The Healthy Community Radio Station
Community radio stations are an important part of the media landscape in many countries. They make up one part of a three-tier system of radio, the other parts being public and commercial radio. They were set up to provide a platform for communities to communicate between themselves and with their governments without interference. In many ways the sector entrenches the democratic process in which freedom of communication and speech plays a central role.
Community radio stations are an important part of the media landscape in many countries. They make up one part of a three-tier system of radio, the other parts being public and commercial radio. They were set up to provide a platform for communities to communicate between themselves and with their governments without interference. In many ways the sector entrenches the democratic process in which freedom of communication and speech plays a central role. Wealthy sectors of the society have many media choices but community stations often represent the only space where poorer communities can discuss the issues that affect them. Because community radio stations play such a critical role in society, their health should be an important matter and of concern to communities and to the broader society.
Over the years, a lot of effort and resources have been put into the development of the sector in many southern African countries. Initially, most of the effort was directed at providing technical equipment and developing the staff to operate the equipment and present programmes. Attention was also given to training the staff to understand the basics of journalism. The objective was to get the stations to go on air. In subsequent years, more focus was given to management, governance, finance and marketing issues. The overall objective of more recent interventions and support provided to community radio stations is to move the stations towards sustainability. Significant amounts of money have been spent on the sector, and there have been successes and failures. The most successful support has tended to be designed on the basis of a specific and concrete analysis of a particular station’s situation, and support organisations have undertaken audits and assessments of various kinds to do this. However, a commonly accepted tool for this purpose has not been available until now.
This booklet will attempt to fill the gap – on the basis that a common tool of this kind would present many advantages. It makes it more feasible to compare different stations, as well as to analyse a particular station’s development over time. The booklet first presents a detailed description of what a healthy community radio station in the southern African context looks like. There is already considerable literature on community radio – much of it containing insights and advice that are very useful for people involved in building radio stations, or in supporting the sector. There are also many handbooks and we have been grateful to draw on some of these. What we have tried to do that is perhaps somewhat different is to organise this discussion on the basis of five distinct dimensions.
The five parameters we use are Mission and Governance; Management and Staffing; Infrastructure and Finances; Programming; and Community Involvement. These are the five pillars of health, and it should be obvious that they are interlinked: the issue of community involvement needs to run through all aspects of a radio station’s functioning, for instance. One could argue that the divisions are somewhat artificial but they are introduced here to give some structure to the analysis. It should be noted that we prefer the term ‘health’ to the more common ‘sustainability’ for reasons we will explain below.
These dimensions then form the basis for a diagnostic tool, the Station Health Check, which uses a series of detailed checklists to develop a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of a particular station. The Health Check is intended to be cost-effective and can be applied in different contexts. It is also based on verifiable data: too many analyses are based on a single optimistic interview with the station manager. Real understanding needs more than this, and we insist on a set of interviews with specific people and groups, document analysis and listening to station output. A detailed description of the Station Health Check takes up the second part of this booklet.
At the Wits Radio Academy, the diagnosis is used to deliver a set of priorities for a programme of organisational support, the Station Advisory and Mentoring Service (SAMS). This involves setting clear and achievable goals, and an experienced mentor then works with the station to achieve them, generally over six months. The emphasis is on supporting the organisation’s efforts to address areas of weakness, drawing on local resources wherever possible. Once we have more experience with implementing this approach, we will look for an opportunity to write it up.
These documents are being made available so that they can be tested by others in the field in order to refine and improve them. We would welcome feedback from anybody who applies them. We would love to hear about any experiences you may have, and to hear of any problems and gaps that need to be fixed.
Our thanks go to the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), which supported elements of the work, and to colleagues Jacob Ntshangase, Kanyi Mkonza, Sue Valentine and Franklin Huizies, whose involvement in developing these ideas has been of critical importance. Your wise input has been invaluable. Our thanks also go to Nepal’s Community Radio Support Centre and the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, whose approach to assessing community radio performance was a major influence on this project. (Mainali et al, 2009; CRSC/NEFEJ: 2012) Above all, our thanks go to community stations that have been willing to work with us in many different contexts over the years, and whose experiences have shaped this project.
In countries like South Africa, the sector has grown enormously. Despite the frustration often felt and expressed at the problems and challenges confronting these stations, the fact is that audiences and the numbers of stations continue to grow, and the sector’s contribution to skills development is substantial. The challenge is to enhance the health of community stations, and their ability to serve their communities with independent and interesting programming. We present the following as a contribution to the long-term project of creating new platforms for people and communities often ignored by the mainstream media. Involving many groups and individuals, the project is difficult and can be frustrating – but it is enormously valuable.
The Healthy Community Radio Station booklet was co-authored by Franz Kruger, Romanus Monji and Mike Smurthwaite