South Africa’s podcasting is set to boom

It’s the details that are a little less certain

Picture: Emilio Garcia/Unsplash

By Elna Schütz

Podcasting in South Africa is undoubtedly on the rise, with hobbyists, brands and media organisations getting in on the trend and listenership steadily growing. If you’re waiting for the breakthrough South African year of podcasting or our big ‘Serial moment’ you may be disappointed by the patience and hard work that this medium needs for growth. But this emerging industry is hopeful about opportunities here and on the continent. We explore what exactly that bright future may look like.

Quality niched content is king

While podcasts come in lots of shapes and sizes, some trends for what is working so far have emerged. A 2018 consumption trends analysis survey by Matt Brown Media found that entertainment content focusing on music and comedy is most popular followed by more informative sectors like news, business and technology. Regardless of the broader topic area, many local
 podcasters agree that being specific pays off in the form of an engaged audience that can be monetised. ‘You need to figure out how to corner a niche, ideally one that is valuable for its own sake,’ says Andile Masuku, whose show African Tech Round-up has gained international traction by speaking to a particular topical and geographical interest.

While the barriers for entry in podcasting are relatively low and the audio format comparatively purist in the digital field, content and technical production quality should not be underestimated as these factors can make listeners love or drop a show quickly. Francois Retief from South Africa’s podcast hosting platform Iono.fm indicates that, “a lot of the top [content] providers have some background in radio or audio editing.” Yet, that does not mean that highly edited storytelling will necessarily dominate over strong, fascinating shows with simpler structures. “It doesn’t have to be fancy and we don’t all have to be creating Radiolab type, multi-layered soundscapes, but you need an idea, a concept and an edge,” says Jayne Morgan from Podcart.

The other defining factor of podcast success seems to be quite simply, practice. Longevity distinguishes you to audiences and financial backers in a new industry with many short-lived shows falling victim to ‘podfading’ and landing in the forgotten graveyard of iTunes. Sticking around not only tends to grow audiences but refine quality. “You have to fall in love with the problem over and over again and keep solving that problem consistently,” says to Brown.

The field is open but not even

So, who will be at the forefront of content creation in the quite possible but still imaginary future where podcasts are a staple in most South Africans’ media diets? While the theoretical answer is anyone with some technical capital and skills, certain groupings have already emerged as key players. Retief says their platform is seeing, “successful media organizations transitioning into podcasts, passionate podcasters establishing their own brands and brands getting directly in touch with their audience.”

Existing media players have strong audiences and skill resources that can be a powerful springboard for building a podcast if translated well into the new medium. Hobbyists and those building a podcast as a personal brand often may not have the same advantages but possess an interest in and access to their audience community that a more mainstream player would be hard-pressed to replicate. Lastly, brands can use their authority and positioning through podcasts to create authentic connections and points of influence with customers, although sustainable interest in this isn’t yet common.

The relative openness and ease of creating podcasts allow access to a position previously only attainable with big media brand backing, says Masuku. “Today it’s possible to actually earn that pedigree through consistent hard work, building an audience that people can’t deny, having a trusted voice, applying journalistic principle to your practice and putting out content that people enjoy that services a real insight gap in certain niches.”

While there may be an easy way in initially, it takes effort, skill and often financial resources to create something that is sustainable and successful, and in that way, the playing field is not quite as even as many who have fallen in love with the idea of starting a podcast have thought.

Monetisation models loading

One of the main factors in making the podcast industry fully realise its potential is of course whether there are methods in place to sustain those creators working hard at making good quality, interesting content, regardless which kind of player they are. The good news is that since few people have fully cracked this locally, there is a lot of experimentation with what the best ways are to make a feasible income. Media organisations may cross-subsidise their shows, brands may take the funds from marketing budgets and entrepreneurial podcasters are trying everything from advertising and sponsorships to promoting affiliated, self-generated products.

Currently, hybrid monetization models seem most sensible. Paulo Dias from Ultimate Media suggests ‘offering the content on multiple platforms and media types’ such as blogs and videos so that you extend the podcast to ‘other platforms that you can monetise easier, because until the first South African “podglomerate” comes along it’s not a feasible income from the audio stream alone.’

Growth in overcoming challenges

The apparent lack in local uptake for podcasting is classically pinned on high data prices. This may have been true a few years ago, but seems less likely now according to the Brown survey and the strong success of some podcasts with listeners across a wide range of Living Standard Measurements (LSMs), such as the Soccer Laduma offering.

In fact, reaching a wider audience beyond the narrow, often higher income groups typically targeted by advertisers is an opportunity the industry would do well in exploring more fully. “My view is that there is not enough diversity in podcasting,” says Dias. When we start podcasting with a broader voice, in all official languages, then we start uncovering the South African podcast story.”

Another factor is quite simply that many possible listeners do not know how to access and listen to podcasts. Morgan speaks of encountering this inertia, even where there has been significant interest and awareness created around a show. Duncan McLeod from TechCentral agrees that issues of access — whether through lack of data or knowledge — may be hampering growth but that ‘these are issues that are going away on their own because technology is improving and they aren’t specific to the South African market.’

Part of the African story

The rise of podcasting is of course not just a South African issue. Comparisons to established markets like the United Kingdom and the United States are useful in some ways, but our story is unique yet similar to what others on the continent are experiencing. Tafadzwa Majaya from the platform AfricanPodcasts.com notes that besides South Africa[G3] there is significant growth in Kenya and Uganda, while some countries like Somalia are interestingly establishing an audience through diaspora-based podcasts.

‘The fast-moving pace of technology has given the African youth the chance to own their narrative and put issues that are important to them in front of the world through podcasts. Imagine how much these stories and voices will shake up Africa to make it better for us all? If that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what will!’ Melissa Mbugua from MNM Consulting has surveyed podcasters in Kenya and is equally optimistic about the uniqueness and strength coming from the continent. She says that “the new voice appearing on African podcasts is confident that Africa is first.”

In South Africa some podcasters are firmly behind the idea of leaning into localised content and that building on the uniqueness of country’s perspectives will be their power. Others are betting on the opposite, seeing themselves as global players in a particular topic area who happen to be podcasting with a certain accent. While neither approach has been proven significantly more advantageous yet, both are in line with the strengths of the medium in that they are speaking to a clearly defined audience.

Looking ahead

Whether there are opportunities and hopefully a coming boom in podcasts in South Africa and the rest of the continent is no longer really the question. The how, who and what of the future are being defined and a variety of answers to the challenges are starting to emerge. Strong quality, community-building content and sustainable production models are at the heart of this. If we excel at these, stay consistent and have the courage to invest, the heyday of South African podcasts may be as close as those who love to create and listen are hoping for. As McLeod says, “We’re in the infancy of this thing and I think we’re going to see massive growth. I’m very optimistic.”


Elna Schütz is a content producer and founder of Podmeet. The podcasters’ meetups happen regularly in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and connect people in the industry. For more info go to their website or email podmeet@journalism.co.za.


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