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5 threats to community media

This article lists the 5 top threats to community media today, and offers some of the challenges of running a community radio station.
© University of East Anglia

Despite their importance to international development, community media face many threats.

These include:

  1. Government censorship
  2. lack of funding
  3. Shortages in skills and equipment
  4. Growing competition
  5. Unfavourable regulation.

A recent study of local radio stations in sub-Saharan Africa concluded that they face, ‘constant and inevitable trade-offs’ between editorial independence, financial sustainability, and their mission to serve a community (Myers and Harford 2020).

Read an extract from this study, below, to find out more about some of the challenges of running a community radio station.

Local Radio Stations in Africa: Sustainability or Pragmatic Viability?

Despite the explosion of digital news outlets globally, millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa continue to rely on radio as the most accessible independent news source.

However, radio stations across the continent are facing unprecedented threats to their sustainability due to weak media markets, limited advertising revenue and intense competition.

Challenges facing independent media

In 2017, nearly 40 media professionals from across sub-Saharan Africa gathered to discuss the challenges facing independent media and propose collaborative solutions.

They identified failing business models as the most significant obstacle to media pluralism in the region, exacerbated by limited advertising markets. Add to this the intense competition among media outlets, digital disruption, and governmental interference, and surviving as a local or community radio station can be a monumental struggle.

An action-oriented study

To explore this challenging environment, we decided to take a deeper look at the state of local radio in sub-Saharan Africa by conducting an action-oriented study of eight local radio stations in Uganda and Zambia.

Our case studies show that local radio stations employ a wide range of strategies to survive. They must survive politically and financially, and keep and expand their audience while staying true to their social mission. Addressing these challenges is not always compatible, and trade-offs are often inevitable.

Navigating national and local politics

Navigating national and local politics is an essential strategy for radio stations for two reasons: the government’s ability to close operations, and the government and politicians as a vital source of revenue.

There are, therefore, constant and inevitable trade-offs, courting politicians on the one hand and maintaining editorial integrity on the other.

Radio Mano

Almost all of our case study stations had stories of temporary closure or threats of closure by local or national authorities in the recent past as a result of landing on the wrong side of their governments.

For example, at Radio Mano in 2016, nearly the entire newsroom was arrested and taken to court for allegedly insulting ruling party officials. But despite the state scrutiny, all of our case study stations saw it as their mission to hold leaders to account and ensure opposition voices had the opportunity to be heard.

Phoenix FM

Government departments and individual politicians also wield power as a vital source of income for radio stations, particularly during election campaigns for local and other offices.

As Phoenix FM Programs Manager Luciano Haambote remarked, “During elections, money talks—we want to find a balance but there is a tension between sales and programs. Those [politicians and political parties] that will pay go on-air, those that can’t, won’t get on the air.”

Well-placed political friends

In a cash-strapped environment, having well-placed political friends is important for both political protection and as a financial cushion. We found a closeness to government, the ruling party, or a powerful opposition politician behind almost all of the radio stations we studied.

However, several of the stations argue that they are able to balance the paid-for talk shows with their own editorially independent shows, for which no payments are involved. These, they say, are much more impartial.

Remaining impartial

Radio stations must do all they can to expand their audience and tap into the national advertising market while remaining close to their community.

The bigger radio stations we studied show that it is possible to achieve financial sustainability through commercial revenue, and there is money to be found at the “bottom of the pyramid,” among the relatively poor.

What matters, as far as selling advertising and airtime, is reaching as many consumers at the bottom of that pyramid as possible.

References

Myers, M. and Harford, N. (2020) Local Radio Stations in Africa: Sustainability or Pragmatic Viability? Centre for International Media Assistance.

© University of East Anglia
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