Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Research for community radio: Is it participation, or market research? A case study of community radio stations in South Africa

November 2009 edition of The Media carried an article by Target Group Index (TGI) retired founder Barbara Cooke and South African Advertising Research Foundation’s (SAARF) Paul Haupt. The two research gurus argued over the increase of the SAARF levy to accommodate the new developments and improvements of research technology for data collection. The Double-Screen Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing (DS-CAPI) is a state of the art computerised research tool that allows for computer-assisted interviewing. The interviewing technique is an improvement in the data gathering efficacy for SAARF.

On the other hand community media is struggling to conduct simple research, be it for listenership, audience profiles or to encourage audience and listener participation. The SPI conducted a study on formative target audience research with community radio stations to encourage listener participation in programme development. This was undertaken on the assumption that better content will lead to increased listenership and loyalty, which attracts advertising. During the research Thulile Tembe, programme manager at Maputaland radio states generally that in her experience, “good programmes help to attract advertisers”, without making problematic what is meant by ‘good’, or taking into account the volatile nature of the advertising market and advertisers. The research endeavoured to assist stations know their geographic community profile – that is: who are their listeners and what their perception of the station’s content are. The research is a case study of five community radio stations in Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Upington and rural KZN.

One of the key observations from the SPI research is that stations are under pressure to meet the financial bottom line. The case studies: Radio Maputaland, Radio Zibonele, Riverside Radio, Radio Zibonele and Bush Radio were concerned over fulfilling the mandate for development and democracy and generating revenue. Stations have a difficult task of ensuring that they are financially viable and function professionally with regards: financial management, marketing and primarily content development. As Duard Grobbelaar, station manager at Kovise FM puts it “we have to make money to survive.” The balancing of financial imperatives and social responsibility manifests in content decisions to air socially responsible content that caters for the information needs of the geographic community, or the easy way of flooding the airwaves with music and other entertainment content.

Community radio in South Africa has grown since the liberalisation of airwaves in the early nineties – the number of stations with licenses to broadcast, including the number of support initiatives aimed at either training or technical support. However, an area that is still way behind is the financing and funding of operations. Radio stations have to fend for themselves relying primarily on advertising. Given their reduced broadcast radius it means that they can only tap into limited business opportunities for advertising and other forms of funding. Hence, some stations are moving towards satellite radio to find more listeners and attract new advertising revenue.

Two conversations are evident: one is a conversation with business to survive and secondly is the essential conversation that needs to take place with the geographic community. This conflict of interests has influenced content formats. Community stations feel pressure to keep up with commercial radio stations and public broadcast stations as they are all competing for the same advertising revenue. Their formats are tailored to match those of their competitors -- being on-air 24 hours, this requires a staff complement of almost the same size as a commercial station, technical resources, equipment and training. Another issue is the idea of quality and professionalism – stations are pressed to appear professional with little or no formal training and equipment. Mzamo Ngomana, station manager at Radio Zibonele concurs, “We have to meet professional standards.” This perception needs to be interrogated with the view to apprehend what the role of community radio is.

On the issue of formats – programming mostly duplicates commercial radio with content that is increasingly becoming entertainment driven. Breakfast shows, for example, as explained by some presenters at the radio stations, use magazine formats with a focus on celebrity news. However, some stations use the entertainment format to create ‘local celebrities’, honouring ordinary people who have contributed in a positive way towards their community. Radio Riverside has what they call Wat Pla? A segment on the breakfast programme, is a platform for listeners to complain about service delivery and any other issue plaguing the community on-air. These antidotes are used to balance content from becoming too entertainment driven, while they give listeners content packaged in familiar format similar to commercial radio.

With the struggle for financial survival one wonders if the sector can afford activities such as community participation; even when they are noble and imperative, they have become a luxury. Has participation simply become a burden? Community radio developed as a result of communities clubbing together to find a voice distinct from the mainstream, however, they now find themselves on their own competing with the mainstream media for survival. Lack of resources and skilled capacity further disadvantages the sector. Unable to conduct research community radio is struggling to understand local listenership profiles, listenership trends and preferences to tailor content that is relevant, with the potential to increase listenership and attract advertisers. Notwithstanding, there is a possibility that participation platforms i.e. open forums, listeners clubs etc. can be used with a dual purpose, thus helping stations to conduct both community participation and research. In order to fulfil the information needs of the geographic community and have market research that will contribute toward financial sustainability.


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