While last year was a trying one for the radio industry, it also once again proved its value and agility.
If there was a year to prove that radio is tenacious, agile, tactile and versatile, 2020 was it. Add elements of care, compassion, fun and understanding alongside information, entertainment and news, and you really do seem to have the perfect media ‘friend’.
While the country was changing gears between lockdown levels, making sense of the new normal and telling the person on the other side of their buffering screens, “You’re on mute, we can’t hear you,” radio was turning up the volume and delivering a message that was loud and clear to audiences and advertisers: “You can depend on me.”
The 2020 radio landscape changed daily as stations and practitioners set their best-laid plans and strategies aside, and recalibrated their programming plans to serve audiences and communities much-needed information at the peak of the pandemic.
The year put focus on the value of well-planned broadcast systems, solid technical staff and in-tune programming teams. Empty studios, remote connections and rejigged programming plans saw the radio industry embrace the collective psyche of their communities. Working at home, being removed from loved ones, sharing moments, laughing, thinking, being lonely and getting sick – radio did it all.
The true agility of the medium was highlighted by the fact that there weren’t huge recalibration shifts, but rather constant change and calibration as the daily needs changed.
Besides the obvious, there were other challenges too. We saw many broadcast groups undergo organisational change, with retrenchments sweeping the industry. A shift in needs and required skills, a changing consumption landscape and commercial pressure have seen many experienced practitioners within organisations unemployed.
The short-term effect is devastating on the individuals, but I believe in many instances the need to refresh and push F5 at station level is key in ensuring long-term survival. I do think that as things settle this year, we will see those with unique skills in sales, marketing and operations add value as organisations feel the effects of shrinking teams. The need for campaign/project-based assistance and input will grow, and there will be a revival of creativity, ideas and energy. Those who can, will.
It starts with community
The community sector remains a key player in the radio sector. Financial challenges have been mitigated by ad hoc funding, government spend and support from the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) and these interventions have managed to keep the transmitters on for many community broadcasters. It is heartening to see a push from the MDDA in the sector to address sustainable funding models and operational management training. There is no doubt that community radio is a pillar of society and a key contributor to the media sector.
Community radio continues to be a source of talent development and identification. As a sector I think they have a right to be slightly less than enchanted with their commercial counterparts who snatch and recycle. Talent development, in all facets of the audio entertainment and delivery value chain, remains an issue. The next year will see more opportunity unfold in the on-demand space, and as the industry slowly, very slowly, chips away at DAB+, the need for fresh and unique talent, ideas and concepts is more pressing than ever.
My message to young, astute and creative practitioners is that the broader industry has yet to refresh their thinking on talent. There has never been a better time to leverage your own talent and create in your own space. If there is one lesson to learn from older broadcasters, it is not to allow your future audio career to be dictated by established broadcasters; the audio business is expanding and it needs your refreshing inputs.
Research remains a space that enjoys budgetary consideration at a commercial level. The insights coming out of various organisations point to similar trends. Radio is trusted, audiences are consuming in different places and on different devices, there is digital platform traction, and audiences enjoy the content and promotions offered.
The Broadcast Research Council (BRC) is looking to refresh their approach to audience data and this will certainly be an area that broadcasters will be keen to follow. For community media and SABC Radio, BRC Radio Audience Measurement is crucial to prove value for clients, as both the public and community sector operate in a generally research-lite or absent fashion. The data is also key for clients and agencies to help better inform the buying and placing of campaigns.
Radio’s tactile approach in 2020 allowed it to offer value to businesses looking to innovate in the heart of lockdown. Reaching people in their homes and offering constant value allowed the industry to remain commercially attractive. The commercial sector has indicated that there were definite declines in revenues, but the shift to online eventing and concerts, as well as very lucrative airtime deals and discounted airtime, has led to revenue being maintained. Considering the scale of businesses closing down and job losses, the radio sector has certainly shown economic resilience.
Tuning in to the future
With face masks still replacing pop covers, what else does 2021 hold?
The SABC will continue to be an organisation in flux. Colleagues who have survived the onslaught of the S189 will tell you that the Auckland Park facility is notably empty. Has the organisation retrenched the right people and are they now better suited to become sustainable? The SABC board has been notably quiet in the last year compared to previous years and regimes. Were the right decisions made and has the Minister of Communications had her final say yet?
ICASA continues to regulate with often-unwieldy policy that allows for a fair degree of interpretation. There are still commercially awarded licenses in the Free State and the Eastern Cape that have yet to go live and a variety of other compliance issues that plague the industry. As an organisation they face major developments in the tech and frequency spaces that must be hugely challenging to address.
When the sanitiser bottles and thermometers get packed away and the industry is able to meet again, I’m sure there will be stories to be told. I’m also hoping that as a business we will take an opportunity to acknowledge the vital role played by our industry in the most challenging times the modern world has seen.
Radio isn’t on mute. Mamela. We can hear you. In the words of Queen, “Radio, someone still loves you.”
This story was first published in The Media Yearbook 2021. You can download the digital issue here.
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