The state of South African radio

2015-04-19 08:30

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This year’s MTN Radio Awards had to sift through more than 420 nominees – from a record 1?800 entries.

CEO Lance Rothschild says: “We never look only at the number of nominees – what’s also important is the number of stations and organisations participating, and this year we have 115?...?When we started, we had 15?...?It’s grown nicely, and it’s about the talent and industry.”


Radio is huge in South Africa, with an estimated 37.6?million listeners older than 13, according to the SA Advertising Research Foundation.

That’s more than 71% of the nation. But the industry has not been immune to global shifts. Increasingly, listeners are spending less time listening, with the Radio Audience Measurement Survey (Rams) noting that people are listening to about two minutes less radio a day.

The province that spends the least amount of time listening is the Western Cape, with an average listening time of two hours and 50 minutes, while Limpopo comes in with more than four hours spent listening a day.

These days, a radio station must also compete with listeners who listen to more than one station – the average listener listens to two (or 2.3 in Gauteng). Even without the advent of digital broadcasting, stations are under pressure to keep listeners engaged on a limited FM frequency spectrum. Stations on the AM bandwidth have the added challenge of having a signal that is vulnerable to a variety of external factors, such as buildings and mountains.

And they have the challenge of making AM cool again. It’s one of the tasks facing a station such as Primedia Broadcasting’s 567 CapeTalk, which, despite sharing a lot of big sister 702’s content, has just more than a 10th of its older sibling’s nearly 1?million listeners.


Last year, 15 new stations, both commercial and community, were launched.

Rothschild says: “I personally feel that the South African radio landscape should be a lot more competitive than it is, and there should be more stations licensed, and whoever is the best will win. Ultimately, because stations won’t be able to get away with mediocrity, the listener will win in the end.”

Some of the line-up changes announced earlier this month showed a deliberate focus on capturing the youth – the majority of the country’s population and a valuable third of the total radio-listening audience.

SABC’s Good Hope FM and Metro FM, following in 5FM’s footsteps, announced line-ups with added daytime shows. Good Hope built on the success of its Saturday Teen Show by adding a daily teen/student show aimed at growing loyalty in this hard-to-impress market. YFM continues to be the forerunner in this space, commanding a Gauteng audience of 1.3?million, which is not far off 5FM’s national 1.7?million audience. YFM also has plans to go national, pending the availability of licences.

The addition of more daytime slots, especially in the morning – such as Metro’s 8am-to-10am Morning Fix – offers marketers an extended drive time, which eases the advertising load on breakfast slots and injects some life (and revenue) into those tricky mid-morning slots, which can often be quite bland compared with the breakfast shows.

While more might be more, listeners also want a little less of some things. On Air Radio Research by the Future Group (owners of the MTN Radio Awards) in 2013 noted that “speech overload, too much jock talk and bad content (poor song choice and lack of variety)” are the top three reasons listeners switch off, making radio a delicate science of knowing what mix of music, talk and ads is right for the listener.


One of the biggest and prevailing challenges year after year is the lack of reliable audience data. Although the foundation’s Rams data remain among the best measures of listenership around, many radio stations say they are just not enough.

The On Air Radio Research, which sampled marketers and stations themselves, saw audience data as the biggest challenge for both groups. Accurate data were the number one concern among the radio stations sampled, and the third biggest for marketers (the biggest marketing concerns were competition from online media and rate of inflation).

Rams remains the currency with which ad space is sold, but marketers are concerned by the advertising-rate inflation for certain platforms, especially where the Rams data indicate decreasing listenership. It is becoming ever more difficult to sell the value of an audience, especially if it is decreasing and, even if not, there’s no reliable external measure of who the audience really is. This makes radio ad sales one of the toughest career choices out there.


But despite the challenges, radio in South Africa is booming.

“Radio is such a chameleon medium?...?It adapts to the environment,” says Rothschild. “And that’s how it’s seen off the rise of MTV, music streaming, social media and iPods. In fact, it has managed to integrate those mediums to its own benefit.”

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