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July 23, 2018, 10:18 a.m.
Business Models

In South Africa, community radio stations — lifelines for local news in rural areas — can get a boost with Volume

“You can’t bridge mainstream to community media when the community doesn’t have the ability to present their reporting.”

At Paul McNally’s first community radio station in South Africa — in Orange Farm, about 40 kilometers from Johannesburg — 350,000 people tuned in each week for bulletins about protests, service delivery issues, and the general happenings of their neighborhood. The hunger for information was so strong that, after the station aired its first legal advice show, people lined up around a schoolyard to ask their own questions.

The show didn’t have a phone line because of the data costs. The station was powered by a transmitter run off a generator. And no one had any consistent way to keep track of what was said on the air.

“The guy who was the presenter would have to run out and pour out more benzene into the generator,” McNally said. That stretch of people seeking help in person “was the lightbulb moment: The audience is there and the infrastructure is there.”

McNally has a tool that might be able to help bring that all together. But first, let’s get a refresher on the community radio scene: Since its beginnings in the country’s post-apartheid era, community radio has been intended to serve “the multilingual and diverse nature of South Africa by promoting the entire spectrum of cultural backgrounds and official languages in the Republic.” South Africa has more than 200 community radio stations, and a good chunk of the country tunes in regularly: The most popular stations draw audiences ranging from 200,000 to nearly 600,000 listeners.

Community radio serves the information needs of residents without phones, Internet access, or ways to connect beyond a basic radio — frequently in rural areas where the stations themselves don’t have more than the basic necessities. “We might cover residents protesting at the nearest clinic because they don’t have medicine, or they lack electricity due to cable theft,” Cliff Shiko, senior reporter at the community radio station Alex FM near Johannesburg, told me. “Or we’ll report on how the garbage collectors did not take the refuse, or the water shortage. People always want immediate attention on these issues.” And, unsurprisingly, it helps to be local to report on them. That means the information listeners get is relevant, but not always thorough or communicated beyond the immediate area. And advertisers aren’t banging down the door to target those audiences when there’s no system to prove their ads were aired.

Less than 14 percent of community radio’s news content is local, according to McNally, though the average listening duration of a loyal listener is three hours. And the country’s 11 official languages can make finding news you can understand tricky: “That’s why the listeners, even if the content isn’t great, they stay, because it’s the only place they can hear content in their home language,” he said.

So back to the lightbulb moment. McNally, a journalist who started in magazines and switched to community radio a few years ago (disclosure: he was also Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow in 2016), recognized the gap between the news aired on community radios and national broadcasters. So he and Roland Perold, who previously worked on mobile health solutions in Kenya and South Africa, tried building a plug for that gap, called Volume.

“The original idea was to get mainstream media to somehow pay for stories that they got through a wire service from the community newsrooms,” Perold said. But McNally articulated their shift: “You can’t bridge mainstream to community media when the community doesn’t have the ability to present their reporting.”

Many stations have a basic desktop computer, so Perold and McNally (plus an intern) created structure via software and some hardware to help bolster the community radio stations’ capacities. The software helps the presenters log their radio segments, track the editing process, and use a newswire to share their clips with others. Internet access for many of these stations isn’t reliable, and data allotments can be expensive. So Volume also offers a custom router that lets users get onto Volume’s platform but restricts browsing elsewhere.

That might sound basic, but it’s important. “We’re not trying to introduce blockchain or AI into the community radio stations in South Africa,” Perold said. “We’re really trying to use technology in a meaningful way where the baseline is so low that even simple tools like an information system and a sharing system make a big impact.”

They’ve been testing the platform with 10 stations around Johannesburg’s province of Gauteng and near the city of Durban along the coast. Shiko, the reporter at Alex FM, is one of those testers. Alex FM broadcasts to 130,000 listeners (“last year we had a problem with our signal and our number dropped,” he told me) with only 10 staff members. They start with a 5 a.m. current affairs show and then read bulletins each hour from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., he said.

“Remember, Volume is not only working with us in Alexandra [Township, their neighborhood of Johannesburg], they’re working with different townships and communities,” Shiko said. “A councilor being corrupt in the south of Joburg can also happen in another part of South Africa.” He also said he appreciates the pool of soundbites, of protests and politicians elsewhere in the country, and the archive of his stories on Volume.

Volume has been incubated through JAMLAB, a media accelerator based at Wits University, and funded as part of the South Africa Media Innovation Program for now. Perold and McNally have also brought in some money through training organizations running citizen journalism programs on the platform and hosting them (not the community radio stations) on Volume. They’re trying to wedge Volume as an intermediary between the community radio stations and larger media buyers, to cut out internal station politics and individual pricing models, as well as uncertainty around whether an ad was actually aired.

“Our mission is to really grow the pie for everybody,” Perold said. “By attracting more advertisers to the sector and convincing them that it isn’t the Wild West, the sector will be more sustainable and less susceptible to political interference.”

What else is happening in South Africa media news?

  • Digging for dung, unearthing corruption: This South African investigative nonprofit could help take down the president (and spoiler alert — it did).
  • Johanna van Eeden, NF ’15, directs a South African news platform built to keep up with the speed of news.
  • Fact-checking software that may help journalists recognize BS in real time is being tested in South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, and more.
  • Photo of Volume in use at Kasie FM in Spruitview, Johannesburg courtesy Volume.

    POSTED     July 23, 2018, 10:18 a.m.
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