Radio maintains its dominance in the African media industry because it transcends cost and culture barriers, connecting people to information and ultimately, each other.
“People are in their cars. People are in their villages. A radio only needs a battery, you don’t even need to be able to read and you don’t need to pay much [for it] regularly,” said freelance journalist Elna Schutz.
“Radio has always been to inform, educate and entertain,” said Stan Katz, a renowned radio DJ and radio sales expert who has held several managerial positions in South Africa’s radio industry including 702 where he also hosted the highly-acclaimed “Morning Zoo” show.
“When we turned 702 into a talk station, [In 1988], we gave South Africa its first taste of democracy,” said Katz.
702 was started in the 1980s in Bophuthatswana, a self-governing state and ironically part of the apartheid bantustan system. In a bizarre twist, the apartheid government had granted these bantustans nominal independence and that is when the trouble started for the National Party.
Bophuthatswana was free from South Africa’s divisive apartheid laws and Radio 702 was one of only two independent radio stations broadcasting in South Africa. The other was Capital Radio which took advantage of the same contradiction, and was granted a license by the Transkei homeland.
Both stations featured something unusual - news that was accurate and reflected the realities of what was going on, unlike the apartheid-controlled South African Broadcast Corporation of the time.
Katz said 702 took advantage of the station’s freedom to “attack” the apartheid government using an ability to reflect the truth of what was going on.
This was by breaking down racial barriers where black and white people were on air together, in a time when such social cohesion was suppressed.
“Radio has always been a good democratiser, especially community radio,” said Paul McNally, journalist and co-founder of Volume, a narrative podcasting network.
However recently South African community radio has shown a lack of content quality according to McNally.
“Most of the news is repurposed off mainstream websites [...] It’s not really democratising anything if it’s not really helping people who can get that news off Facebook, anyway,” he said.
Mike Daka, the founder and managing director of Breeze FM, a community-based commercial radio station in Eastern Zambia said it is important that radio stations know their audience. He said this speaking on Namibia Media Trust's FreeSpeak podcast episode commemorating World Radio Day.
“Community, for most radio stations is a geographical area. It is not. There are communities within communities, so know all of those” he said.
Ghanaian DJ Agnes Ntow, said she has seen how her late-night show “Room Service” on the Ghanain youth radio station YFM has brought people together, “healing matters of the heart”.
“What I love about my platform is that we don’t judge,” Ntow said, adding that those who share their stories on the show could be helping others out there who may be going through something similar but embarrassed of speaking out.
“[“Room Service”] is a platform that allows people to openly discuss these topics and not be judged and I believe the more we have this type of content being produced in the country, the more we can help. In [Ghana] it isn’t the norm to voice out the pain which you are experiencing,” she said.
“Radio can be so beautiful and curated [...] I see the effect that it can have on people,” said Schutz.
Schutz worked at Wits Radio Academy prior to her freelancing.
“We were trying to always innovate how we do radio, how we tell stories, how we bring in other voices. There was a time I was doing a documentary for radio every week. For example, to tell students about how disease affects them. Or spending hours with a burn victim and finding ways to tell that story,” she said.
As with every system, radio has to find its way to fit into today’s internet charged world. This is through podcasting and streaming on various online platforms.
“The idea was that if you were to send me a terrible hoax, I could send you a voice note as a rebuttal,” said McNally.
“One doesn’t talk of radio anymore, one talks of audio. It’s available to numerous platforms, at any time and to many people” Katz said who has a Facebook radio show.
However, as radio may be going forward, driven by the internet, it may very well be leaving people behind as online forms can be exclusionary.
“I see us moving in [the digital] direction but data makes it challenging to just move into that space as countries such as the US has done,” Ntow said.
However, McNally disagrees that data cost is a barrier to more people tuning into digitalised radio such as podcasts.
“On the one hand it is a data problem but if you look at people who have access to mobile phones and some kind of data […] some are willing to download. If you look at Youtube statistics for some soap operas, they are incredibly high.
“People are willing to pay and use their data if they want to and it’s kind of like giving people the reason to as a content creator which creators haven’t managed to yet. When you look at it, it is about content that resonates with audiences - that is the barrier”.
Katz said that if radio stations wanted to appeal to diverse audiences, they themselves have to reflect diversity in the stations and their activities.
“The radio station should reflect the kind of diversity it may want to have,” he said.
Unesco states that radio’s ability to reach out to the large audience means radio “stand as an arena” for all voices.
“The future of radio will continue to be powerful if we are able to provide the masses with good music and regards to content, if produces and presenters would be a lot more creative and stop copying from other people and dig deep within themselves and ask society about what they should create,” Ntow said.
Ultimately, voices feed radio. The more diverse hit the airwaves, the more radio will thrive, regardless of its packaging.
With community radio starting initially in 1947 the growth of misinformation and disinformation now means the sector is far more important than ever before, allowing local people a voice where media power is increasingly controlled through a handful of publishers and social media platforms.