Social Media Saved Africa’s Oldest Community Station

by Davison Mudzingwa

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, Feb 3 (IPS) - When a financial crisis threatened
the existence of Africa’s oldest community station, Bush Radio, an
outpouring of sympathy and appeals went viral on social networking sites
like Twitter and Facebook. In the end, it was this outspoken support that
showed financial backers that the station was worth saving.
"It got the message out there to the decision makers, and because it was
in their faces all the time… there has been offers of assistance," said
Adrian Louw, programme integrator at Bush Radio.

The emergence of social media has opened new opportunities for community
broadcasters in Cape Town, South Africa. Not only are they able to
interact more effectively with their audiences, but they can now do so

Bush Radio broadcasts to at least 260 000 listeners, predominantly in the
poor Cape Flats, formerly an apartheid housing area for people of colour.

But thanks to social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a blog,
Bush Radio now maintains a strong presence in the community.

"The use of social media has been important for us because it has allowed
us to do stuff without getting a specific designer on board that knows our
internet protocols," said Louw.

The station has a rich history of defiance during the apartheid era. Back
then it broadcasted illegally after repeated applications for a licence
were turned down. Since the granting of a broadcasting licence in 1994,
the station has evolved with the times.

"If blogging works, why do we have to pay thousands of (South African)
Rands to get a designer to design a fancy website for news when a free CMS
(content management system) works?" asked Louw.

Core to Bush Radio’s programming are issues that affect their audiences.
These include HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, poverty and crime. Highlighting these
issues through social media is convenient in several ways. "The nice thing
about social media is that it really assists community media with its
mission, in terms of increasing access to the station and really making
people feel that they are owners of the station because they now can
communicate with the station quickly," says Louw

"Even if you are not interested in something you get an alert, like ‘do
not forget that Sakhisizwe (radio programme) is going to talk about
HIV/AIDS at 12pm.’ In that way, a specialised audience will interact."

Bush Radio is also renowned for training young people in broadcasting.
Social media has enabled them to spread the message quicker. "For instance
we had a recruitement for news volunteers. We had a response from over
sixty applicants within three days."

For Bush Radio, social media complements the weaknesses of radio – its
immediacy and transient nature. With social media, the station can now
relay important messages that have a presence on the internet.

"We seriously believe that technology must be used in bettering people’s
lives," said Louw.

Across town in South Africa’s biggest single township of Khayelitsha,
Radio Zibonele has a lot in common with Bush Radio. Radio Zibonele’s
listenership has steadily increased with the station’s meteoric rise from
its days of broadcasting under the bed of a shipping container truck in

With over 220 000 listeners, feedback grew and inundated the single studio
phone line. The advent of social media has been a welcome development for
Radio Zibonele.

Like most community media, Radio Zibonele traditionally interacts with its
audiences through outreach programmes such as road shows and other
sponsored community activities. However, of late, dwindling sponsorship
has been a hindrance. Social media, said Ntebaleng Shete, the station’s
programme manager, fills the gap by reconnecting with the community.

Radio Zibonele broadcasts mostly in the local language, isiXhosa. Its
flagship programme discusses various social problems, and feedback peaks
during this two-hour programme.

The high penetration of mobile phones with internet connectivity has also
boosted the number of listeners who log onto social networks. According to
latest figures provided by Cellular Online, a mobile portal, South Africa
has a growing subscriber base of close to 20 million users.

"I think people are growing with technology…many of the people want to be
on Facebook and Twitter," said Shete.

However, Chris Kabwato, the director of Highway Africa, a Pan-African
programme at Rhodes University that focuses on research, education, media
and digital technologies, said community media in Africa has a long way to
go to utilise social media.

"(There are ) the perennial challenges of lack of internet access… and the
general lack of technical knowledge around the use of new media on -
mobile, internet, web-based social applications," said Kabwato of the
factors that have hampered the full usage of social media.

He, however, believes that vast opportunities to develop more interactive
programmes and to generate revenue from social media exist.

*This story was produced with the support of UNESCO.