Digital Solutions Expand Radio’s Impact in South Africa
By John Masuku
Radio in Africa is rapidly moving to a multi-platform, digital world, but the old terrestrial broadcast remains strong. Radio has strengthened during the Covid-19 lockdown, being increasingly used as a medium that facilitates homeschooling.
When Gavin Meiring, a South African broadcaster for over thirty years founded Radio Solutions consultancy, he aimed at keeping radio afloat in the fast-growing digital world, despite many challenges dating back to the arrival of the cassette. He thinks that the continent, as part of the global digital world, can’t ignore changes affecting media consumption worldwide.
Digital First Is the Solution
“I have always been a strong advocate of using digital first as a means to creating radio or broadcast content, as
this allows for more of a multi-platform delivery of content, especially in radio which can be one dimensional,”
says Meiring, adding that many stations still use the internet only as a promotional platform.
The digital content will be the primary content that presenters use within their shows. Terrestrial radio broadcast is also based on this, and used to drive the audience to the digital content and back. This increases the availability of radio on more platforms than on one FM frequency only, making it way more exciting to listen to.
Meiring introduced the digital first model when he was working with Jacaranda FM, and has seen it developing over the last four years. It is increasingly becoming more important for disc jockeys, talk-show hosts and even news reporters to create digital content, which they would then use as on-air content to drive their shows and bulletins.
As he says, “from a news perspective this involves going to the scene, being that citizen journalist, doing pieces to camera off cellphones, doing interviews and converting the content before sending it to their websites and various social media feeds.”
Multi-Skilling: An Absolute Necessity
By now, almost every South African radio station focuses on being digital first, and according to Meiring, even previously conservative ones are going the same route. Journalists of almost every radio station are now multi-skilled: they write blogs for their websites, and also report live on Twitter.
For example, when there is a press conference or a sport event, the radios’ platforms display a live Twitter feed, which is easy to follow and can be updated much more quickly compared to the “old-school” method, when the audience had to wait for the radio announcer to share developments.
Digital exchange has changed the way people report news.
“The necessity to do live broadcasts via radio is probably no longer most essential anymore,”
says Meiring, because social media content can also be shared with all other listeners. This fundamentally changes the way radio operates, but also keeps it as a relevant and growing medium. “So, predictions of radio dying are doomed because its personal interaction and simplicity is what people still love. We are only able to bring it to life in the way it has never been done before,” Meiring explains.
Being active on other platforms, especially on social media, also brings the radio presenters closer to their audience. The hosts become familiar, which increases trust, and when they go off air and do for example video blogs on YouTube and other channels, they are boosting the identity of the radio station at the same time.
With such technological changes worldwide, radio has experienced dramatical changes, belated though, on the entire African continent. Recruitment, training and capacitation of radio personnel now require new approaches. Talent search for radio reporters and presenters is now conducted differently as digital skills and innovation are now absolutely necessary. Furthermore, station managers can no longer ignore to check potential continuity and news recruits’ performance on different social media platforms.
Using Social Media to Boost Listenership
So, if someone aspires to be a radio presenter, talk-show host or reporter, advises Meiring, in addition to relevant academic and professional qualifications they have to make sure to have a substantial base of followers on social media. It helps stations to identify whether they are able to find their audience and potentially increase it.
“With that background, you will be able to drive your audiences to the particular radio station that you work for. This is very critical in live talk-shows covering politics, economy, social, sports and lifestyle issues,”
Meiring says, adding that “some presenters tweet and post up to ten times an hour to ensure that their listeners remain glued to them.”
Extensive use of social media does not make radio irrelevant but helps it to be present at different places to lure back audiences in the multimedia environment. Consumers are usually young impressionable listeners on an app, in need of consistent reminders to stay tuned.
But is Radio Solutions’ digital first mentorship creating impact on the South African radio landscape? Meiring believes it does, but also thinks that the situation can further improve. He is still astounded that big radio stations are not fully utilizing the digital aspect as much as they should, because they could have much more followers.
“So, the unique things I bring are that you have to do a digital first approach, and aggregate via digital platforms in order to keep growing a loyal audience,” he says. Online radio stations, online companies and online businesses still tend to use radio to drive people to their online platforms because it is still one of the best aggregators of content.
But something is critical: station managers should always be aware of and focus on the needs of their target audience. This is why the first thing Radio Solutions does when it approaches a radio station is to see what its strengths and target audience are. Then they can determine whether they should focus on music, news or talk-shows, depending on what resonates with them.
Meiring thinks that it is important to carry out research to offer effective solutions and learn about the market the given radio is targeting. The station should be consistent across the platforms. “You cannot have an oldies or news type of station while your digital platform attracts youths who expect hip hop music, news and program content unrelated to your station. Digital platforms should appeal to the target market,” he emphasizes.
And Then Came the Pandemic
In addition to the digital revolution, the Covid-19 pandemic has also changed the way radios operate, and has reinforced the importance of utilizing different platforms.
On the one hand, YFM, a popular youth radio station in Johannesburg, which mostly plays urban music genres with part of its airtime dedicated to news, talk-shows on current affairs and lifestyle, promoted a massive 32-hour broadcast to keep people fully informed and educated during the ongoing lockdown. This broadcast was available on all their platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and, of course, on air.
Popular DJs also used their shows to promote stay-at-home messages. For example, DJ Sabby, a well-known radio host in South Africa, and Cassper Nyovest, one of the country’s most successful rappers packaged a special show, which was broadcast on air as well, but the Instagram-version was more important.
On the other hand, because of the ongoing lockdown, commuting time when many people listen to radios, disappeared. Breakfast and drive time shows were rendered irrelevant because people are not in their cars but at home. As Meiring points out, this means a lot of changes:
“Breakfast shows may have to start a bit late. In fact, prime times will change considerably, and radio program schedules need thorough revision.”
With children not going to school, radio is already redesigning the future. Where data packages, due to their high price or limited availability, can’t be afforded, radio communication, which is free, becomes critical for education.
Working with KC FM community radio in Paarl in the Western Cape province of South Africa, focusing on entertainment, relevant information and education, Radio Solutions has established a program called ‘Class of KC’ and invited teachers for grades 4–7 to come and present 30-minute shows reaching pupils sitting together with their parents at home. These programs are livestreamed also on Facebook although in most cases not many people want to waste their data, so they just listen to it on terrestrial radio.
Meiring has encouraged his clients, including Valley FM, to bring back short radio dramas that are popular and effective in education especially using the multitude of languages spoken and learnt across South Africa.
“For dramas to be relevant and effective we emphasize good scriptwriting, acting and delivery as well. They have become very popular even on music-specific stations,” he says. Short, 3–4-minute-long features about critical issues like elections, the Covid-19 pandemic or HIV/AIDS are produced for stations otherwise broadcasting youth music to promote knowledge in a captivating manner.
With advertising and sponsorship revenue nosediving, the business of radio is also negatively affected. Gavin Meiring and Radio Solutions, however, draw solace in that the service of radio and its innovations will preserve its importance.
John Masuku is a Zimbabwe-based broadcast journalist and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a fellow of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at the Central European University (CEU). John can be contacted on jjwpmasuku55[at]gmail.com, Twitter @john_masuku