Most of my agency colleagues shudder at the mention of community radio. I too must confess to having some dire memories of attempting, for eons, to extract proof of flighting from certain community stations, only to have to confront the rather obvious, but disappointing, truth as to why it had not been forthcoming.
Perhaps predictably, in the Government Central Information Services (GCIS) 2012 Media Landscape book, Nkopane Maphiri explained that after an investigation, the portfolio committee on communications had “noted with concern that challenges with the advertising industry remain. Community media projects lamented the lack of advertising support for community radio… The lack of support is as a result of the lack of understanding by the advertising industry of the community and small commercial media”.
Both the GCIS and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), in its assessment of The State of the Broadcast Industry 2014, were proud to describe community radio as collectively the “third largest broadcaster nationally”. The pride is understandable as this category of radio licence did not exist prior to 1994. It was the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, No. 153 of 1993 that introduced community services in addition to public and commercial services.
To qualify as a community service there were four criteria. Firstly, the service had to be fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on for non-profitable purposes. Secondly, it had to serve a particular ‘community’, which could either be a geographic community or a community of interests (a religious group, for example). Thirdly, the licensee was to encourage members of the community served by it to participate in the selection and provision of programmes to be broadcast. Finally, the service could be funded by donations, grants, sponsorships or advertising or membership fees, or by any combination thereof.
In retrospect, it seems to me that it could well have been the community services that failed to understand the commercial imperatives of the advertising industry. In doing so they consigned themselves to relying on funding from the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) and other government sources. Ultimately the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) has now issued a moratorium on community licences due to concerns over spectrum availability and licencing process. Sustainability is likely to be an issue of concern in this second area.
It was with extreme delight that I visited HOT91.9FM earlier this week, just after the station’s first birthday, to learn about their passionate and innovative approach to community broadcasting. I have to confess that I am clearly biased – the station plays the ‘old skool and R&B’ that opens the floodgates of my memory and washes me back to heartfelt moments, both happy and sad. It is not only its music that does that, but also the voices. This is where radio legends such as Darren Scott, Jeremy Mansfield, Kevin Savage, Sasha Martinengo, Mark Pilgrim and Treasure Tshabalala now indulge their passion for radio. (This is just to name a few of the talents in this station’s incredible line-up.)
I met with Lloyd Madurai, founder and managing director and Ingrid Busschau, national sales manager, to learn about their inspired journey. Madurai has had nothing short of a stellar career – at 15 he was the youngest commercial DJ in the country and at 26 the programme manager of Jacaranda 94.2 FM. But he found radio had just become too commercial, too corporate, too consultant driven, too playlist driven, too formulaic, too impersonal, too celebrity driven. It was just a “sausage factory”.
Although he had been told by Icasa there was no space on the spectrum for additional licences, he discovered a failed community station that was handing back its licence, albeit one based on a low wattage. Having commissioned a spectrum analysis that suggested they could viably cover Johannesburg North, Madurai opted not to utilise Sentech to broadcast their signal, but to buy their own transmitter. This is an impressively named “circular polarised antenna system”, which enables the station to get the most out of the signal. It makes the station responsible for the transmitter maintenance, but spares the station from enduring the notorious one-sidedness of a Sentech contract.
The station was put together on a shoestring, with everyone getting their hands dirty, literally building and wiring the studio. Even the control desk, the dignified grand dame, Beatrice, has a story. She was discovered under a pile of tyres in a certain broadcaster’s basement. At 35, she had been deemed ‘past it’ in this digital age. With compassion and reverence for broadcasting history, she was dusted off and dispatched overseas, where experts could coax her into working with computers.
The talent was attracted by the vision of delivering real radio again, of actually having fun again. Madurai speaks about how good radio is about speaking intimately to that special listener, not to some researched profile. It is about the DJ playing the music that he loves and wants to share, not simply adhering to a researched playlist. And then there is no “corporate shit” as Jeremy Mansfield states honestly in the station video. DJs were told there were no funds but were asked to help bring in advertisers.
In the first year of broadcasting HOT91.9FM triumphantly trounced the commercial stations at the MTN Radio Awards with five significant wins namely: Best Breakfast Show Presenter, Best Breakfast Show, Best Content Producer, Best News Bulletin Reporter and Best Weekend Radio Show.
Research suggested that the broadcast area delivered a captive upper LSM (8+) market, which would be responsive to the music format. This makes the station something of an anomaly as many geographically licenced community stations serve remote or disadvantaged communities. Indeed, Madurai had an interesting argument for Icasa – if you want to help the disadvantaged, let us mobilise the advantaged.
True to its community mandate, the station supports its causes with passion. Most recently, a fire in the Randburg SPCA devastated the shelters; staff helped to shelter animals and the station raised R239 000 for the charity. The very next day, a fire broke out in Kya-Sands informal settlement, and the station urged its listeners into donating R95 000.00, set up a mobile feeding scheme and assisted the Gift of the Givers. Another initiative, ONE Wingz of Change, has helped people with truly meaningful assistance: Bongiwe, a 15-year disabled child, received a brand new deluxe, foldable electric wheelchair to help her with her daily 2.5 km commute to school. ONE Wingz of Change launched Joburg’s Hottest Bursary, for students wanting a better career through education. Aspiring teachers, law students, nurses and accountants have been helped. Over 50 charities have received free airtime.
The station also runs the Gauteng Media Development Project on Saturdays to train people in their medium. The youngest person is 19, the oldest 50. There is only one requirement – be passionate about radio.
In all of this doing good, there is nevertheless a sales manager, Ingrid Busschau, who decamped from United Stations after hearing Madurai present his vision. Despite having to use her pension to survive until the first pay check came through, she talks of the station as her “family” and says “It’s been amazing to be with and work with all these passionate people who were here, not earning a cent for the first few months”.
She goes on to to talk about how she has tried to turn some “commercial radio” sales concepts upside down. She talks about honouring the station’s relationships with media agencies, about not going behind their backs, about giving them access to inventory deals, about putting together packages which do deliver frequency.
When I was a young planner, radio had a relatively cheap cost per thousand and was considered a medium in which one could build frequency. Somehow this concept has been passed down a generation or two, with no one doing the maths. So-called ‘demand driven’ rate hikes mean that radio can be more expensive than TV in cost per point terms. So there is something delightfully ‘old skool’ about this commitment to delivering frequency.
Busschau’s experience and commercial suss ensure that she and her team deliver to clients whether they be motor dealerships, property auctioneers or doughnut shops. They are keen event partners and have scooped up some great events (WinEx, Dinner En Blanc), and even then manage to bring a twist to that. Not having expensive outside broadcast facilities, they pride themselves on delivering the real feel of an event.
There is an interesting story about a national advertiser deciding not to use the station as it did not match the reach of commercial stations. Nevertheless, the station recognised and supported the client’s birthday promotion. In turn, this client celebrated the station’s birthday by providing the staff with breakfast. Then there are the small advertisers, who have miniscule budgets. To these they say, keep your money, we will give you a week of pro bono time. And the station has just acquired brand ambassadors for life.
I could continue to enthuse. It is so seldom that I go into an environment where people are so energised, so passionate, so committed to having fun and doing good. And to top it all, they are proving that community radio can be sustainable.
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