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In_Studio.jpgRadio presenter (in Afrikaans): "Hello, and welcome to Gemeenskapsagenda (Community Agenda)... an exciting new programme on Valley FM. We want to get our whole community talking, in a different kind of way… in Gemeenskapsaganda, we want to move away from blaming and finger-pointing, to a conversation where we all take responsibility for our problems, and for finding solutions together... We want to move away from looking at two sides of the story – from for and against, black and white… to looking at three, four or more sides of a story… to looking at a problem from 360 degrees."

-Introductory script for new program of Valley FM, a community radio station in South Africa's Western Cape (courtesy Brett Davidson)

Community radio in South Africa
In January 2007 Brett Davidson, a social scientist working in community radio in South Africa, received a research contract from the Kettering Foundation to test a new kind of community radio show. Not only would the program aim to address the specific needs of the community and involve community members in its production, it would also broadcast an array of community voices from across the social spectrum, organized into an issue-driven dialogue. Davidson named this format "deliberative talk radio."

To pilot his idea, Davidson held a workshop for the personnel of Valley FM, a local community radio station in Worcester, a rural town in the Western Cape region of South Africa about 100 km outside of Cape Town. The training focused on how to apply the principle of public deliberation to the radio talk-show format.

This project was Davidson's latest experiment with community radio as a potential tool for promoting democracy in post-apartheid South Africa. Upon the country's transition from formal apartheid to democracy in the 1990s, the South African Broadcasting Authority -- which had maintained exclusive control of the airwaves during the apartheid years -- was decentralized and liberalized. Broadcasting was broken down into three sectors: public, commercial and community, each with a specific set of mandates and regulations.

The Broadcasting Act of 1999 called for placing the management of broadcasting organizations in the hands of people "from previously disadvantaged groups," requiring it to "reflect the multilingual and diverse nature of South Africa by promoting the entire spectrum of cultural backgrounds and official languages in the Republic." Effectively, this means that community radio stations must be able to demonstrate that they are owned and operated by members of the community and, as such, are supposed to function as a component of local civil society. The participatory nature of community stations -- which must meet these requirements in order to obtain a license -- distinguishes them from mainstream radio outlets.

South Africa is rare, if not unique, among African countries in its provision of financial and logistical support for the establishment of community or alternative media, administered through the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA). ICASA regulates the telecommunications and broadcasting industries, issues licenses to providers and settles disputes, among other functions.

Radio deliberation
In Worcester, the structural inequalities of the apartheid era are still apparent; Davidson notes that these divisions have been slower to heal in South Africa's smaller towns and rural areas. He observes: "The small white population is relatively wealthy, while the larger black and 'coloured' population is mostly poor, with a high degree of unemployment." Davidson's experiment in deliberative talk radio was designed to overcome these divisions by involving the community in the production of a broadcast that would blend the perspectives of the community with responses from local officials.

Davidson and the station staff began by framing community issues and conducting local research, which included interviewing people in the street to get an idea of the range of views and opinions on each topic. They then settled on the subject of the quality of local education for their debut program.

The final agenda included a variety of issues related to public education in the region, including encouraging parent participation, creating a positive learning environment and ensuring high-quality teaching and administration. The discussions were open to community members who were directly involved in education, such as parents, teachers and bus drivers. They were closed to education authorities and government officials, whose presence might discourage the community members (who tend to defer to authority figures) from speaking their minds openly.

For the first two-hour radio program, the producers constructed a kind of conversation by combining the community forums (held at venues away from the studio) with in-studio discussions with education authorities. The producers aired the forum's discussion of a particular issue, then the studio panel would be asked to comment, and finally listeners' calls would be accepted. In this way, parties who might otherwise have been unlikely to talk to one another were entered into a kind of dialogue.

Davidson and the Valley FM staff convened a total of three forums. The first two were structured as follows: during the first hour, the pre-recorded forum would be played, and during the second half, "role-players," such as education authorities, responded to the points raised by the forum participants, and the phone lines would be open to callers. Only one person called in during each of these programs.

The producers were more experimental with the third forum, varying the format by integrating extracts from the forum with on-air discussion and call-ins.This structure allowed for dialogue between the forum participants, local authorities and callers: a particular issue from the forum discussion would be aired, and then the studio panel would be asked to comment before proceeding to the next theme. Listeners' calls would be taken between these segments. This format proved more successful: the number of callers increased from one to nine, prompting the station to extend the show by 45 minutes.

One participant in this forum, a representative from the local teacher's union, commented on the value of the neutral environment created on the airwaves. "Tonight we had a conflict-free conversation with the department, and that's because we all came to the table with a positive contribution and it is about the promotion of public education."

But the deliberative talk show format is not without its challenges. One of them is the time-intensive nature of the productions.

Nonetheless, Davidson believes that this model can be easily exported to other development contexts. Many of the ideas Davidson has tested overlap with the strategies employed by other projects working toward similar ends, such as Search for Common Ground.

More information, including transcripts and photographs, can be found on Brett Davidson's blog.

Defining community in order to serve it better
It has been more than a decade since South Africa renounced its official policy of racial segregation, yet many communities are still fragmented. Sean Jacobs, a professor of media and democracy studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a native of Cape Town, South Africa, has observed these fault lines. In an article about a recent trip back to Cape Town published in the March 2007 issue of Monthly Review magazine, Jacobs describes the continued marginalization of poor black communities in the townships and inner cities of South Africa. He writes, "Apart from privately developed gated communities close to the city, Cape Town has a habit of expanding existing racial ghettoes... What results is that poverty -- manifested by unemployment, bad schools, and gangsterism -- is trapped in the townships far away from the city center and the op-ed pages of the main newspapers or the talk shows on AM Radio."

Brett Davidson recognized these sources of tension and envisioned community radio as a practical tool for beginning to overcome them. He was particularly interested in helping station personnel better understand the communities they serve. During his tenure at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), Davidson introduced the practice of civic mapping to a community station in the Western Cape to help its programming staff gain a better understanding of the communities they serve, and then helped develop strategies for incorporating a wider range of voices into the station's programming.

He interviewed staff members to ascertain their attitudes toward and perceptions of the community (roughly defined as the area that fell within the station's broadcast footprint) and to get their opinions about the station's shortcomings. Several staff members expressed the belief that there were significant holes in their knowledge of the community, and that the station's programming was not necessarily all-inclusive. For example, the station's news manager, a black man living in a township just outside the main town, felt that as isiXhosa speakers, the blacks who make up part of the station's community were not well served by the station, which aired most of its programming in Afrikaans.

During one workshop, Davidson led participants on an excursion to a small town at the periphery of the station's broadcast footprint. He writes: "It soon emerged that none of the participants knew the way, and after a wrong turn we had to stop and ask for directions. The drive of about 45 minutes revealed clearly to the participants that people in Saron would have great difficulty in participating in radio station activities. Saron was far from Paarl, and there was almost no transport between the two towns, aside from one or two minibus taxis."

The station's staff had known there was a physical barrier between the two towns, but now they realized there was also a communication barrier. They learned that few people in the rural town could even receive the station's signal, and that some were traveling to neighboring towns to listen in. The team discovered that people in the part of town who weren't picking up the signal would frequently call people in the other part of town who did receive it, suggesting the value the community assigned to the broadcast, but also pointing out the reality facing many community stations: when the infrastructure is imperfect, it limits the station's reach.

The continuing importance of radio in South Africa should not be underestimated. A recent report by the African Media Development Initiative states that, to date, “radio is the most accessible and most consumed media in all of the countries,” with “heavy” listening in South Africa, registering weekly reach figures of at least 90%. Of the countries surveyed, South Africa has the most heavily penetrated radio consumption on both a daily and weekly basis.

More specifically, the feedback from the community that Davidson received for both his civic mapping and deliberative talk radio projects shows that community radio is generally valued as a social good by the population it serves. However, that fact alone is not enough to sustain the kind of innovation Davidson and others have been exploring. Innovation requires money, time and personnel, all of which are in short supply at community radio stations.

For example, Valley FM has a full-time staff of three, and relies on community volunteers for much of the reporting, presenting and producing. It is difficult for many stations, including Valley FM, to produce 24 hours worth of content while understaffed. It is also difficult to rely so heavily on volunteers, as South Africa's unemployment rate is around 40 percent.

That said, there are reasons to be optimistic about the future of community radio. A number of organizations, such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-South Africa), the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI), the Association of Independent Publishers (AIP) and Print Media South Africa (PMSA), lobby the government to support small commercial and community radio organizations, reduce government control and increase access to information. The Media Development and Diversity Agency offers support to community and small commercial media projects.

Another reason to continue to look at ways to support community radio is that the sector is experiencing strong growth. In 2000, South Africa had no community radio stations. In the period between 2004 and 2006, that number rose to 93 (while the number of commercial and state-owned radio stations either remained unchanged or decreased slightly).

Despite this robust proliferation, financing remains an issue for the sector across Africa, putting its sustainability in question. For example, in Sierra Leone, stations with community radio licenses are actually operating as commercial entities due to a lack of donor funding. If community radio is to thrive as such in Africa, alternative sources of funding must be identified. It is as Brett Davidson says: "Democracy at the organizational level is messy and difficult to reconcile with the need to run a viable media organisation."

Potential for using community research as market research to attract advertisers
Three broad areas have been identified as necessary for private sector media development: cost-cutting and improved efficiency; improved access to finance; and increased advertising revenues. While large-scale media enterprises are best placed to capitalize on larger-scale investment, much of the African media landscape is characterised by “small media”, such as community radio enterprises, some privately owned and many others supported through donor finance. These outlets are unlikely to attract larger-scale or foreign direct investment.

The AMDI, which describes itself as "the most extensive independent survey" of the state of the media sector in Africa, examined how donors, investors, media and media development organizations can most effectively work together to strengthen the sector. It was carried out by the BBC World Service Trust, Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Rhodes University South Africa, and a network of researchers from 17 African countries.

According to the AMDI, one indicator of the dynamism of a country's media sector is the advertising activity within that country. South Africa ranks among the top six African countries surveyed in terms of the number of international, regional or national advertising agencies. However, the market is challenged by a "lack of timely and comprehensive research and monitoring data."

To cover their operating costs, community stations rely on a combination of government funding and advertising revenue, for which they compete with mainstream media. (They also compete for listeners.) The South African Advertising Research Foundation provides audience figures (see the Radio Audience Measurement Survey (RAMS). According to this measure, overall listenership is increasing.

The potential exists for community stations to leverage their audiences and community research to bring in advertising revenue. Rising listenerhship, combined with the advantages smaller-scale media have, such as the ability to broadcast in minority languages, may make it easier in some respects for them to attract advertisers; their closeness to their audience can give them a competitive advantage. Once too small to bring in much advertising, growing local audiences - and what the stations know about them - could enhance the appeal of community stations to advertisers.

South Africa as a hub for community radio development research
Despite these challenges, South Africa is a leader in the media field. The AMDI reports that, among African nations, South Africa is by far the best served by local and national NGOs (with 36,981 such organizations, next to Uganda’s 6,063). NGOs working in media development are heavily concentrated in South Africa.

And thanks to its comprehensive legal and regulatory framework, South Africa is well positioned as a regional center for development work, in media and other areas. Brett Davidson believes that his model for deliberative talk radio can be adapted to many other contexts. Talk radio is already popular throughout Africa, and other organizations are advancing work in this area. Search for Common Ground has produced a manual for talk radio that promotes peace and reconciliation, drawing on many of the ideas Davidson applies to his work.

Several organizations have responded to the sector-wide need for improved management techniques. These include the Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute (SPI) and the Southern Africa Institute for Media Entrepreneurship Development (SAIMED), which have developed programs for media managers that focus on financial and business management, sales and marketing.

Beyond improved management techniques and even new programming models, Davidson sees the future of radio in linkages to digital technologies, such as the Internet, mobile phones, MP3 players and podcasting. "These days with a PC and good audio software one can produce good programming, as opposed to the 'old days' where you had to invest huge amounts of money into studio equipment," he said. "Radio is still immensely important in Africa."