Zimbabwe will soon have community radio stations
Will they survive journalism’s crippling financial crisis?
Ihave spent my valuable time this academic quarter at Stanford searching for a formula to help community radio stations in Zimbabwe leapfrog into vibrant, sustainable news organizations with the capacity to produce high-quality community-driven journalism.
Zimbabwe recently opened up its broadcasting space to independent media players and educational institutions seeking to operate community radio (and television) stations. The sub-Saharan country’s authorities had maintained a tight grip on the broadcasting space since 1980 when it attained independence from Britain.
Now, four decades later, Zimbabwe has invited several “minority” communities to apply for community radio licenses, a development that is expected to transform the local news and information ecosystem in underserved communities where news deserts are expanding.
I recently spoke to several colleagues from community groups in Matabeleland in south-western Zimbabwe, who expect to receive licenses. I asked them some critical questions concerning sustainability for local news, and community radio in particular. I also spoke to ordinary citizens who constitute part of the audience for the upcoming radio stations.
I spoke to colleagues in journalism, and some in business and the nonprofit sector. The feedback I got from them is that there is no novel solution to the crisis of sustainability, a problem faced by upcoming radio stations and all local news organizations.
What makes the situation precarious is that Zimbabwe is bedeviled by serious economic challenges, and businesses are folding. Ordinary citizens are struggling with the rising cost of living, and can hardly support their daily needs, let alone afford a single meal per day.
There is a lot at stake, and community radio stations could help spur meaningful conversations about important issues affecting Zimbabwe. But if no deliberate effort is made to safeguard the future of local journalism, communities might end up worse off, with expanding news deserts and community members unable to participate in conversations that could help them explore solutions to the everyday challenges they face.
What further paints a gloomy picture for Zimbabwe’s local journalism is that these community radio initiatives are struggling to self-organize, and raise license application funds, among other needs. The situation could get dire when the fledgling radio stations start operating. The good news however, is that there are several revenue models they can explore to keep afloat. Although it’s difficult to prescribe which strategy will work best for them, I am convinced that the new stations can draw from multiple funding sources, including government support, memberships, and community cooperative shareholding, among others, which I explore below.
A few weeks ago, Zimbabwe’s permanent secretary in the Ministry of Media and Information, which regulates radio stations, announced that the government will fund community radio stations that submit applications for licensing. The condition was clear. The stations should only promote community development. It is not yet clear how funding for community radio stations will be disbursed or managed.
Since independence, the government of Zimbabwe has supported public broadcasting via the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, although the government control has continuously threatened high-quality, objective accountability reporting. Government support comes with the condition that the news service must patriotically support the ruling elite.
Now, with the decentralization of government functions, it would be noble for the central government to fund community radio via local government authorities, under whose areas these radios operate. Disbursing funding through local governments will help curb undue interference by the central government, known for muzzling independent journalism.
It should be mandatory for local authorities to spend a large chuck of their advertising budgets on community media. This could be enforced by local communities via their parliamentary representatives, or by a government directive. Another novel idea is having local governments collect membership fees from each household, making their affiliation with community radio mandatory, and promoting it as a public good like other services citizens pay for through taxes.
A few years ago when the push for community broadcasting reached a crescendo, government authorities made it clear that no community radio station should receive foreign funding. Authorities used the country’s repressive broadcasting laws to prohibit local radio stations from receiving grants from international foundations and other donors. Since then, government authorities have never warmed up to the idea of the establishment of community radio stations as nonprofit news organizations.
They confirmed this recently when the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) made it mandatory for local groups to register for-profit companies to run the community radio stations, a development that has been questioned by critics in the media and community development sectors. The organization of community radio stations into corporate entities could help them raise revenue through commercial activities. But this could also pose real threats for community radio stations as a public good, and an open platform for community engagement. If they are to be mission-driven, community radio stations should be accountable to their audiences, not to shareholders, who are driven by maximizing revenues.
A nonprofit model is best for platforms whose sole purpose is to serve local populations, community radio included. Unlike a commercial one, the advantage of a nonprofit news organization is that community members support it without concern that the outlet’s editorial mission is influenced by its shareholder’s commercial interests or otherwise. Nonprofit news models have been successful in many parts of the world, and I believe they could work too in Zimbabwe. In Canada for example, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the federal agency that regulates broadcasting, requires that campus and community radio stations be controlled by nonprofit entities, which can include community-service co-ops, which I explore below.
Community cooperative approach
I’ve been in touch with some community groups that have been invited to submit applications for radio. I asked them how they can organize themselves into genuine shareholders of their community radio stations, without surrendering ownership to a few rich individuals who might interfere with the mission and independence of the stations.
One thing is clear. These communities are not very keen to surrender ownership and control of the radio station to a few company shareholders. They want a community service radio station, where every resident of the community has a stake. Yet they have little or no knowledge about how to establish community service cooperatives to support their mission. The most complex issue is how each member of the community could invest in the community radio station, without getting a return profit share in monetary value.
In light of this, most of the community groups I spoke to are planning to select a few trusted individuals to be directors and shareholders of the companies they are required to register by BAZ. This could work, but I believe a community cooperative model could be more effective. Under a co-op model, community members can buy a stake in the community radio station and become lifetime shareholders. They can learn from other countries where community co-ops have been most successful in keeping local news organizations afloat.
Two years ago, Berkeleyside, a Bay Area-based community media organization, ran a successful “direct public offering” raising $1 million from 355 community members who purchased a share in the organization for a minimum of $1,000 to become shareholders. In the United States today, several news outlets, including The Devil Strip, have begun adopting community cooperative models to raise capital to finance community-driven, and public service journalism.
Canada’s Kootenay Co-op Radio has been operated as a community-based local news outlet since 1999, and is member-owned and operated, serving its audience with innovative broadcast journalism and high-quality programming. In the United Kingdom, the Bristol Cable has been run as a cooperative local news organization since 2014, with more than 2,000 members paying a monthly fee of £3 ($4.20). This too could work in Zimbabwe and could help community radio stations launch on a sustainable pedestal, helping communities genuinely meet their news and information needs.
I know that the most important thing prospective community radio stations are currently battling with is how to the exorbitant license fees in addition to other application demands such as company registration. But I also firmly believe that conversations about the sustainability of local news organizations, community radio, in particular, are equally important. Local news is failing in Zimbabwe, and journalism’s imploding traditional business models could blight the new era in community broadcasting.
That’s why it is important now for everyone in the media, business, civil society and other important sectors, to join efforts to build a collaborative local journalism ecosystem that treats news and information as an essential public service. Going forward now, the urgent question to answer is how do we build from the ground-up; vibrant, financially sustainable and fiercely independent community radio stations? I am eager to hear from you, and I’m reachable by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter on @village_scribe.