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Regional Commercial Radio — The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Regional Commercial Radio – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A lot of South Africans will be taking to the road over the next few days and weeks. For those who don’t really feel like talking while speeding down the highway, there’s always the radio.

The last year or so has given us a couple of new stations – Capricorn FM in Limpopo and MPower in Mpumalanga. I’m going to focus on MPower for the next few hundred words.

There was a lot of excitement a few years ago when ICASA put out a call for proposals for new regional commercial stations. The criteria for selection were to offer radio that served and represented the regional community in ways that existing radio was not providing. ICASA said it would look favourably on applications offering to broadcast in local languages other than English. I’ve listened to MPower many times since it went on air about this time last year, hoping to be inspired; it hasn’t happened.

So why do I listen? I listen to a lot of radio stations I don’t like, but I also listen to even more that I enjoy immensely – it’s the business I’m in. When I drive from Johannesburg to Maputo or from Johannesburg to just about anywhere in Mpumalanga, I tune into MPower to hear how it sounds. If I’m forced to make a comparison, I’d call the sound a watered-down version of Jacaranda, but less relevant.

On one five-hour-long listening marathon my partner kept asking me to change radio stations, claiming it was destroying her vacation! Of course it’s a personal opinion, but she’s a fan (as I am) of most genres of music coming out of South Africa and it’s frustrating to listen to endless songs that were dropped from play lists in the US and the UK twenty years ago. In any case, Jacaranda, which can be heard throughout most of MPower’s coverage area, does this already. MPower seems to have forgotten to cater to most people within the sound of its transmitters.

I perform anecdotal surveys of radio preference wherever I go, and travelling through Mpumalanga is no exception. Petrol station attendants, shop assistants and waitresses are always asked “What’s your favourite radio station?” Not only have I never heard MPower get a vote for this position, I also never run into people admitting they listen to it at all, in fact most people I ask say they’ve never heard of it!

It came as no surprise to see a headline in City Press a few weeks ago – “Staff exodus at MPower FM.” Listenership at MPower, according to the Radio Audience Measurement survey (RAM) is a pathetic 103 000. Compare that with the more sparsely-populated Limpopo Province, where Capricorn FM is pulling in 1 500 000 listeners, according to the same survey; and Capricorn also has Jacaranda as a competitor. The major difference between the two stations, according to this humble listener, is that Capricorn has not forgotten that the previously disadvantaged majority is also its majority listener base.

So why should I or anybody else care? I don’t have to listen to MPower nor does anybody else if they don’t want to. True enough. However, the commercial radio world in South Africa is very small. Ownership of most of the stations is in the hands of a few. This is not necessarily bad news, unless it leads to a generic sounding product.

The biggest players are Kagiso Media, Primedia, and African Media Entertainment (AME). Kagiso’s big-gun stations are Jacaranda and East Coast Radio. Primedia owns the cash-cow Highveld Stereo while AME takes up the rear with, amongst others – Algoa FM, OFM and MPower. Perhaps you can spot the trend.

There are of course other commercial stations in South Africa and the big three named above have interests in most of them. One commercial station they all want to have an interest in is Johannesburg’s Kaya FM. Kaya doesn’t sound like any of the stations mentioned thus far in this blog. That’s one of the main reasons why I like it; it’s not what I would term a cookie-cutter kind of pop radio station that’s found elsewhere in the country and in fact in many parts of the world.

So what does my interest in Kaya have to do with MPower? As I said, the big three radio media houses all want part of Kaya. Kagiso already has a stake. Primedia sort of has a stake, but AME is challenging Primedia’s eligibility to hold on to it. The story goes like this: a bloc of shares in Kaya held by what was New Africa Investments Limited (NAIL) went up for sale. The 24,9% bloc was purchased by Primedia. AME went to the competition tribunal to try to stop the sale. AME lost the case then went to the competition appeal court to try again.

I have no beef with AME, Primedia or Kagiso. What does concern me, however, is the loss of radio diversity in South Africa that occurs when the same players get their hands into every radio pie. I don’t want Kaya to lose its distinctive sound. I don’t want it to be influenced by people who aren’t able to identify and serve a viable market such as listeners in Mpumalanga who are not being served by MPower.

Market forces will eventually sort out MPower, but there’s a bigger problem to deal with; I believe the blame for this lack of radio diversity lies squarely on the shoulders of ICASA. The broadcast regulator should be more vigilant when handing out licenses. Radio stations can wield enormous power and influence in the areas they serve. The name of Mpumalanga’s commercial radio station is anathema.