If Radio is your career of choice you need to understand the difference between Commercial and Community Radio

I had the privilege of interviewing Stan Katz for Contemporary Business recently. Here is someone who grew 702’s revenues at 20% for 12 successive years. Today, the four Radio Stations in the Primedia collection collect in-excess of 1.3 Billion Rands in advertising every year.

The podcast of my interview with Stan Katz, can be found by liking the “Contemporary Business” Facebook Page or at  https://soundcloud.com/conbussa/stan-katz-the-man-who-brought-702-into-the-modern-age-21-april-2015?in=conbussa/sets/contemporary-business-misc

My Radio background is in Community Radio and I have what appears to be a different view of what makes for Community Radio, versus Commercial Talk Radio, to Mr Katz. Yes there is no doubt that 702’s strategy to be geographically located to what was referred to as “702 Land” indeed attracted advertisers who believed that in advertising on 702 they were going to get far closer to their target markets than advertising on National Radio could ever do for them. Yes the Talk Radio 702 topics were very much focused on what was going on in “702 Land” and not in far-flung reaches of our huge country. However, Community Radio, I think not.

From our interview it emerged that Stan Katz served on the ICASA panel on Community Radio. I find it strange and somewhat condescending that the General Manager of 702 could have actively participated in crafting regulations and the operating environment in-which Community Radio was going to be allowed to operate and apply for licenses within. In my opinion this must have constituted a clear conflict of interest.

When I pressed Stan Katz on whether we should see legislation compelling advertisers to have to spend a proportional amount of their Radio Advertising budget within the licensed Community Radio network he took exception to my suggestion implying that market forces should dictate advertising spend. I do not however see why there should not be an affirmative framework ensuring a somewhat leveling of the playing fields in-favor of Community Radio stations. Such a strategy can only serve to improve the quality, reach and role played by Community Radio Stations within their pre-defined and exceptionally constrained target markets. I cannot see how such a scenario would negatively impact on Commercial Radio Stations, unless the Community Radio Stations, in serving their mandates were truly impacting on listenership and then, if that were the case surely the markets would be speaking loud and clear against monopolies such as the one created by Primedia.

I am not a fan of monopolies and indeed beyond the critical economy-of-scale levels within any sector, hugeness has its benefits as well as its dangers. Monopolies can be more impactful, have a wider reach and can dabble way beyond their original mandate to offer good and honest radio. They become political. They set themselves up on their own podiums and start establishing their definition of social trends. They become the arbiters of the Moral High-ground and have the power to make or break reputations. (Present company obviously excluded from such insinuations).

My advice to any would be Radio person is get in at the Community Radio level. That is the purest form of Radio. That is where the impact you want to make can be most immediately felt and where editorial policy does not get dictated by advertisers, not necessarily in content but certainly in inclination.

Some of the most prolific Radio Producers, Technical Controllers, News Announcers and Social Commentators in South Africa have all started in Community Radio. Put in the hard work at that level and you are bound to be noticed and recruited. Unfortunately though there are very few Commercial Radio stations which are recruiting anything other than politically correct journalists these days and hence Commercial Radio often is the same-old-same-old in-terms of safe and politically correct content. Safe is what attracts the advertisers, even if the conventionally safe is the political, economic and social mainstream of information, talk radio and even music.

Good radio on the other hand, pervasive, popular, and lasting radio is about disruption. About trouble making. About the sensational and often about the irreverent. There is very little place in Commercial Radio circles for this type of talent. Community Radio on the other hand has space for this kind of personal growth.

The truest and most honest form of radio is Internet Radio. It is in this sphere where there are few restrictions, (until ICASA get their grubby little hands on Internet Radio which undoubtedly is not far off). Currently however, beyond the obvious shock jocks who have been fired from mainstream Commercial Radio and who have used their severance packages to move into Internet Radio, there is fantastic product and content on the internet free of ICASA and Government restrictions on the one hand and the powerful influence of the commercial radio monopolies on the other. Internet Radio has inexpensive and easy points of entry and longevity simply depends on tenacity and talent. And yes, those long-reaching severance packages I alluded to. The one thing that Internet Radio is not currently, at least in this country, is lucrative or financially sustainable.

Will we get to that critical-mass state which makes Internet Radio attractive to advertisers? Absolutely! The cost of Broadband is daylight robbery in South Africa. However, Broadband is becoming cheaper and the quality better.

If the Global trend is anything to go by, the days of terrestrial radio and hence the immediate reach of ICASA regulating the content of Radio, are numbered.

Our Competition Commission is questionably weak when it comes to probing these monopolies and obviously scared of them.

In South Africa however the question will always be whether the existing monopolies are not too strong to effectively resist any change, which threatens their bottom line?