Radio broadcasting in South Africa

By SouthAfrica.info

This text provides an overview of radio broadcasting in South Africa. Radio remains central to the lives of millions of South Africans, and offers a vibrant and diverse selection of music, talk shows and news. There are almost 15.4-million radio sets in South Africa, with more than 30-million listeners tuning into a range of programming from ultra-hip urban music to community news and information in the deep rural areas. According to the South African Advertising Research Foundation[i], South Africans spend an average of three-and-a-half hours a day listening to the radio.

The SABC headquarters in Johannesburg. Photo: Mike Powell
The SABC headquarters in Johannesburg. Photo: Mike Powell

You can listen to radio on the airwaves, via satellite, your mobile phone or via the internet, with most of the major stations – as well as many community ones – offering live audio streaming from their websites. All 11 of South Africa's official languages get airtime, as well as German, Hindi, Portuguese and the San languages of !Xu and Khwe, with stations falling into three broad categories: public service broadcasting, commercial, and community radio stations.

Public service radio

The country's public service broadcaster is the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). While wholly owned by the state, the corporation is financially independent of taxpayers' money, deriving its income from advertising and licence fees in a ratio of around four to one. The SABC's mandate set out in the Broadcasting Act, No 4 of 1999, is to provide both a commercial and public service, each administered separately, with commercial radio stations subsidising the public service stations.

The corporation's commercial stations include 5FM, a national youth music station, Metro FM, a music station targeting black urban youth, and Channel Africa, an external radio service broadcasting in a number of languages across the continent. The corporation's public broadcasting arm includes cultural services in all 11 official languages, as well as stations for South Africa's Indian (Lotus FM) and San (X-K FM) communities. The largest radio stations in South Africa are the SABC's African language stations, with Ukhozi FM, the Zulu cultural service, with almost 4,3-million listeners a week; Umhlobo Wenene (Xhosa) at 2,43-million listeners; and Lesedi FM (Sesotho) at 2,14-million listeners[ii].

Commercial radio stations

During the apartheid era, South Africa had only two independent radio stations: Radio 702 and Capital Radio. With the deregulation and liberalisation of broadcasting in the late 1990s, the number of commercial stations operating outside of SABC control proliferated.

In 1996, six lucrative SABC stations were privatised: Gauteng's Highveld Stereo and Radio Jacaranda (now Jacaranda FM), KwaZulu-Natal's East Coast Radio, the Western Cape's KFM (now 94.5Kfm), the Eastern Cape's Radio Algoa (Algoa FM) and the Free State's OFM. The government raised more than R500-million when the stations were licensed to various black-controlled groups. In early 1997, eight new commercial radio licences were granted for broadcasting in South Africa's three biggest cities - Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Applicants targeting black audiences with new formats were generally favoured with two "smooth jazz" licences, P4 in Cape Town and Durban (now known as Heart 104.9FM and Gagasi 99.5FM respectively); one kwaito station, YFM (now 99.2 YFM); and one urban contemporary station, Kaya FM[iii]. The remaining four licences went to an English-language talk station, Cape Talk (567 Cape Talk); two Afrikaans talk stations, Punt in Cape Town and Durban; and a classical music station, Classic FM 102.7. The two Punt stations have since closed down because of financial difficulties.

Icasa, South Africa's broadcasting authority (see below), finalised a licensing process for secondary commercial markets. This led to three new stations being licensed in 2007: Capricorn FM in Limpopo, M-Power Radio in Mpumalanga, Radio North West in the North West province. A further two licenses are also planned for in the secondary markets of the Eastern Cape and Free State, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Community radio stations

From 1994 onwards, South Africa's broadcasting authority processed hundreds of community radio licence applications from groups as diverse as rural women's cooperatives, Afrikaans communities and various religious bodies. Although community radio, by its nature, struggles to access advertising and other forms of financing, it is a crucial part of the South African broadcasting landscape, providing diversity for listeners and much-needed skills for the commercial radio sector.

Community radio stations are independent, non-profit, community-based organisations. There are more than 165 community radio stations currently on air in South Africa, which collectively broadcast to 8,55-million listeners a week, according to figures from the South African Advertising Research Foundation. Broadcasts are in many different languages, and the scope and reach of the stations varies enormously – from the 416 000 Joburgers who make up the audience of Jozi FM to, for example, the mere 2 000 people who listen to Radio Unique in the Eastern Cape towns of Aliwal North and Molteno[iv].

Many community broadcasters are represented by the National Community Radio Forum (NCRF), which was formed in 1993 to lobby for the diversification of the airwaves and to promote the development and growth of the community radio sector. It has 120 members, of which 88 are on air[v].

Regulating the Industry

Broadcasting in South Africa is regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), which issues broadcast licences; ensures universal service and access; monitors the industry and enforces compliance with rules, regulations and policies; hears disputes brought by industry or members of the public against licensees; plans, controls and manages the frequency spectrum; and protects consumers from unfair business practices[vi].

Then there's the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a non-profit grouping of organisations and individuals working in broadcasting and related industries. NAB helps the industry regulate and promote itself, grounded in the principles of democracy, diversity and freedom of expression.[vii]

Finally, there's the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCCSA), set up by NAB in 1993 to adjudicate and mediate complaints against any broadcaster who has signed its code of conduct. The BCCSA is entirely independent from the NAB and the broadcasters, with commissioners appointed by an independent panel[viii].

Radio thus plays an important role in South Africa, providing both information and entertainment to people all over the country. The radio industry has historically been dominated by the SABC, whose public service stations now compete with independent commercial stations and smaller community stations, all of which are regulated by established industry bodies.


[i] See the South African Advertising Research Foundation at http://www.saarf.co.za.
[ii] Read about the languages of South Africa at http://www.southafrica.info/about/people/language.htm and the SABC's public broadcasting stations at http://www.southafrica.info/about/media/861605.htm.
[iii] Read more about commercial radio stations at http://www.southafrica.info/about/media/861608.htm
[iv] Read more about community radio in South Africa at http://www.southafrica.info/about/media/community-radio.htm.
[v] Go to the National Community Radio Forum website at http://www.ncrf.org.za.
[vi] Go to the ICASA website at http://www.icasa.org.za.
[vii] Go to the NAB website at http://www.nab.org.za.
[viii] Go to the BCCSA website at http://www.bccsa.co.za.

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