Don’t touch that dial!

Written by: Tim Zunkel

Article from the Media Online, The Media Yearbook 2020

There’s nothing quite like radio, nothing that connects in quite so intimate a way with audiences, and things are getting better all the time, writes TIM ZUNCKEL.

Roger Waters’ 1987 song, Radio Waves, kicks off with the line, “You and I are listening to K.A.O.S in Los Angeles”.
One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that applied in South Africa.
Radio has always been a revolutionary medium, fighting for the next big thing and transforming content and audiences using technology, personality and these days, different platforms.
So, what does the chaos look like in 2020?

Starting with the SABC
Many would say the SABC has been chaotic in the last few years. It’s run into enormous debt, and battled to attract sufficient advertising. Its leadership was for many years incompetent, to say the least, and a joke, to say the worst.
There does, however, seem to be a genuine shift in the way the corporation is being run. Newsrooms have been freed up from intense political scrutiny, competent executives are being appointed and there is a drive to recoup the monies wasted. It is an organisation in flux and transformation, and there are still challenges and legacy issues around financing, human capital and leadership.
I’m hoping that senior management allow their teams the flexibility to implement creative thinking for the benefit of audiences and advertisers, and don’t default to their previous, archaic business models. Across the industry, rate cards are being overthrown with holistic platform approaches.
It’s critical that the corporation contribute to industry wide conversations, technical discussions and remains the largest, single, employer of creative talent.
Financial pressure saw Gauteng based Classic FM go into business rescue. Their turn-around plan with new shareholders will no doubt see an application to the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) for an amendment to their niched programming format.
My annual question to Icasa regarding the commercial licences in the Free State and Eastern Cape remains unanswered and the airwaves remain equally quiet, much like the President in the Chairman’s Conversation on PowerFM. [President Cyril Ramaphosa withdrew from the annual PowerFM interview at the last minute in November 2019].
I believe Icasa will have some interesting decisions to make in the commercial space about shareholding and ownership in key markets. Icasa has also set itself up for a busy 2020, with the gazetting of available licences in the community radio space.

Community radio and compliance
Community radio remains a pillar of South Africa’s democracy. 2020 will see many stations celebrate 25 years of broadcasting, having been licenced by the Icasa’s predecessor, the Independent Broadcast Authority (IBA) in 1995. The message from the authority is clear, compliance is not optional, it is fundamental. The underlying chaos in the community sector requires skilled leadership and resourceful plans to execute and report according to licensing conditions. I think 2020 will further curtail what some might refer to as revolutionary operators, but who are just operating outside their given licence conditions.
It is great to see industry bodies representing their members and proactively working to strengthen the sector. The National Community Radio Forum (NCRF) will no doubt continue to fight for the community sector and lobby government when appropriate. The work done for commercial players at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) with the commissioning of the Infinite Dial Research into listening habits and trends, released in September last year, is also a good sign of the potential the industry has when working together. There can be no doubt that in a time of declining budgets and changing sales models, a united message is powerful.

Audio connections
The word ‘radio” used to refer to the physical box used to receive a signal for the consumer, much like TV. But radio has transformed. Radio is now more than a noun, it’s an action word, a verb, and it refers to all things audio (conceptualising, crafting, creating, consuming and commercialising).
Today, digital and on-demand are concepts helping shape and drive radio as the leader in the audio space. We need only look to world-wide trends and the growing access to devices to know that we need to include digital as part of our creative offering. It is however not the only offering. Radio connects people to content via platforms.
I love what East Coast Radio (ECR) in KwaZulu-Natal has done in evolving its brand on FM. But I also love the way it has extended its reach by becoming the first commercial radio station in South Africa to launch a digital music radio station, East Coast Gold, which plays golden oldies from the early ’60s to the ’90s. Each platform has a part to play in the reach that radio has with their audiences. The interesting caveat for me is that personality and music seem to be the key to the success of the offering. They didn’t revolutionise anything, they just understood the what, where and why of how people want to consume radio.
The Broadcast Research Council’s Radio Audience Measurement (RAM) tells us traditional radio listening at home is still strong and in-car listening is prevalent. The Infinite Dial research points to a strong mobile community. Hyper-local stations and astute regional broadcasters understand the relevance of ‘my back yard’ and the power of locality. The streaming players are looking at this and are investing resources into the radio space.
Can we also agree that recording live radio moments and packaging them is not a podcast? In 2020, to quote another song about radio, let’s make sure that it will fulfil the role Freddy Mercury sang about: “And everything I had to know/I heard it on my radio.” And he closed with: “You’ve yet to have your finest hour”. Prescient, I’d say.