South Africa: Community TV Starts to Carve Out Its Space in SA


The launch of Soweto Community Television this week (see story below) was an important step forward for South African media. But is it sustainable? The problem always with community media is that what it does best - forging community identity and development - is seldom financially viable.

The dedicated souls who run these operations often have to face tough choices between serving their communities and serving commerce, and only a few have found a successful balance. Community radio has had a rocky road since it was launched in this country post-1994.

While audiences have grown consistently, and all the stations together command about 20% of the audience, many of the stations have struggled to survive. About 120 have been licensed altogether, and it is believed that about 80 remain on air, although that number changes all the time.

Some stand out as successes, such as Jozi FM in Soweto and Radio Today in Johannesburg. Mostly, they provide talent for the commercial radio sector, which sucks up any community radio volunteer who shows skill. They often grapple with leadership issues, as a station can be an important resource in a poor or rural community, and their boards are usually made up of representatives of interest groups who know little or nothing about the medium other than that it can be a source of power and influence.

Radio has the advantage of having relatively low production costs; print has the advantage that there is already a local small advertising market. For television to succeed, it will have to create a new very local market of the sort one sees on local American television stations. This will take time and money.

But gradually a space is being carved out, and it is one that should be important to the development of the country in which a sense of community identity and support is likely to be critical. The government gives support through the communications department (which sometimes provides equipment) and the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), which is a statutory body intended to promote media. The MDDA receives a combination of state and commercial media money, but the government's contribution is too small for the agency to operate at full effectiveness.

So the arrival of the first major community TV station is a breakthrough. There have previously been religious stations operating on community licences, but this is the first of this general interest sort. Soweto is the place it is most likely to succeed, but the challenges will be enormous. Advertising agencies should take note of the value of these stations for promoting talent, skills, diversity and competition.

(Business Day (Johannesburg), 4 July 2007)