In the days leading up to the 2019 budget address in Parliament, finance minister Tito Mboweni said that the SABC had too many radio stations that were duplicates of each other. He added that the corporation should stay away from National Treasury and look at selling off some of their assets.
I’m not wholly convinced there are duplicated stations. Several are programmed in the official South African languages while others serve different information and music formats. The commercial offerings are English language broadcasters but cover different genres, age groups and geography.
There is, however, an overwhelming sentiment within the broadcasting sector, that the commercial assets within the SABC, both TV and radio, should be sold to alleviate the debt of the corporation and allow them to focus on delivering a true public service offering.
The commercial portfolio of the SABC competes with private media groups for shrinking budgets and limited ad spend. The dire financial situation at the SABC further compounds the fact that many of these brands, although selling and making money, are propped up by the resources and infrastructure that they operate in at the SABC. In short, they are to broadcasting what SAA is to aviation.
The issue that the SABC faces if Mboweni were to get his way is that their current commercial radio brands are being so badly managed that if they were to be sold off, they would hardly make a dent to the current debt. It’s not from a lack of trying by those working on these brands, it is poor management decisions that have put them under pressure and ultimately led to their failure.
Commercial radio practitioners often talk about generating revenue and building audiences as being the two core functions of their business. So why could a brand lose audience and have dismal financial performance? Why would they no longer be seen as a formidable and powerful player in the radio space?
For a start, here are five reasons …
- No station manager: There is no one captaining the ship. Every brand needs someone who is in charge, who takes the lead, who supports, who manages the strategy and who protects the team. This could be a station manager, general manager or station CEO. When this position is vacant or filled by someone in an acting capacity, are the best decisions with long term impact being made, or is a holding position being maintained?
- No programme manager: There is no head of programming, programme manager, programme executive or chief content officer. How do you build consistency on-air and with content when there is no one keeping track of all the creatives? Who do the creatives report to, in whose office do they have their melt-downs, who approves their content budget and helps them build and believe in their ideas?
- No music manager: Unless you’re running a talk station, music remains the cornerstone of a bulk of programming time. If there is no music manager or senior compiler, who is executing the daily music strategy, ensuring the art and science is being effectively managed and executed?
- No sponsorship and promotions co-ordinator: Brands that want to make money, sell advertising, execute creative concepts and sponsorship opportunities require at least one person to be the conduit for all the activity from sales, programming, traffic and marketing. Who’s looking after the golden egg?
- No sales manager: In order to make money, you need someone who actually chases the money. A person who knows the brand, the programming and the marketing. More importantly someone who knows the agencies, clients and brands that want to be on radio. Sales forms an integral part of the operational structure of a commercial radio team. If there is no sales manager, there’s no one looking out for the goose that lays the golden egg.
If one or more of these positions is vacant for a considerable amount of time, the rest of the team is operating in an under resourced environment. The filling of these positions is a management issue; if they remain vacant, management is placing unnecessary and unrelenting pressure on the radio station. It has been said of the SABC that there are so many people in acting positions it rivals Hollywood. This would be fine if we were making content and money like Hollywood.
It doesn’t matter what your strategic position is on paper, you still need people to run the business operationally, working towards the strategic vision.
I agree that the SABC has too many people who do too little work, get paid too much and are under-skilled. Mr Mboweni, unless the plan is to actually cull a brand by allowing it to die a slow death, you have to appoint the right people to let your brands live out loud.
[Story updated 4.48pm with new photograph]
Tim Zunckel is a radio programmer, creative and innovator.