The radio. The first non-print form of mass media. And while it’s been around for nearly 100 years, today, it is still an extremely popular medium in South Africa, with a total audience in excess of 29.8 million listeners, according to BRCSA.
But in an age where digital transformation is disrupting legacy industries and businesses, radio, too, has had to evolve to stay relevant, from digitally streaming stations to integrating social media into show engagement. And as traditional TV has faced challenges from on-demand players like Netflix, so too, traditional radio faces competition from digital alternatives, such as on-demand audio in the form of podcasts and, more recently, social audio platforms like Clubhouse.
Muhammad Cajee was appointed chief digital officer at Primedia Broadcast (home to 702, 94.7, Cape Talk and KFM) in March. His career includes a lengthy stint at Al Jazeera, where he was one of the three key executives behind the founding of its AJ+ service – an online news channel run across various social media platforms. He has been brought on board by Primedia to help steer the broadcast organisation in a new direction: expanding and optimising multi-platform digital opportunities.
Cajee believes that social and digital have affected radio in three areas: content, revenue and regulatory.
In terms of content, the online world has revolutionised how, and from where, people consume media, he says. “If you want to read about anything, listen to anything – whether it's an audio book or podcast – you can pretty much find it instantaneously. Media businesses have had to adapt to that reality when looking at the relevance of their content, and when determining what their competitive advantage is in their specific localised audiences, because radio, if it's limited only to terrestrial broadcast in a geographic space, is limited to only the audience it can reach. The advent of digital streams means that you can now reach beyond the geographical audience, so media organisations need to think carefully of what their content mix and offering is.”
Stations have also had to extend their brands across social media to increase engagement with their audiences, and the multi-platform world has altered how radio stations think about revenue. Focus on the radio ‘spot ad’ is being replaced with more creative multiplatform campaigns, Cajee says.
The third aspect is regulation, and when we can access content produced on the other side of the world, this presents a very real challenge for governments. “In theory, I can start a radio station tomorrow, with a cellphone, not even a laptop. You could start a stream to Facebook or YouTube, and essentially start a digital streaming radio station. The barriers to entry are so low that the limitations now are your capacity to build an audience and to monetise content by bringing in advertisers to finance that content production.”
New content creators
Undoubtedly, having the ability to create content in the palm of your hands has opened the media space up.
“There's an entire new category of content creators, who are in many way broadcasters themselves, especially if they grow from being a one-person audio startup to building a team; then there isn't really much difference between them as a broadcaster to a traditional broadcaster; one’s transmitting and the other is streaming.”
Traditional radio broadcasters may cater to hundreds of thousands of listeners or viewers, whereas a digital station or podcast can reach just tens of listeners, but that means niche interests can easily be catered to.
“There are tiers, and some of those tiers would be willing to produce content on a hyperlocal level, where it's voluntary and they're not expecting any kind of financial profit or revenues from their service to the community. It could be a high school sports game and a podcast of what's happening for parents who haven't been able to attend,” he says.
The barriers to entry are so low that the limitations now are your capacity to build an audience and to monetise content by bringing in advertisers to finance that content production.
But as you go up the tiers, the production values increase and so too do the requirements for being profitable and generating revenues to cover expenses. “You have to do it with an audience in mind, so it has to be regular, episodic and thematic and then you can start building up a following. When you have a regular audience, it can be monetised.”
Given this backdrop of digital content and availability across multiple platforms, what does the future hold, then, for Primedia and radio in general?
Terrestrial broadcasting is going to be with us for a long time, says Cajee. “But digital technology opens up options for a range of other streaming opportunities that aren't regulated. There are massive opportunities that we intend to take advantage of, additional digital streams, experimenting with different geographical locations in terms of targeting those digital streams to some of those locations. There's huge opportunities in podcasting and on-demand audio, and if we say our core business is audio, then that's a natural place for us to start building out adjacencies.”
Widening the scope
He says Primedia is already looking at two possible digital businesses, and is in discussions with partners. “We’re not limiting ourselves to terrestrial broadcasting, or even audio broadcasting. We see ourselves as a media company, and all forms of media business present opportunities for us.
“There's no reason why we couldn't be running a radio station during the day and using the facilities to stream to somewhere like San Francisco at night. We don't necessarily need to limit our thinking in terms of geographic location.
“The entire philosophy is different to the expected corporate philosophy of drafting strategy and then sticking to it until it's too late. Keep iterating, keep experimenting, keep different products in the pipeline.”
He says the ambition is to bring new products or iterations to market every quarter and he’s confident that the new strategy will bring some exciting new content offerings.
* This feature was first published in the July edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.