By Conrad Schwellnus

Hello Africa, tell me how you’re doing? 

This was the topic host Claire Mawisa presented to panelists and delegates earlier today as Radio Day Africa 2020 kicked off with its latest session. The discussion featured representatives from a variety of countries on the African continent, including Gary Stroebel (CEO of Future Media in Namibia), Davies Kabuswe (Executive President at Sun FM in Zambia), Blaireau Kajam (Radio Journalist with RTNC in the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Jonathan Lyamgohn (Group Head – Radio at Consolidated Media Associates Group in Nigeria), with each panelist engaging about why radio is so important in Africa, what the local challenges are in their respective countries, as well as the impact that COVID-19 has had on operations in their specific region. 

In launching the session, the panelists each provided a bit of context and insight into how they are positioned within the African broadcasting landscape. Gary works for Future Media, a company that represents a 4 radio station cluster broadcasting nationally in Namibia. Jonathan is from Consolidated Media Associates Group, a media-tech company that got its start in television, and has since branched out into radio in Nigeria. Blaireau is a renowned journalist for the state owned radio RTNC in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Davies forms part of the Sun FM team in Zambia, one of the biggest media house/radio station operations in the country. The conference has yet to see such a diverse range of African voices on a single panel this year, and from the questions and comments today, it was clear that delegates across the continent felt well represented in the process as well. 

Jumping straight in, Claire got the discussion going by asking a very important question: So why is radio so important, especially in the African context? Gary was quick to reference the power that radio holds. “The critical element of radio is this element of trust,” he suggested. “We work hard to gain the trust from listeners, which allows radio to shine at all times, but particularly so in times of crisis”. Davies echoed this opinion, specifically in lieu of the fast spread of fake news around the world. Referencing the situation in Zambia, he suggested that “because of that trust, people may see something on social media, but before they get comfortable with it, they wait to hear what the radio stations are reporting and staying”. Blaireau agreed with the notion of radio primarily being a trustworthy medium. “The internet is not as developed in DRC, so fake news is not able to spread as much,” he suggested. “Radio, however, has the power to go all over the country”. This increases the way it has become a go-to medium for people of all walks of life, even continuing to be a companion to those in the most rural parts of the country as well. 

It’s impossible to talk about fake news and the power of radio as a trusted medium without touching on the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it has impacted day-to-day operations in the industry around various countries. Blaireau has seen first hand how little “on the ground” reporting is being done in the DRC, specifically as a result of the lockdown. This affects many operations, including how news gets fact checked and verified. For Jonathan, the pandemic has presented a way to look deeper at new possibilities that exist from an operational perspective. While he didn’t report a loss of programming hours, for instance, especially as stations started factoring in how mobile devices and digital technologies could help them navigate the lockdown, other stations haven’t been as lucky and have had to cut back on their broadcasting times. Davies suggests that in Zambia, they cut their broadcasts from 24 hours to 18 hours (including overnight automation), which resulted in the immediate suspension of contracts, and subsequently, the loss of advertising income too. 

As we’ve heard from multiple panelists in previous sessions, in many places, radio advertising has been cut anywhere upwards of 50%, with some even reporting a total blackout altogether. Jonathan says that in Nigeria, ironically, while their listenership numbers went up during the lockdown, advertising spend went down. He suggested that advertisers were quick to pull out their advertising, effectively missing out on an opportunity to reach more people. “There were next to no conversations between the media buying space and the broadcasting space during lockdown”, he added. Gary also affirmed that in Namibia, a number of advertisers “failed the big test” by stopping conversations altogether. Rightly so, many brands felt it was inappropriate to advertise in a time of crisis. “What advertisers could have done,” he however suggested, “is communicate different messages. The knee-jerk reaction ended up having a major effect on multiple sectors”. 

For Davies, the advertising problem is not necessarily a new one. He mentioned another challenge they are facing in the Zambian broadcasting landscape, namely the amount of stations that have sprung up in recent years, with many of them strategically positioned to target a market niche. This not only floods the market, but has an effect on how the advertising pie is spent. Some advertisers are even going straight to these stations, who offer lower rates for advertising, only to come back and ask the bigger stations to ask why they need to pay so much. He suggested that digital convergence has allowed them to offset advertising losses to an extent, which may also help in terms of how stations earn more revenue moving forward. “All our major programs now run on Facebook and YouTube,” he said. “We’ve been using streaming as a way to diversify our reach”.

For Jonathan, like in Zambia, Lagos also presents a frequency saturated market, although most of the stations consist of campus radio operations. This presents another challenge, and how the various types of radio are represented in the country. “We need to give rise to community stations for obvious reasons,” he suggests. He also talked extensively about the lack of local technical solutions in the radio industry in Nigeria. “If something brakes, we don’t get parts locally, which means we have to deal with foreign exchange, customs & clearance. Local solutions would be very useful”, he said. These may add to the challenges presented to a uniquely African context, but also gives rise to possible innovations as we navigate the “new normal” and wrap our heads around how the industry will move forward in a post-COVID landscape as well. 

Although the African radio landscape is up against many challenges, especially in the wake of the global pandemic, one thing remains clear: radio is universal in how it caters to people on the African continent. Regardless of where stations are positioned, the medium continues to be a trusted and reliable partner to people, especially in a time when they require access to accurate information which can possibly even mean the difference between life and death. Africa presents a unique set of challenges as well as a great deal of opportunities, and if the observations of the panelists and the engaging discussion from today’s session are anything to go by, the industry is in good hands to start talking more seriously about collectively navigating the somewhat murky waters ahead.