By Conrad Schwellnus

The eleventh edition of the largest radio conference in Africa kicked off with a bang today, with attendees from Kenya, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Nigeria, Botswana, South Africa and more forming part of its new digital format and soaking up the discussion around how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the radio landscape to date. As moderator Franz Krüger said as he greeted attendees, initially there were thoughts about postponing the conference altogether. While everyone would be missing the opportunity to network in person with a cup of coffee this year, the new format would also make it easier for people from all over the world to attend. All part of the “new normal” we’re getting used to in 2020. 

Nadia Bulbulia, the Executive Director of the National Association of Broadcasters, proceeded to open the conference with insights reiterating this kind of thinking. “We’ve all had to adapt to find new ways to make sense of everything,” she said. She also mentioned that as broadcasters were regarded as essential services when South Africa first entered into lockdown on March 15th, over 72 000 PSAs giving updates about the virus have aired across radio stations. This showcases the ability of the industry to respond efficiently and adapt very quickly, even in times of great uncertainty.

The panel for the day featured a diverse mix of industry experts, including Nada Wotshela (SABC Group Executive Radio in South Africa), Haseena Cassim (YFM Station Manager in South Africa), Jackie Lawrence Mboki (Highlands FM Radio Director in Tanzania) and Matt Deegan (Fun Kids Radio and Folder Media Founder in the UK), each discussing the immediate impact of the pandemic on their operations, referencing listener behaviour in the wake of COVID-19 and noting key changes they had experienced over the last couple of months. 

For Haseena Cassim, ‘agility’ and ‘authenticity’ are two words that have stood out the most during this unprecedented time. “We have had to adapt very quickly,” she said in response to being asked about what the new normal looks like for YFM. According to her, listener patterns are changing and TSL (time spent listening) is on the increase. A 40% increase in streaming numbers, as well as a 70% increase in engagement on social media has helped with getting into the mind’s eye of the listener and thinking about how to speak directly to who they are and their needs. The station has subsequently put a lot of emphasis on developing their digital strategy in recent months, and encourages others to do so too.

Nada Wotshela from the SABC then expressed the importance of radio as a form of companionship. “PBS stations are assuming the role of trusted friend to communities,” she explained. “They are also helping with supplying credible information, like assisting people to get access to food supplies”. She mentioned that with schools being closed, that the SABC had increased curriculum based programs to support children now stuck at home. She also affirmed that the SABC stations have had to come up with innovative ways to attract listeners all the while maintaining a balance with providing credible information related to the pandemic too.

For Jackie Lawrence Mboki, while affirming that Highlands FM is also seeing an increase in listenership, the crux of the matter is that traditional advertising has stopped completely for the station. She suggested that radio is now being used as a tool to reach people for very specific purposes. Companies are no longer buying generic spots, opting instead for sponsored programming targeting the needs of the listener very specifically. “A beer company may want to tell people how to get their beer at home,” she said. Companies are using innovative ways to get their products to people at home.

Next, Matt Deegan affirmed that he had witnessed similar changes to listener behaviour in the UK as other panelists had also noted. “Radio is a habitual medium and we’ve seen the listener habits have changed a lot”, he said. Noting the importance of adapting, he posed an interesting thought around whether breakfast shows should be running later now that people don’t have a morning commute, and whether it even makes sense for a show to be called “drive time” in the current climate. He mentioned that stations have to get a handle on changing human behaviour, and adapt what they are offering according to this.

The conversation then turned to specific changes in audience behaviour in the onslaught of COVID-19. Nada suggested that people are engaging a lot more, and are getting more vocal about new suggestions for programming. Jackie mentioned that they are decreasing the amount of music they play at the station, as people want more news and information spots, something she said she never thought would happen. Haseena vocalised that the YFM audience is appreciating the new features and the music on the stations, especially as these are a respite from a challenging period of time for the youth in particular (with a direct reference to “astronomical” unemployment statistics in South Africa).

Franz then took the gap to segway into the commercial effect of the coronavirus pandemic and the challenging global economic landscape. Referencing Jackie’s mentioning of the advertising standstill  at her station, he queried the other panelists about their experiences. Nada affirmed that advertising revenue for the SABC has plummeted by 50% since the start of the pandemic, which has resulted in a need to take a closer look at their operational model. “We cannot continue the way that we have continued and hope for a different result,” she proclaimed. Haseena mentioned that April & May were commercial disasters for YFM. Matt mentioned the importance of multi-platform businesses within radio stations in the UK. “Different advertisers see value in different platforms,” he says. “This is a good opportunity to reflect on that and to refine the new ways to reach your audience”.

In response to this, Franz suggested that the pandemic is a test of ingenuity and inventiveness for the radio industry. He subsequently asked the entire panel about specific innovations they have witnessed during this time. Matt was first to mention the creation of a large fund for broadcasters which encourages third parties to create content for programming that is available for free to radio stations in the UK. Haseena reiterated that YFM’s primary form of innovation goes back to doing what radio is all about: creating a community of conversations. A viewer in the chat section commented that YFM’s campaigns around GBV (gender based violence) is a great example of how important creating a safe space for conversation is. 

Nada was quick to highlight that there have been a multitude of good ideas across the SABC stations, but that the creation of multilingual bulletins that are simulcast across all PBS stations to provide credible updates on COVID-19 is one of the best. Jackie recalled that reporters in Tanzania have developed a training tool for rural people to report on what is happening in their geographical location. This makes it easier for radio stations to receive verified information from sources in communities on the outskirts.

One key take-away from today’s conversation rings loud and proud: radio has always been great in times of crisis. The pandemic has been a true test of ingenuity and inventiveness, especially in the midst of a challenging commercial climate, and in the wake of an unexpected increase in social responsibility for radio stations across the board. It’s up to radio stations and their teams to continue to present innovative ideas in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic, and to continue to adapt as listener behaviours change in response to the world getting used to the “new normal”. 

If the engaging voice notes from attendees at the end of the session were anything to go by, the first session of Radio Days Africa 2020 has wet the appetite of radio enthusiasts from all over the world. There are many discussions still to be had between now and the end of July, but for now the conversation continues on social media. We look forward to welcoming you back for the next session tomorrow.