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Media viability

'You need to adapt to changes without selling your soul'

Brenda Leonard is the station manager at Bush Radio in Cape Town, South Africa. In this interview with #mediadev she suggests that having a diverse stream of income is the key for a successful media business model.

Brenda Leonard was interviewed at the African Media Leaders Forum in Johannesburg in November 2015. She participated in a two day pre-conference workshop on innovative business models hosted by DW Akademie.

#mediadev: What are the biggest problems for radio stations regarding financing and ways of making money?

Brenda Leonard: I think there are a number of challenges for South African community radios stations. The main one is the issue of governance. A lot of radio stations do not have their governance in place, they don’t take minutes of meetings, they don’t have an audited financial report, they don’t have a board that holds them accountable or they don’t hold Annual General Meetings. They often don’t even have tax clearance. So those things narrow where you can raise money from and basically means that you must rely, with advertising for instance, on media houses that already have all those things in place, with them providing the proof. So you’re getting little income stream for the station.

What about when you already have strong governance in place?

If you have those things in place, you can actually directly approach advertisers, you don’t have to use a middleman. You can also directly approach funders for grants, you can do direct campaigns with different government departments, based on maybe a health campaign and things like that. I think the other challenge is that donor funding is narrowing and grants are being reduced.

What has changed in the last 20 years?

People change their focuses and the pool is not what it was. That obviously becomes a problem, so I think what a lot of stations are doing is trying to generate their own income from their audience. They talk to their audience and that audience has buying power and they use that as a leverage to actually raise money for the station. So if you have an audience, say of 80.000 people and you run a pledge drive and if ten percent, like eight thousand people give you ten Rand (€0.60), you immediately raise 80.000 Rand (€4,800). So I think that’s what people do, yes.

Bush Radio has existed for quite a long time, what are the solutions that you have found?

We realized and reacted to the fact that we operate in an environment that’s changing all the time and is not static. And if we did what we were doing 20 years ago we would be like an old man sitting in an IT-class. So we constantly need to adapt, not change our focus because I think our focus of what we use the media for has remained constant, but how we do it. I think Bush Radio is one of the first two radio stations, the other one was a commercial station, to actually stream in South Africa. So at that time people didn’t see the value of streaming, and now it’s like you must have an online component to your radio. It is the same with our website, we’ve been a trendsetter in a lot of ways. And even with our programming when we introduce new programs, we know that the commercial stations are listening, because they steal our ideas. So I think to be able to be successful you need to know: your environment, you need to be aware of the changes and you need to adapt to those changes without selling your soul.

What are the ways that Bush Radio makes money?

We have a diversed stream of income. So we obviously generate income through advertising both from agencies and advertising that we sell ourselves. The other thing is project money. We run a number of projects and through that we generate some income for the station for administration and managing the projects. We also provide training and we raise money through donors. We also get grants, which are not only foreign but also local. We’ve successfully raised money through embassies in South Africa that have a local fund. And again to come to your first question: You won’t be able to apply for that money if you don’t have your governance in place.

With your wealth of experience what would you recommend to colleagues and others who are struggling?

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You need to have a diversified income stream. There is nothing wrong with going on mic’ on the station and asking listeners for ideas on how we can raise money, ideas that listeners will support and in that way you generate ideas. You just have to get a team together to implement it and that’s what we do all the time, we ask listeners: what do you think? Can you give us an idea? We need to raise money for this… We need to do that... However I think the important thing is not to tax the community too much for listening to the station, so there must be a balance. I think with ideas you are not asking them for money but for their ideas. So that can happen quite often, but otherwise try to only have a big fundraiser or two big fundraisers a year where you ask the audience to participate and generate income.

What about international organizations such as DW Akademie. What can they do to support community radio stations?

I believe community media plays a very important role in telling the African Story, but I do think that we need more skills. Because of the nature of community media; people come for a short time, they leave. You need to constantly train people. Last year you might have covered training in news reporting, that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary to cover news reporting this year. You need to refresh skills. I think some stations still need a lot of equipment and assistance there. Partnerships and mentorship where you can work together with more experienced journalists can be very beneficial. We’ve done a project on fair trade with Deutsche Welle, it was a series of programs where a reporter from Deutsche Welle came and worked with a local reporter from our station. They interviewed people together, they did the editing together, they did the mixing, they decided on the links and so on. And that was a really high quality product that was produced. I think that’s the need. Other stations will probably say, we need money also, but I’m not sure if that’s a feasible option (laughs), in terms of the partnership, so I would say that is ……, yes, definitely training, equipment and support in other ways and maybe assistance in the form of expertise, for example, you want to set up a marketing team so you provide someone that works with that marketing team on how to market the station, so things like that…

Do you mean something like inhouse consultancy?

Yes definitely like a consultancy inhouse. I know sometimes changes can take time but I think in a lot of ways that Deutsche Welle is quite advance in terms of the trends in media. And for us to be, I think the one thing that made Bush Radio strong over the years was that connection. So we sort of know what’s going to come and we can prepare ourselves for that. I’ll use a very good example: In 1998 I was in Germany and visited a youth station and they had a camera in the studio. This is something that only came here and started being popular in 2010. So we’re talking a whole twelve years of something happening in Germany before it came to us. So there is a twelve years gap in where we are in our thinking and in our understanding of trends and the way Europe is. So in that way also, it will make the change quicker or we can at least prepare ourselves, because we will know what’s going to come.

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