Botswana: New Radio Stations Herald Exciting Times


Last month the mass media marketplace became more competitive. The issuance of three national radio licences has given a new complexion to the broadcasting terrain. It has been a long haul to the National Broadcasting Board's decision to award national licences to Gabz FM, Yarona FM and Duma FM. The foundation though was laid eight years ago when the first private broadcasting licences were issued. Back then the beneficiaries were the same Gabz Fm and Yarona Fm to operate regional stations. Previously broadcasting had been the exclusive preserve of the state. As commentators have acknowledged, the lightning rod that sparked the process of broadcasting liberalisation was Patrick Gunda who brought action against the government for its refusal to grant him a licence to operate Radio Gaga. The position of government was that it lacked the enabling legislation to issue broadcasting authority. The subsequent court ruling, however, pronounced it unconstitutional for citizens to be denied private broadcasting licenses. This led to the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which provided for the establishment of the Botswana Telecommunications Authority.

Even then, challenges lie ahead. It is still early days to determine if they will fulfil the demands of national coverage. But the new players are expected to provide an additional platform for diverse voices and cultural products. Although Gabz FM and and Yarona FM have experience as regional broadcasters, it remains to be seen if a national audience will be as receptive to their content.

All three stations have their work cut out when factors such as the cost of the infrastructure to roll out nationally are taken into account. But the most critical question facing the entrants is whether the local advertising pie is large enough to support three new national broadcasters. It must be noted that besides the lofty ideals of providing a diversity of voices, commercial broadcasters exist primarily to turn a profit.

Unlike the state broadcaster, which is largely funded by government grants, the sole source of revenue for private broadcasters is advertising. But advertising follows audiences. With three stations to choose from, an advertising market which is largely homogenous, only the radio station with the most creative and appealing content will attract the listening public. The advertising imperative means the three stations will primarily cater for the urban and peri-urban audience. In terms of content, the popular format followed by FM stations is to offer talk radio involving studio discussions, phone-ins, political issues plus entertainment and music. Expressed differently therefore, the relationship between the three stations is going to be defined by fierce competition for advertisers and audiences. Another challenge will be local content. Existing broadcasting regulations recommend a quota of 40%. Although artists and producers hope the three stations will promote their cultural products such as music, this quota is inclusive of all programming. There is ambiguity regarding the amount of local music to be played. Imposing quotas for music is a controversial subject the world over.

Mmegi/The Reporter Gaborone, 11 June 2007