Surviving in a small market: Gambia’s Unique FM innovates by offering reality radio

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The radio sector in Africa is flourishing in those places where liberalisation has allowed anyone to launch a radio station. Radio is almost certainly Africa’s most distributed broadcast medium. So how does intense competition work in a very small market? Russell Southwood spoke to the founder of Gambia’s Unique FM about surviving in a small market, innovating to keep listener loyalty and living the dream.

Gambia is a former British colony in West Africa that stretches out along the river of the same name. It is a long thin country going east west along the river of the same name and it is entirely surrounded by Senegal. It has a population of only 1.68 million people and about a quarter of these live in the Greater Banjul area that includes the capital Banjul and the overspill town of Serrekunda. One of the country’s biggest industries is tourism.

Gambia’s Unique FM was launched two years on 13 December 2007 on the birthday of its founder Momodou Lamin Manga. It is one of six major radio players in urban Gambia which besides Unique FM include: the state-run GTRS, West Coast radio, City Limits, KWT and Paradise FM.

With the exception of GRTS, all of these radio stations are focused on the quarter of the population who live in Greater Banjul. For this reason, Unique FM has also set up the first commercial radio station outside urban Banjul in the largest city in the east of the country, Basse called Unique 2 and on the same 101.7 frequency.

According to Momodou Lamine Manga, the station’s founder, it was the first radio station in the country to provide live streaming of its output for diaspora Gambians. (www.uniquefm.gm)

The station’s programming is a mixture of commercial music programming, news and information. For example, its Airport Express slot gives information on delayed flights and other arrivals and has a Business News slot that gives exchange rates and a look at the economic outlook.

It is affiliated with Voice of America and runs a five minute news headlines programme from them at the top of the hour:” We broadcast their morning Programme Day Break Africa, Wednesdays evening’s Talk show Straight talk Africa, and their 5minutes News on the Hour”. There also run their own youth-related talk programmes.

The music programming is a mixture of the sounds that make up the soundtrack to urban Banjul, a blend of pop, reggae, hip-hop and African music. Manga says that “Unique FM sees the need to improve the status of Gambian music.”

Taking a leaf out of the book of reality TV, Manga is going to run a version of the Donald Trump format, The Apprentice:”It will be inspired by that format but relevant to the social conditions of Gambia and of course, there will be a money prize.”

No data exist on audiences for any media in Gambia but Manga says”We are a major force in urban Gambia, on the web and in Basse.” However, transmission coverage gives some clues as to likely potential audiences:”We have our own transmitter and it covers the Greater Banjul area but even reaches into parts of Senegal. We get calls from there.” Gambians and Senegalese share a common language in Wolof.

Manga’s long-term dream is to roll-out the Unique FM format into other parts of the sub-region:”We’re working hard to strengthen our brand locally and we’ve recruited Liberians, Ghanaians and others from different parts of West Africa.

So who are Unique FM’s biggest local competitors? “Most of the radio stations play music. All play commercial music. We are trying to extend that scope with local music and information.”

Advertising slots take up 30 seconds to a minute every half hour and it’s sign that competition has increased as these slots used to be two minutes long. Buying an advert in this slot costs the amazingly cheap price of 75 dalasis (US$2.86). The advertisers in the market are small in number.

There are four mobile operators (Government-owned Gamcel, Africell, Comium and the newly-launched QCel), a considerable number of newly arrived Nigerian banks and food and beverage companies. In Basse, Unique 2’s market is even tougher:”It’s NGOs who have something to say.”

So how does the station sustain itself with such low rates? “We get sponsorship deals. An operator will get so much airtime, which is exclusively theirs over a six month period. We charge 1,500 dalasis (US$57.25) an hour this way. All of the GSM operators have advertised on the station. Radio is their most effective medium”.

“Deregulation of the airwaves means that there are more competitors in a very small market. But quality has become reasonable in little over a year. But we need to innovate to keep the loyalty of our listeners.”

Despite the low advertising rates, Manga says the station is successful:“We’re surviving. We make ends meet, pay the bills and live the dream.”

“The biggest hurdle for us is expertise in all spheres of the business. In the next few years, when things are a bit more stable, we want to open the doors for training. We have a lot of ideas and there’s a huge gap.”