It’s no secret that South Africa and media within the country are facing numerous challenges. If you’ve attended a radio conference, read any number of blogs, or spoken to industry professionals you would have heard, at some point, that radio is under pressure.
Audiences are diverging, technology is encroaching, consumption habits are changing, the environment is uncertain, and the share of advertising spend is shrinking. When considering the statement that radio is under pressure, it strikes me that in my time as a radio professional, the medium has always been under pressure. I believe technology, distribution, management, issues of regulation, talent, music and content have always placed unrelenting pressure on the radio industry.
But we continually manage to outwit, outplay and outlast the pressure. Radio’s success lies in its tenacity and ability to be robust in an ever-changing landscape. Latest BRC RAM figures indicated that radio reaches 93% of the South African population over the age of 15. People are listening.
The public broadcaster holds the lion’s share of South African audiences who remain loyal to their brands, despite the on-going issues at the SABC, asserting the idea that home-language listening remains an important influencer for audiences.
The impact of the 90/10 reversal will benefit the SABC’s commercial portfolios the most in 2018, as they rally both audiences and advertisers back to their brands. It will be a long, slow process but these brands have significant footprints and the ability to reach audiences. SABC commercial radio is in a prime position to use the reversal and its traditional footprint to capture audience and revenue. The process requires effective management and it will be interesting to see if newly appointed group executive for radio, Nada Wotshela (left), will be able to rally her commercial team into optimal performance.
Advertisers looking to speak to these audiences have always enjoyed substantial value on their investments.For the SABC to become a viable and self-sustained institution, the need to evaluate both staff numbers, as well as staff performance and duties, will surely form part of their turnaround strategy. The strategy will hopefully also focus on the public radio brands not performing optimally (considering resource and footprint) and it is my hope that a station like SAfm will convert mediocrity into viable and accessible content across their various platforms.
A politically-charged year
2018 will be a politically-charged year and SABC Radio will play a significant role in the delivery of news, opinion and information leading into 2019; 2018 will show if there has been real change within the editorial and management spheres. Will public radio lead debate, conversation and education of audiences in a non-biased, free and balanced fashion?
The SABC has a key role to play in the digital radio space and the latest allegations of collusion with MultiChoice in the set-top box debacle will no doubt continue to make news this year.
In October 2017, former communications minister, Ayanda Dlodlo, in terms of the digital sphere, said she could not see why we couldn’t have 24-hour university or sport channels. But she added that more content needed to be generated and that people were needed to generate content.
Content creation should be the key area of focus for any player in the radio space in 2018.
Well-curated, considered, planned, relevant and localised content should give any tier of radio broadcaster the edge over any other media options available to audiences. The need to create radio dramas, short- and long-form documentaries, specialised content and audio-only options, as well as content on-demand, could never be more real. Audiences and consumers want to feel part of their communities and radio brands are perfectly positioned to be the champions and custodians of these communities. 2017 saw an uptake of specially-curated audio content created for online delivery and via mobile. 2018 will see more non-traditional players enter this market as they experiment in a space traditionally owned by radio.
New talent a challenge
Astute radio brands will continue to invest in research and development as they grapple with what and how audiences want to consume media, and specifically the role that audio content plays.
Last year saw many established stations move key talent into new positions with an eye on rejuvenating their offerings. The instance and introduction of new talent (with longevity) will be the challenge in 2018. Young and eager radio professionals have very little to celebrate in terms of new kids on the block making it big. In 2017, there was movement, but many players recycled existing talent in their line-up. Mentorship, training and development, as well as a real sustainable model to empower young radio professionals is needed to ensure radio can cater for audience content needs.
It is fair to say that we have a problem when large commercial players delay the ‘retirement’ of presenters only to bring them back in a different slot a few months later. As an industry, each tier (community, online, commercial and public) has a role to play in allowing people to become radio professionals and to grow and develop their talent.
One needs to only look at where many contributors in the commercial and public sector were grown and developed to understand that community radio is the perfect incubator for talent. The community sector cannot carry the financial burden of training without proper assistance and intervention from the SABC and commercial players.
Talent and content must not only be limited to the traditional on-air avenues within radio. To keep the medium interesting for advertisers and clients, it is critical to ensure that the entire creative value chain enjoys engaged talent who can create and sculpt campaigns that have value for audiences and yield returns for the advertiser. The growing trend over the last few years will continue in 2018; radio stations will have to incorporate more branded content into daily programming, and deliver large-scale activations and alternative content on other platforms as part of a holistic sales approach. The value for clients will lie more in engaged audiences who have a deep affinity with their radio station and the range of products they offer, than in mass audience numbers. Yes, total cume matters. But so do likes, hits, downloads and tickets bought.
The question of audience numbers
So, what about audience numbers?
Is the Broadcast Research Council (BRC) data having a different impact on the way stations sell and market themselves? What data are the stations using and who is benefitting from the data? Are station management viewing trends and supplementing BRC data with their own research, or is independent research guiding thinking and the BRC data is just a ‘nice to have’?
The SABC can hardly afford salaries, so I think it is fair to assume that independent research is a far way off, and that the sales division at the broadcaster relies heavily on the insight provided by the BRC. Commercial stations are always going to look at what metrics clients want to see. In the connected world, information and data that clients like to see can be directly related to users who have interacted with radio brands on their non-traditional radio platforms. I’m not convinced that up-weighted samples are getting the bookings they used to. Real-time analysis and holistic post-campaign reporting offers a more immediate and insightful look at audience engagement and reaction.
Any data is better than no data. Yet, the sector that could benefit most from research (for sales and audience purposes) is largely still unstable to non-existent in diary readings. Community radio requires insight to better serve local audiences, small businesses and the public service, but it is not forthcoming. In the past year, there have been a variety of stations claiming higher audience figures than reported by the BRC using their own metrics to back them up. The sector could only benefit from a united front, and I feel there lies opportunity at a national level between the department of communications and department of small business development to assist community radio in gaining much needed insight.
The community sector has not only been failed in research. The debacle at the MDDA has had a knock-on effect on much-needed funding for those stations that serve the poorest and most needy areas. I can’t see the tide turning quickly in 2018, as in the past, poor management put unrelenting pressure on radio. With any luck the in-fighting, portfolio committees and finger pointing will see a revised management structure at the MDDA that can better and more effectively serve community media.
And what about licenses?
Will 2018 see new community radio licenses being issued and the blanket halting of the license process lifted? As with the SABC and MDDA, effective leadership is required at ICASA to deal with a multitude of issues; radio being only one of them. The launch of two new commercial stations, one in the Free State and the other in the Eastern Cape, went notoriously quiet in 2017. I would hope to see the necessary pressure being applied by the regulator, communities of the proposed service areas and competitor radio brands to see these stations go live. The fact that licenses were granted must indicate there was a need for the existence of the services.
In my mind the most exciting space in 2018 will be in curated podcasts and the coming online of radio services that exist out of passion for a niched community, either common interest, music or geography. As these services and products offer no real financial threat to the established industry, they will continue to carve a new way of listening for audiences.
Choice and relevance will be key drivers fuelled by the desire to consume local information told in a uniquely South African way. The cost of producing and creating content has literally become affordable to anyone with a smart phone and enough money to buy a coffee to get free wi-fi. Coupled with a virtually unlimited international offering, 2018 will see an even bigger move to becoming platform agnostic with FM, online and mobile converging in a common content space.
Radio will continue to feel the unrelenting pressure in 2018. But radio has a legacy and a reputation, and this helps to create a trustworthy relationship with audiences. The intense human element that created the foundation of what radio is will not be replaced. People want to engage.
This story was first published in The Media Yearbook 2018. To read the digital magazine, click on the cover image.
Tim Zunckel is a creative programmer, problem solver and lover of audio who is always keen to engage and share thoughts and ideas.