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…