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Checking in from Highway Africa

Grahamstown is awfully far from anywhere I’ve been before on the African continent – I mean that both literally and figuratively. From Johannesburg, it’s a 90 minute flight south to Port Elizabeth, followed by a 130km drive through game parks, to a tidy college town of wide streets, and whitewashed buildings that look very much like an English country town transplanted to the Eastern Cape. It’s a little disconcerting – the weather this morning has felt more Scottish than African, and the first-class facilities at Rhodes could just as easily be at Harvard, Oxford or any other top university. And, like every university conference I’ve been to, I’m having a terrible time getting online…

The first panel I’ve been able to catch is on community media in South Africa. Lumko Mtimde and Tracey Naughton from the National Community Radio Forum outline some of the history of South African community radio, a movement which has had amazing growth over the past decade. Naughton began working with Soweto Community Radio in 1993, as one of 15 projects she focused on, none of which had stations actually on the air. By 1995, 15 of 38 were broadcasting, and now there are 82 projects affiliated with NCRF, all of which are on the air.

The challenges to the growth of community radio had to do with skill-building within radio stations, resource constraints on these stations, and numerous policy hurdles that made it extremely difficult to launch a station. To create space for community radio stations, one strategy employed was frequency sharing – one station would broadcast on a frequency for part of the day, the other for the remaining hours. This got very difficult when one of the stations died – Naughton describes the challenge as “being a Siamese twin, carrying around your brother’s corpse.”

As the movement grew, the absence of good audience metrics became an issue for community media – without being able to document audience size, it’s difficult to sell advertising. But as community radio has gained success, the problem’s been one of talent drain – Mtimde shows a video of a celebrated South African DJ, the late Fana Kabzela, who talks about his beginnings with Soweto Community Radio in 1996. Not only did on-air talent move on, so did station management and other activists. Some of the most vocal community radio activists have become media regulators!

(The massive movement of talent from the civil society sector to the government sector is a problem I’ve heard articulated by a number of activists I’ve met with. The challenge of building a representative government in South Africa over the past dozen years has given an incredible opportunity for activists to become the mainstream, but there’s still a need for activism…)

Community radio has had a great policy influence within South Africa. Community radio stations don’t pay a license fee, which is quite unusual. There are frequencies reserved for community radio, and a fast-track licensing process. But there’s still a great need for expansion, especially in rural areas, which still don’t have access to media. And there’s a market threat of community radio stations being crowded out by religious and right-wing stations, which are on the rise in South Africa.

Daniel Moalosi from NCRF celebrates the future possibilities of community radio, arguing that “the future is digital”. While FM “is not going to die”, he thinks it’s critical for community radio stations to think about online radio, podcasting and mobile radio – broadcasting to mobile phones via EDGE/UMTS and thinking about mobile satellite radio, ala Sirius/XM. While digital audio broadcasting hasn’t caught on well yet in Africa, he points to 35,000 internet radio stations online. 53% of South African radio stations have access to ADSL – whether or not they can afford it – which makes audio streaming a possibility. He presents a model for streaming radio which costs 7500 rand (about $100) to startup and 3700 rand (about $50) to maintain.

Zane Ibrahim, involved with community radio since 1974, was invited as a respondent. He identifies the weakness of community radio as the fact that “every person present has gone on to greater things” which means “there are no elders left” in the movement. Because community radio veterans are now the regulators, they’re very hard to outfox, as they’re experts on the loopholes! He’s deeply concerned about the rise of Christian broadcasting, pointing out that in the US, of 300 FCC licenses for community radio stations, 80% are now Christian broadcasters. He sees a similar trend in South African radio and television.

An optimistic note from Ibrahim regarding new technologies – Bush Radio has been running pledge drives on US West Coast public radio stations – US listeners can listen to Bush Radio via streaming media, recognize the importance of their work and choose to support it via their local stations.

Kenyan Pundit is here and blogging – she’s got an excellent piece on yesterday’s panel on the SAT-3 and EASSy cables, which I was sorry to miss, particularly since it featured my friends Eric Osiakwan and Ben Akoh. So’s Emeka Okafor, who’s sharing his power cable with me, but hasn’t found a clever way to share his wireless. I guess I’ll be visiting Rhodes IT services next…

7 thoughts on “Checking in from Highway Africa”

  1. That bandwidth can’t get to Nairobi soon enough…

    We’re about to go wireless for our home internet connection, but the speed is little faster than dial-up. Sad.

    When it gets cheaper & better, the podcasting thing could really take off here!

  2. Ndesanjo, man, you have no idea. I’m sitting outside a building on campus, using their wireless signal so I can catch up on the blogging. Hope you enjoy the posts from earlier today…

  3. It sounds as if that conference down in South Africa will be very interesting Ethan, and its great to hear that high-profile African bloggers, media industry and government figures from the continent are also involved. But I’m a little confused about something.

    The SAT-3 high bandwidth telecommunications cable and the ESSAY project to bring better communications to the continent (East-South-West) should have been completed years ago, oder? SAT-3 was described in a well-known article written by Hiawatha Bray and published on page 1 of the Boston Globe newspaper on July 22, 2001. The 7 page (printed) article is titled “The Wiring Of A Continent”. Is SAT-3 up and running for West Africa (Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and 5 other countries)?

    The Globe article also described the Africa One project by Massachesetts telecoms consultant Patricia Bagnell that was to construct a high-bandwidth fibre optic telecom ring around the entire continent. What happened, she couldn’t raise the estimated $1.8 billion dollars needed to carry out the plan? And whatever happened to South Africa’s Eskom Enterprises (SA utility giant) initiative to build a vast network of electric power transmission stations & high-bandwidth communications lines from Cape Town to Cairo?

  4. Hi BRE – SAT-3 has been operational for years, bringing connectivity to some West African countries. But it’s quite expensive, since the only ISPs that can use the cable use monopoly pricing. SAT-3 never covered East Africa – or was planned to – it connects South Africa to India instead. Africa One died on the vine – it never attracted close to enough funding.

    To follow these issues, I recommend Russell Southwood’s excellent Balancing Act newsletter…

  5. Thanks Ethan. Ory (Kenyan Pundit) has already brought me up-to-speed over at her place on SAT-3 and ESSAY. It’s sad that these telco consortiums involved with SAT-3 and ESSAY are so damn greedy and so afraid of outside competition that they would risk the future of millions of people in Africa to turn a profit. I wonder how some of their key international shareholders (SA Telekom) feel about this?

    I found another really interesting article about the ESSAY Project over at Cisco Systems News. Looks as if the ESSAY consortium has already shot itself in the foot re: funding from the World Bank and others. Here is the URL to the May 31, 2006 News@Cisco feature article:


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