Event Reports

"King Radio" and the future

by Markus Brauckmann

International Conference: The "Joburg Radio Days 2011"

One sentence concisely set the tone: „Radio is still king among the media in Africa,” observed the British expert Mary Myers, who has successfully conducted several projects on the continent. As evidence she cited the significant growth rate in the field of so-called “community radios”. But, what does the future hold for the “king”? How can radio continue to contribute to the societal discourse and therefore to democratisation? These and similar questions were addressed by top-class international experts at the Joburg Radio Days 2011 held at Wits University in Johannesburg.

The event offered such an array of subjects and discussions that only a selection can be portrayed here. The Media Programme Sub-Sahara Africa was particularly interested in three topics related to its overall objectives, which are hence the focus of this report: The state of radio journalism in the region, the situation in Zimbabwe against the background of restricted opinion-making, as well as mobile communication and its influence on radio.

The high quality discussion round, “Whatever happened to radio journalism?” approached the topic from various perspectives. Franz Kruger, director of the Wits Radio Academy, demanded further qualitative efforts in the field of news. The same also applies for other media platforms. Mike Sulma, Head of Radio News at the SABC radio station, picked up the thread and expressed his concern that serious news journalism is often the first victim of financial cut-backs. In this context Professor Allan Thompson from Canada emphasized the special significance of radio journalism and pointed out the rising demand for radio news. Optimism was infused into the discussion by Katie Katopodies from Eye Witness News in South Africa, where they increasingly rely on citizen journalism as well as the incorporation of social media like Facebook and Twitter. That is not without its problems, however, countered Thompson and claimed that professional journalists should still be the ones to tell the stories. In the end, the group agreed that new impulses could lead to new forms of opinion-making. Successful media like Eye Witness News have the task of leading the way for other media professionals who are currently not as fortunate.

The role of the broad-coverage medium radio is especially important in countries such as Zimbabwe. The prospect of new radio licenses being awarded electrifies social forces as well as media makers. This was reflected in the diverse discussions on the topic of Zimbabwe at the Radio Days. The sceptical view is that the radio will remain in the hands of the powerful, preventing the desired expansion of opinion-making. However, there were signs of hope from several of the participants. For instance, the radio programmers from Radio Dialogue have used innovative means and ways to get heard, such as playing audio cassettes and CDs in buses and taxis. (This has since been forbidden.) Regarding content, the brave journalists concentrate on local news and public information. A second example is Radio SW Africa, which broadcasts from London to Zimbabwe in order to circumvent the strict government licensing constraints. And despite all the problems, remarked Gerry Jackson from SW Africa, they broadcast three hours every evening on short wave. The discussion about Zimbabwe led to the conclusion that radio programmers these days do contribute toward opinion-making in Zimbabwe, with their innovative and courageous ideas, but the road to real participation in radio in the state is still a long and weary one.

“The mobile phone is the biggest revolution in radio since the invention of the transistor,” observed Mary Myers on the topic of mobile communication. The people in rural areas now have a voice. Interactivity is not just a catchphrase anymore, but has become a reality. Especially in West Africa citizens dial in to radio shows by mobile phone. In fact, the change is “enormous”, agreed Primedia boss Terry Volkwyn, whose talk station 702 is one of the most popular in South Africa. Up to 6000 text messages arrive each hour, “and it helps us to get a picture of the public opinion of the population.” On this complex of issues two concrete projects from the region were presented during a panel moderated by Markus Brauckmann (KAS Media Africa). Melissa Ulbricht from New York presented the “Mobile Phone Toolkit” from her organisation Mobileactive. This web-based instrument makes many things possible for reporters in East Africa. It helps them transmit their interviews or reports, created on their mobile phone, to the respective radio station, have an exchange with others or start a dialogue with their listeners. Khaya Thonjeni from Grahamstown, South Africa introduced the audience to a local citizen journalism project. In this undertaking journalists on location join with the small town population in order to generate additional stories, or add voices to existing stories. This is only possible through the use of the mobile telephone. It can be stated that the mobile phone has increased the possibilities for opinion-making and truly revolutionized radio. In other words, the “king” will continue to reign for a long time – even if a bit differently than before.

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Contact Person

Christoph Plate

Christoph Plate bild

Director Media Programme Subsahara Africa

christoph.plate@kas.de +27 11 214 29 00 +27 11 214 2913
Radio Days Aerial Views Wits/KAS