Picture: 123RF/TZIDO
Picture: 123RF/TZIDO

Community radio represents the very soul of a community. Community radio stations tend to be close to their audiences, sharing their concerns and fears. Listeners don’t just like them, they love them. But if they’re such an intrinsic part of the community, why are so many community radio stations battling for their very survival?

A recent digital event hosted by the Radio Awards and moderated by independent media consultant Tim Zunckel shone a light on the tight bonds that community radio stations have with their listeners, unpacking the essence of what stokes their close affinities of warmth and trust – and pointed out why advertisers should pay them more attention.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the community radio sector had battled to be sustainable. The pandemic has put additional pressure on the struggling sector given that most community radio stations are supported by small and medium-sized local businesses, many of which themselves are currently under financial pressure. In addition, the industry is highly regulated and struggles with compliance issues.

The reason community radio stations don’t attract significant advertising support is that there are currently no accurate listener figures for these stations. But as Trinity Mohlamme, a director at The Media Connection, pointed out, advertisers should not be buying advertising on community radio stations based on listenership numbers but rather because they are buying into a particular community. “We sell communities rather than community radio station listenership numbers,” he said.

He argued that community radio stations are community assets which become conduits for brands to reach consumers. Listenership numbers are less relevant than the impact these stations have. He urged the government to help community stations become sustainable by supporting them with advertising, given that their listeners are its constituents.    

The way listenership figures for community stations are measured is problematic, agreed Roelien Potgieter at Groot FM. “While we don’t have the broad reach of a commercial station, we do know that we have a warm and engaging relationship with our listeners which resonates well with advertisers.”

She admitted that the Covid-19 crisis has had a profoundly negative impact on Groot FM, significantly reducing advertising income. As a result the station has reduced the salaries of all its employees.

The Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) is a statutory body established to promote media development and diversity of community and small commercial media in SA. In May the MDDA launched its second phase of Covid-19 emergency relief funding, with about R10m disbursed to 116 community broadcasters. A total of 115 community stations out of 135 applications were provided with relief funding in the first phase of disbursements.

MDDA CEO Zukiswa Potye acknowledged the need for better research around community stations to help ensure their sustainability. She also conceded that there is poor co-ordination of government advertising spend, which means that community stations typically do not receive any advertising support from the government.

The big take-out:

Advertisers need to understand that they’re not buying into listener numbers but rather the total community station footprint.

Media specialist Gordon Muller said there needs to be an open discussion with all stakeholders – including the government – around a funding model for community radio stations which rewards advertisers. Community stations need a different benchmark to attract advertising support that does not rely solely on listener numbers. At the same, he argued, community stations need to understand that it’s a highly competitive market and that, in order to survive, they need to up their game, including growing their technical skills. They also need to understand that they’re not only competing with other community stations but also with commercial radio stations for a share of the advertising budget.

For their part, advertisers need to understand that they’re not buying into listener numbers but rather the total community station footprint, said Muller.

Concluding the discussion, Zunckel said that despite the challenges, community radio stations need to remember that they exist to make a difference and that they serve a good purpose.

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