Financial challenges stifle community media in Southern Africa -- UNESCO study

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GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa – Community media in Southern Africa faces a continuing financial crisis that is limiting its vital role of empowering the communities it serves as the ‘voice of the voiceless’ in an era of global information abundance, according to a new study released this week.

The study, conducted by independent researcher Meli Ncube on behalf of the Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership at Rhodes University and funded by UNESCO, sought to find out the latest financial health of community media – both print and broadcast – in four countries of the 15-nation Southern African Development Community.

The countries chosen for the research were South Africa, Malawi, Namibia and Zambia.

Directory of community media and advertising 

Specifically, the research sought to create a directory of community media and advertising agencies and their advertising rates in the four countries in a bid to connect community media to the ad agencies, their rates and contact details to promote greater access of the media to the agencies.

Such a directory would also enable community media to have more flexibility in choosing the ad agency to work with because the rates paid to community media would now be more widely available, creating a more transparent market.

Ncube says he faced several hurdles in trying to gather critical research data, especially the agencies’ advertising rates for community media, to compile the directory, which is being produced in both electronic and print versions and will be distributed to community media in the four nations.

Despite these setbacks, Ncube reports that the study found that community media in the four nations was facing a widening lack of critical financial resources, which in turn hobbled its ability to address deep-seated challenges that include a lack of appropriate work skills by staff and a dearth of technical equipment that enables work effectiveness and efficiency to produce quality and credible news and programming content.

“In sum, the challenge of community media, particularly faced by community radio, was one of a continuing struggle with a weak financial base which compromises their capacity to hire and retain qualified staff, and manage and maintain equipment,” Ncube said in his study.

“These factors inhibit their (community media’s) ability to produce high quality programming, thereby weakening their potential to attract sponsored programmes which can in turn contribute to strengthening their financial base”.

Several empirical studies

Ncube’s research findings support several empirical studies which have previously examined how to create and sustain a financially viable media – be it non-profit or commercial.

Top researchers such as Philip Meyer, known for his seminal paper on the ‘Influence Model’ of news business written in 2004; Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell who emphasized the importance of investing in newsroom resources to prevent a ‘suicidal  (economic) spiral’, also penned in 2004; and Robert G Picard, the world’s leading media management and business analyst, all highlight the importance of creating high quality and credible news content and programming as one of the most critical drivers of building a sustainable media organization.


Picard, for example, observes that non-profit media such as community media firms must earn surplus revenue in their operations – just as commercial media -- to be able to meet their basic needs of paying the salaries of their workers, renew old equipment and re-invest in improving their news and programming in a continuing virtuous cycle.

Ncube found that most community media organizations in the researched countries were unable to meet their basic financial functions – even where national governments had intervened to give them financial subsidies.

He recommended that community media must not rely on one revenue source, especially on advertising in the increasingly discontinuous media landscape where advertisers are by-passing media and journalism to reach audiences directly.

Innovative revenue generation

Community media, Ncube noted, must explore a range of innovative revenue generation measures. At the centre of these steps was the need for community media to create trust and authentic engagement with the communities which these media organizations and their journalism serve. This is true for ‘communities of interest’ through news content or by geography.

“Community media also need to develop effective training and staff retention strategies such as development courses, on-the-job training, staff bonding and motivational incentives so as to make sure that volunteers (who work in most community media) do not leave after being adequately trained,” Ncube reported.

Ncube’s study does contain a directory of community media and ad agencies and their contact details, but he points out that both sectors surveyed refused to disclose the ad rates that agencies pay to community media versus the rates for commercial media.

Anecdotal Evidence

This is an important point because anecdotal evidence suggests that even when a community media house reaches more audiences than a comparable commercial media firm – the yardstick long used to determine the ad rate -- the ad agencies still pay the community media outlet less for advertising on it.

The ad agencies’ apparently argue that they get more value for their clients’ ad money from commercial media, Ncube said. Ad agencies also tend to think that the market for their clients’ products and services is not generally served by community media, which serves audiences mostly in remote rural areas.

But in the evolving media environment that is opening up rural areas to both digital and social media, some media analysts suggest that the rural areas could be the next ‘growth points’ for media organizations in countries with significant and inclusive economic growth.

Source:  Own Correspondent

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