Community media is essential for tackling grassroots issues. Peta Krost Maunder speaks to community media activist Nkopane Maphiri about the status of this sector.
“Service delivery protests were averted in some parts of the country by community radio stations allowing the relevant people to debate and get answers from authorities.” So says Nkopane Maphiri, who has been involved in community media throughout his career.
“Community media is the perfect platform for thrashing out and resolving problems in the community,” he says. “It is all about trust and knowing what is happening in your neighbourhood or your community.”
Maphiri recently resigned as chief operating officer at the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) to take up a directorship at The Media Connection, which tackles advertising sales for community radio stations.
As a teenager, he fancied working in the media, initially imagining himself running around hotspots with a camera. “I just wanted to get involved in what was happening in this country,” he says.
His first experience of community media was setting up a public address system in Soweto and broadcasting to the community. “We were a bunch of young people having fun but we had a real impact,” says Maphiri, who explains that this makeshift radio station was the genesis of JoziFM and SowetoTV.
In 1992, Maphiri helped launch the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF) as a platform for engagement for those working in the sector.
The NCRF was established after the historic Jabulani Freedom of the Airwaves Conference was held in the Netherlands, at which South African activists discussed how to develop a community media landscape in South Africa.
The conference confirmed the need for an independent regulator and a three-tier approach to broadcasting, which included public, private and community stations. This was later consolidated in the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act of 1993.
Maphiri studied marketing and advertising because he was intrigued by how both worked in the media space. “I had a great sense of the potential of both radio and television, although I could see how expensive the latter was.”
A few years later he became CEO of the NCRF. He has served on the Africa board of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (known by the French acronym Amarc) and on the scrutiny committee of the South African Advertising Research Foundation (Saarf) Radio Audience Measurement Survey (Rams). He has worked as a marketing and advertising trainer and consultant. He has also written a marketing and advertising toolkit for community radio and print.
As much as he sees the importance of community media, he understands its challenges.
He says community radio – which in South Africa has a combined audience of 8.3 million listeners, according to Saarf – is not receiving sufficient advertising support. “This is despite it having a real appeal for people with its local flavour, relevance and familiarity of voices,” he says.
He cites the example of Kofifi FM and how the West Rand station focused on the death of the four-year-old boy who was shot in the crossfire in Westbury. “The listeners needed to talk about it and the radio station was in a position to be their platform and to help find the suspects. The problem is that the ad revenue is simply not growing at the same pace as the audiences.”
Maphiri is grateful for the relationship between commercial and community radio, which has been enhanced by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Its CEO Nadia Bulbulia used to sit on the MDDA board.
“NAB understands that community radio is a reservoir of talent for the industry and they need to keep it alive. So NAB puts a substantial amount of money into the MDDA to ensure training, funding and development of the ecosystem,” says Maphiri.
He acknowledges media agency concerns with the professionalism of community radio, saying it is up to organisations like The Media Connection to fill in the gaps. “They can help put in place systems that ensure ads are placed on time and that there is a record of this available to the clients,” says Maphiri.
But with potentially volatile content matter, how easy is it to ensure that racist, sexist and hate speech do not end up on air? “There are the risks to having enthusiastic youngsters on air but they well know they have to abide by the licensing conditions. Compliance is part of their training and mechanisms are put in place to allow people the platform to vent their frustrations and allow others to provide their perspectives, but not to cross the line,” says Maphiri.
He believes this works and even in the heart of rural KwaZulu-Natal, Radio Kwezi is able to demystify homosexuality and other controversial topics, like HIV-Aids, that affect everyone.
“The stations understand their power and that they have to allow for multiple views or they will lose their license,” he says.
Maphiri is far more concerned about the challenges that new technology brings to community media. “There will be more frequencies and more space on air. Is the economy able to sustain all these additional stations? Or will it simply correct itself with some stations falling away or merging?”
He maintains that audience patterns are changing with technology. “Broadcasting as a whole needs redefining,” he says. “The stations must understand their listeners more and advertisers, their market. Audiences follow content and adverts must follow audiences.”
He warns community stations against complacency because these platforms can become irrelevant. “We need to be able to plug social media into our platform and define it,” he says.
Maphiri is worried about community newspapers because of the numerous tough challenges they face.
“Print is a more expensive medium and an unregulated space dominated by the ‘big four’ – Caxton, Times Media, Independent and Media24,” he says. “It is almost impossible for independent publishers to do well as the big companies make it prohibitive for the small ones to emerge or stay afloat.”
He explains that if a community newspaper is doing well, one of the mainstream media houses will want to buy it. “Then when the owner says no, the big guys start up a competitor with lower ad rates, and printing more frequently. The big guys own the printers and the distributors so they can really make life difficult if they want to.
“It is really cold out there for independent publishers. They need the Association of Independent Publishers to lift their game.”
He admits this is hard when the organisation is preoccupied with raising funds to support itself.
“With the entire print industry under strain, the hyper-local evolution needs to happen. It is important to have platforms for diverse opinions and voices. We need to invest in community newspapers, particularly to enable the promotion of indigenous language and culture,” he says.
One way to ensure the sustainability of community newspapers is through government committing 30% ad spend. However, Maphiri says this has been put on the backburner because it needs to be re-evaluated by government. “We don’t want an e-tolls saga on our hands.”
He believes it is important for independent publishers to work together to overcome obstacles.
It is vital for the ‘big four’ to resume paying their MDDA contributions (which they haven’t done this year) so the organisation can continue helping the community press.
While there is a lot of work to be done, Maphiri is confident that the passion and commitment to community media exists.
This story was first published in the October 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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