Broadcast content distribution goes digital: Welcome to the world of A24 Media and Freedom Fone

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Digital convergence will allow broadcasters new ways of handling and distributing content. Kenya’s A24 Media has launched a web site that allows broadcasters to buy and sell African content. If it takes off, it offers a golden path to selling material to developing world broadcasters with all of the rights hurdles cleared before you start. Zimbabwe’s Freedom Fone offers a way of listening to audio material (radio programmes) using automated voice menus. Russell Southwood seeks to discover whether what today’s innovators are doing will become the shape of tomorrow.

A24 Media was launched by Salim Amin at the beginning of September 2008 who describes it as “the first online agency for African videos and still photographs from freelancers, NGOs and African broadcasters.” Currently it’s feature content but it may do news as the demand grows. What A24 Media does for potential buyers from outside the continent is to verify and edit material. As Amin says:”We make sure it’s not propaganda or doctored footage.”

The potential buyer goes on the site and looks at a still picture from the material and can run a short trailer. Each clip is accompanied by the script. If you like a piece of material, you simply put it in your online shopping basket and pay with your credit card. Payment gives you the rights to use and re-use the material a specified number of times in twelve months. Rights of use include mobile TV and the Internet.

The simplicity of the web site is that content contributors receive 60% of the revenues from sales and retain their copyright. From Amin’s perspective, the great thing about the web site is that “it has the capacity to put content online and list content in perpetuity.” The deal the content provider makes with A24 Media is non-exclusive so it does detract from other sales they might make. For as Amin concedes:”We have to prove that we can earn more for them, then they will come to us first.”

Amin wants to try and get African content providers to get away from making one-time deals where they sell their copyright on. He believes that with particular categories of content, if they hold on to the rights, they will generate more income over the long-term:”We’re trying to create entrepreneurs of content because we’re a platform through which to sell their content.”

In the two and a half weeks it had been operating, it was attracting 1,500 hits a day, having had quite extensive publicity. These visitors to the site were mainly from the general public and diaspora Africans. And as Amin says:”We need more broadcasters to look at this. The challenging thing at the moment is that the news focus is currently entirely on the state of the global economy. But we’re in the business of finding stories from Africa that relate to this story.”

Overall, story categories include: current affairs,business, sport, art and culture, nature and wildlife, short films, interviews with high profile Africans and biographies. In current affairs, it’s not just the immediate story but the story behind the story:”Al Jazeera, CNN, Sky and the BBC will not always explain the intricacies of Africa. It’s not their job. We need to find the right people to that with for them. It’s too expensive for a station in Norway to send a crew. If we have a 12 minute piece for US$800, they might well use it.”

Initial business has been slow as the process of selling directly to broadcasters has not yet begun. The EBU has bought some sports pictures and it has sold a couple of business pieces to an Indian TV channel about Indian businesses working in Africa. The surprising thing for Amin was that the sale to the Indian broadcaster was “out of the blue” but that it has expressed interest in similar material going forward:”We’d like to end up as the one-stop-shop for African content.”

A24 Media wants to take advantage of the changes in international newsroom practices. Whereas many currently have subscriptions to news services, paid in advance, A24 Media’s service allows you to “pay-as-you go”:”We’re like a supermarket. You buy something and you leave. The subscription model is becoming archaic. Newsrooms have a lot of money tied up in content (through subscriptions) that they don’t know if they’re going to use. We’re trying to be a brokerage house rather than a channel. We think that this offers a better deal in the current market.”

If A24 Media is seeking to revolutionise the way African broadcast content is sold, Zimbabwe’s Freedom Fone was invented to offer listeners a chance to hear content that might not be available in the tightly state-controlled media. The organisation behind it – Kubatana.net – have realised that mobile phones are the most widely distributed media in the country and are seeking to take advantage of this. What it is going to be trialling is radio you phone in to listen to.

The technology allows you to call into a number and choose from a menu of audio items: one of those used in the demo at MobileActive 08 this week was musician Thomas Mapfumo talking about adopting a campaign of “tough love” towards the Government.

Depending on the business model adopted, the call in line could be pay-for or free and indeed it would be possible to have call-back. As users listen on their phone, there is probably an in-built assumption towards short items (Kubatana talks about short segment programming) but there is no technical reason why longer items might not be run. Items can also be changed on a daily basis. In essence, it takes a call centre software and adopts it to make radio the messages listened to.

Probably the biggest cost is supporting the number of lines required to allow any volume of people to phone in. Initially Kubatana worked with a device that carried SIM cards (fixed lines being unavailable) but network congestion made it difficult to sustain this approach. In the longer term it would like to use VoIP which is currently not legal in Zimbabwe. As part of the development process, it will be trialling it by reporting a women’s conference in South Africa where it will use VoIP.

Although designed as a way of combating media repression in Zimbabwe, the technology and the approaches it enables clearly have a number of interesting wider applications. Citizen journalism would be really easy to upload and use within the system. Although focused on Zimbabwe, there would be nothing to stop broadcasters from elsewhere listening to the audio files and then being able to download them for use in their own programmes.

It is perhaps this hybrid approach to digital convergence technology that holds out the strongest promise for African broadcasters if they have the imagination to embrace it. The broadcast professionals who increasingly have access to the Internet can report using laptops with 3G or EDGE modems. They can simultaneously upload their contributions in real time to content sales sites like A24. The digital newsroom will start its day by consulting the many sites that will emerge offering both pay-for and free content.

The eyes and ears of citizens can spot stories and send back pictures or clips by mobiles from where reporters may not know to venture. For example, here is a picture of the road that the Minister of Transport claims has been fixed and there’s still large holes in it: the audio-visual equivalent of the Watchman column in Kenya’s Nation newspaper.

Listeners can catch important items they may have missed by phoning in to the call centre: a hybrid form of catch-up radio for those without access to the Internet. All of these hybrid approaches impact particularly heavily on news reporting. And if TV broadcasters are slow to adopt them, they will find that the breaking story has moved out of their grasp on to mobile media and the Internet.