor community, and to ensure that a team that tends to consist mostly of volunteers remains focused on a mission of independent community service. Many things can go wrong, from a breakdown of equipment to conflict between board and management, or the station being misused by some local power.
The reality is that there are some community stations who do very well, and many others that don’t.
Battle for survival
Top of the list of concerns for most stations is the simple battle for survival, particularly for stations in the global south. The search for sustainability has become a major preoccupation: for the stations, people’s livelihoods are at stake, while funders naturally want to see projects survive and prosper independently. The search for solutions is conducted through research projects, conferences, seminars and the like, but a magic formula has not yet been found.
Fairbairn and Siemering define sustainability as being “the ability of a radio station to maintain a good quality developmental broadcasting service over a period of time” (2006: 5). Lush and Urgoiti make the point that this cannot just be about money, as important as that is. The challenge of generating an income needs to be connected to “democratic principles of community broadcasting”. They write: “(S)ustainability has been seen to be a much broader and more complex concept, and should be seen in the context of a concerted, on-going effort to make any community media initiative viable and functional” .(2011: 10).
Gumucio-Dagron describes survival as being like the “art of aerialists”, or circus tightrope walkers: “They sometimes fall on the net and they ascend to begin again. The difference is that in community media most of the time there is not a net to cushion the fall. Therefore many projects were frustrated just after they began, and so they were not able to settle down inside the community” (2003: 1). He identifies three elements of sustainability – this “tripod” model has been taken up by several other writers.
Social sustainability refers to community support, both by feeling a sense of ownership and in practical ways. Gumucio-Dagron writes: “Without community participation, the communication experience becomes an island amid the human universe in which it operates” (2003: 4).
Support is expressed in many different ways,:through voluntary work, donations, participation in activities and constructive criticism. For the radio station, it means making sure there are ample opportunities for participation and for making sure it is in tune with its community, in terms of the issues focused on, language use and other aspects.
Institutional sustainability refers to organisational frameworks within which the station operates. These include external factors, like the legal framework, government policy and the licensing regime: in some countries, government has defined a special space for community radio and even formulated policy to support stations; in others the government remains uninterested or even hostile. Internal factors that play a major role include the infrastructure and technology available and organisational structures.
Financial sustainability: community radio stations need funds to be able to pay salaries, produce programmes, buy equipment, repair it when necessary, meet operational expenses, pay transmission costs etc. The demands always seem to be growing, and the struggle to earn enough money is unending. In addressing this challenge, the first task is good budgeting and financial management, so as to keep costs under control.
The challenges of generating enough income are particularly acute for stations serving poor, rural communities, and can easily overshadow other concerns. In a major review of the impact of community radio, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (Amarc) notes that the struggle for money often distracts practitioners from the tasks of improving community involvement, programme quality and relevance (2007).
A review of the Namibian community radio sector finds this pattern, too. “Over time, community broadcasters have become pre-occupied with financial sustainability, and seem to have lost sight of key issues such as community ownership and participation, and the independence of their stations” (Lush and Urgoiti 2012: 16).
Certainly, money is critically important, like the fuel that keeps an engine running. But it is the other two aspects of sustainability that keep the tap open: they lay the basis for financial sustainability in a very real and practical way. Community support enables donations, voluntary work and other practical assistance; while a loyal listenership is what attracts both large and local advertisers. A stable, well-run organisation can offer donors and others a reliable partnership. In the pointed phrase used by Lush and Urgoiti as the title of their review of Namibian community radio (2011), participation pays.
The challenge of achieving sustainability with independence. The common fixation with generating income can often threaten a station’s independence, since money often comes with strings attached. It is easy to be tempted by a large contract, but it is essential to make sure that it does not jeopardise the station’s relationship with the community.
That relationship is built on trust which can be lost if the community sees a station as simply a vehicle that can be bought by an interest group, to further their particular interests. Once lost, trust is hard to restore.
The case for advertising
There are pitfalls in excessive dependence on any single source of income. Southern African stations tend to accept advertising, unlike some countries where community stations are forbidden to do so (Girard 2007: 43). Accurate figures for the overall significance of advertising flowing into the community radio sector are hard to come by.
Some effort has been made by South Africa’s state-backed Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), and its 2010/11 annual report suggests that almost R40 million in advertising spending might have gone to some 130 community radio stations in that year (2011: 75).
The amounts are still far below the share of audience community radio achieves: while 25% of the potential adult audience are now listening to
these stations weekly, the sector’s share of the total adspend on radio is estimated at 1 to 2% (Milne 2012). Nevertheless, it is a significant amount of money, partly boosted by deliberate government policy to direct significant parts of its advertising spending into community radio, which also influences decisions at parastatal entities.
On the other hand, such figures exclude local income. Advertising in other Southern African countries is unlikely to amount to even a fraction of these amounts. However, the issue is not so much the amount, but the extent of dependence on advertising, and whether it influences the station unduly.
Government support, both at local and at national level, can – and should – be an important source of funding. “(R)adio stations and community telecentres should receive the same support as public schools, the libraries or national cultural projects. This does not mean that the state should intervene in the political and communicative project of community media, but should support their development as autonomous, and decentralized entities,” writes Gumucio-Dagron (2003: 18). This support may come in various forms: through direct funding, subsidised transmission costs, tax concessions, paid-for public interest campaigns or advertising. Local governments may make office space available, sometimes with free services. These contributions have become a significant factor for community radio in South Africa.
Unfortunately, there have been instances where government entities have used their position in an attempt to influence content. South African municipalities in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, and in Hartswater, Northern Cape, have mounted advertising boycotts of community media over critical reportage (Parliamentary communications committee, 2011). And the Alfred Nzo community station, also in the Eastern Cape, had its electricity supply summarily cut when the district council heard things it did not like (personal communication).
A recent discussion paper by the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) notes that some stations “have been presented with challenges from local government representatives who seek to have undue influence on the administration of the stations. If not regulated and managed properly by the community broadcasters local government funding option might exacerbate such a trend” (2012: 42).
A different set of challenges arises in relation to funding by international donors. Organisations like the Open Society family of foundations, Panos, Unesco, national development foundations from the Nordic countries, Germany, Switzerland, Britain, the US and many others have been attracted to community radio because of the contribution local, participatory communication is seen to play in furthering the development agenda.
Many stations would not exist if it was not for this kind of international support. However, case studies from Kenya and elsewhere demonstrate the dangers of excessive dependence on foreign funding. Da Costa warns “communities and their leadership to beware of strangers bearing gifts”.
But funding is not the only potential threat to independence. Interest groups in the community itself – parties, factions, churches, or even an individual business – may try to exercise undue influence, or even try to “capture” the station.
Radio Atlantis FM, outside Cape Town, has seen conflict between two community groupings over the years: churches and trade unions. Both have tried to bus in enough supporters to take over the board at an AGM, even though this would pose a direct threat to the station’s licence, which in terms of South African law must be non-partisan. Factional battles have also affected staff, who have on occasion used the airwaves to attempt to muster community support (this description based on Fairbairn and Siemering, 2006: 77 – 90).
From sustainability to health
“Sustainability” is the term generally used in the literature dealing with the challenges faced by community radio. However, the word points in some directions which are not helpful to clear thinking.
It suggests sustainability is a happy state of prosperity and stability that can be reached by a station, and which will then endure. The concrete – and understandable – expectation from funders is that after a certain period of time, stations will be able to stand on their own two feet.
In reality, stations have their ups and downs: many have failed after seeming secure, while others have fallen apart and then picked themselves up again. The struggle for survival is an ongoing one.
It’s preferable to talk about a station’s health, since health is understood as something that is not fixed, but can change from time to time. It also helps us reduce an excessive concentration on financial issues, in favour of a more holistic approach that gives due weight to social and institutional factors.
This story was first published by the Rhodes Journalism Review in its ALIVE! digital magazine. It is republished here with their permission. It is an edited extract from Chapter 1 by Franz Krüger, Romanus Monji and Mike Smurthwaite. The Healthy Community Radio Station (Johannesburg: Osisa and Wits Radio Academy is available here . The booklet was launched at Joburg Radio Days in July 2013.
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