Social media saved Africa's oldest community station


When a financial crisis threatened the existence of Africa’s oldest community station, Bush Radio, an outpouring of sympathy and appeals went viral on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. In the end, it was this outspoken support that showed financial backers that the station was worth saving.

"It got the message out there to the decision makers, and because it was in their faces all the time… there has been offers of assistance," said Adrian Louw, program integrator at Bush Radio.

The emergence of social media has opened new opportunities for community broadcasters in Cape Town, South Africa. Not only are they able to interact more effectively with their audiences, but they can now do so cheaply.

Bush Radio broadcasts to at least 260 000 listeners, predominantly in the poor Cape Flats, formerly an apartheid housing area for people of color. But thanks to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a blog, Bush Radio now maintains a strong presence in the community. "The use of social media has been important for us because it has allowed us to do stuff without getting a specific designer on board that
knows our internet protocols," said Louw.

The station has a rich history of defiance during the apartheid era. Back then it broadcasted illegally after repeated applications for a license were turned down. Since the granting of a broadcasting license in 1994, the station has evolved with the times. "If blogging works, why do we have to pay thousands of (South African) Rands to get a designer to design a fancy website for news when a free CMS (content management system) works?" asked Louw.

Bush Radio is also renowned for training young people in broadcasting. Social media has enabled them to spread the message quicker. "For instance we had a recruitment for news volunteers. We had a response from over sixty applicants within three days." For Bush Radio, social media complements the weaknesses of radio – its immediacy and transient nature. With social media, the station can now relay important messages that have a presence on the internet.
"We seriously believe that technology must be used in bettering people’s lives," said Louw.

Across town in South Africa’s biggest single township of Khayelitsha, Radio Zibonele has a lot in common with Bush Radio. Radio Zibonele’s listenership has steadily increased with the station’s meteoric rise from its days of broadcasting under the bed of a shipping container truck in 1995. With over 220 000 listeners, feedback grew and inundated the single studio phone line. The advent of social media has been a welcome development for Radio Zibonele.

Like most community media, Radio Zibonele traditionally interacts with its audiences through outreach programs such as road shows and other sponsored community activities. However, of late, dwindling sponsorship has been a hindrance. Social media, said NtebalengShete, the station’s program manager, fills the gap by reconnecting with the community.
Radio Zibonele broadcasts mostly in the local language, isiXhosa. Its flagship program discusses various social problems, and feedback peaks during this two-hour program.

The high penetration of mobile phones with internet connectivity has also boosted the number of listeners who log onto social networks. According to latest figures provided by Cellular Online, a mobile portal, South Africa has a growing subscriber base of close to 20 million users.
"I think people are growing with technology…many of the people want to be on Facebook and Twitter," said Shete.