Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Fumbling with broadcasting’s future in a socially-networked world

The crisis of the US newspaper industry is what broadcasters are going to experience. Plunging audiences and collapsing advertising revenues. And it’s also coming to South Africa.

That’s the prognosis of Wits digital arts professor Christo Doherty speaking as chair of a conference on digital media for broadcasters, organised by Classic Events at Wanderers this week.

Christo Doherty

Acknowledging that South Africa is far from having an online population, Doherty said internet access had been “criminally” limited in the country. He hoped this would change if the new minister of communications did not “treat ICT as a signals apparatus for the ruling party”.

But meanwhile, South African broadcasters could learn from international counterparts who had been tripped up by the internet’s anarchic character.

“Broadcasters typify top-down control. They select or create content, take pride in their values and quality and the packages they compile for target audiences.”

Web 2.0, however, makes this model extremely difficult, according to Doherty. The reason, he said, is that — contrary to the cliché — “content is not king”.

Likewise, he argued, there is “the fallacy of convergence” of packaging the same content for various platforms (and for newspapers, losing audience on the original one).

All this came from an outdated view of media seeking to be a portal to a concentration of content. But Google had disaggregated content — and instead of audiences coming to shop fronts, the entrances were mainly through side doors.

Add to this, said Doherty, is that “Web 2.0 is not about content, but connectedness”. It is because “there is a deeply libidinal need to be connected and staying connected”.

People wanted to engage with content on their own terms — often upending control relationships, like voting counter to the judges on Idols programmes and expressing outrage at manipulated content like the YouTube clip Lonely Girl 15.

In this environment, he said, broadcasting needed to change and be about how content and packaging were mediated by centrality of connectedness.

“Broadcasters who understand the centrality of connections, that it’s about using and exploiting the fact of connectedness, will find a way forward.”

Another challenge to broadcasting was noted by speaker Carlos Henriques, MD of the Mail & Guardian digital operations, who raised the revenue question.

Carlos Henriques

“Let’s not fool ourselves — there is a slow increase in online advertising in South Africa,” he said.

How to capitalise on both Web 2.0 and the revenue challenges online, was addressed by Declan Kennedy on the experience of Irish public broadcast radio station 2fm.

Declan Kennedy

Kennedy described the broadcaster’s website as having been “brochureware” — with features like “static information, aesthetically dull, no real-time function, users skimming — no stickiness ratio…, no sense of connection with On Air”.

The site offered blogs, and some DJs also promoted themselves on Facebook — but “that’s not really Web.2.0, although that’s what many think”.

In designing a new strategy, 2fm noted research that many people use radio as a primary way to discover new music. This insight generated the core proposition that the station’s online play should help it become a trusted national guide to discovery of Irish music and culture.

The new strategy therefore allowed direct access to the site by 2fm’s programme producers and DJs, facilitating them to become online personalities. In fact, each DJ is required to put up three items a day.

The site also displays the last ten tracks played on air, and has links to a page on each artist featured. Content on these musicians is automatically scraped from Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and RSS feeds. There’s also space for user comments and for the musicians themselves to post podcasts on the page.

2fm’s site also offers social bookmarks for people’s favourites. These are also triggered by listeners sending in SMSs and text messages received further trigger information about the item being broadcast. A toolbar for web and mobile browsers is on the cards, providing real-time information about what’s streaming from the station.

However, came the caution, 2fm was not yet “Radio 2.0” — because the site is still controlled by 2fm, and is not open to users to contribute non-radio content or personalise the page.

Nevertheless, what was important was recognising that people were talking about broadcast content on Facebook and Twitter. In one case, there were 480 comments on one DJ’s Twitter site over a 30-minute period.

“It’s very difficult to control your brand out there — easy to fix, but you have to monitor, for example, what your DJs are going to talk about. You have to control, yet enable flexibility.”

Kennedy said that all this made it imperative to integrate on-air and online advertising sales teams. It was possible to sell “360-degree integrated inventory” across all this.

Implicit in the speakers’ messages: while there’s breathing space for South African broadcasters, a major oxygen intake is called for.