Community radio gives voice to the voiceless

Story posted May 20, 2011 in South Africa by Aubrey Whelan.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - Above the dusty streets, above the labyrinth of tin-roofed shacks, above the poverty and disease and dirt, Radio Zibonele's tower rises like a beacon.

Broadcasting live in the tribal language Xhosa from a shabby, one-floor house in the Khayelitsha township, Radio Zibonele is the voice of the people in one of Cape Town's most desperate neighborhoods, providing everything from news to local music to personal ads in a community where many don't have access to the Internet or newspapers in their language.

Inside the studio, 19-year-old Khanya Nketle, the station's news director, stands up and stretches at her tiny desk. This morning, she was in the office at 3 a.m., worked until 5:30 a.m., slept for a few hours and came straight back to the office at noon.

"It's about talking to the public, being a people's person," she said. "Right when I get on that mike, I become a different person."

Radio Zibonele is a community radio station -- a small station sanctioned by the government in 1994 to give voice to the voiceless after years under a media system controlled by the apartheid government.

Nearly 20 years later, there are hundreds of community radio stations across the country: Everyone from Christian evangelists to political activists to indie rockers is taking to the community airwaves. And nearly all of them are struggling to stay afloat.

In a country with a 24 percent unemployment rate, funding is tight. Staffs are shorthanded. And when you're competing with the commercial radio station across town, advertising dollars are hard to come by.

Still, Nketle says, she and her colleagues wouldn't trade it for the world.

"This radio station made me," she said. "I don't want to go anywhere."

Underground roots

Before 1994, the airwaves were dominated by the South African Broadcasting Company, the only broadcasting entity sanctioned by the apartheid government.

"The news people were very reluctant to put things out that were anti-government," said Richard de Villiers, who worked in the SABC's advertising department for 30 years.

"It was not good, and in retrospect you realize that we did a lot of things wrong."

These days, he's a presenter at Radio Tygerberg, a Christian community radio station based a few minutes from downtown Cape Town. He left the SABC in 1995, just as the new government began granting community radio licenses.

"It's nice to work at a radio station like this," de Villiers said. "It did take a lot of adjusting."

Many of the first community radio stations had already been broadcasting illegally for years. Radio Zibonele began as a Khayellitsha doctor's side project, broadcasting clinic hours and medical advice from a transmitter hidden underneath a hospital bed. Bush Radio -- one of the most famous stations in the country -- was instrumental in the fight against apartheid before it was granted a legal community radio license.

"We wanted to get ordinary voices from the community on the air," said Brenda Leonard, Bush Radio's station manager. "Back then, the only voices you heard were mocking black people."

Equipped with a German transmitter -- imported in separate pieces to throw off customs officials -- and a small, passionate staff, Bush Radio broadcast just one radio show in 1993, Leonard said.

"It was very mediocre, in terms of the broadcast," she said. "But people from different walks of life coming in -- that had a huge impact."

From there, the station became a powerful voice in the community, inviting anti-apartheid activists into the studio and covering protest marches and rallies as South Africa struggled to move towards democracy. Bush Radio was there when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and it was there in 1995 when the government finally began sanctioning broadcasting licenses for community radio stations.

"We're not underground anymore -- in that sense, we're not the struggle station anymore," Leonard said. "But we've tried to hold onto those roots in some way."

Those roots run deep. Barred by the apartheid government from even owning televisions until the mid-1970s, South Africans turned to newspapers and radio, ingraining the latter deeply into their culture.

"Radio is the biggest media in Africa. It infiltrates everywhere," said Aimee McDonald, a presenter at MFM, a campus community radio station based at Stellenbosch University.

Even now, television is still heavily regulated by the government, with a handful of government-run channels and one subscription service available. And although the SABC offers two channels that broadcast in tribal languages, most of the country's 48 major newspapers print solely in English.

For South Africans without access to a television, or who are more comfortable getting their news in a tribal language or Afrikaans, community radio is often the only place to turn.

And for the poorest of the poor in Cape Town -- living in tin shacks by the highway in the Cape Flats, home to some of the city's worst slums -- community radio is a lifeline.

"I heard someone say once that there are more radio sets than mattresses in the townships," said Tessa Vanstaden, a radio instructor at the University of Stellenbosch and a news presenter at 567 Cape Talk, a commercial radio station in downtown Cape Town. "They have no PCs, no cell phones, but they've got radios. Community radio has a major role to play in small communities."

Community resource

And in Cape Town's poorest communities, that role goes beyond broadcasting the news.

Lounging outside Radio Zibonele's Khayelitsha offices on a dry and dusty afternoon, Lukhanyo Zondani said the station is much more than an outlet for entertainment or news.

Zondani is 23, a rapper who dreams of making it big in the Cape Town music scene. Radio Zibonele gave him his first break, he said; his hip-hop group recently scored a gig at a popular downtown nightclub. But, he said, he owes the station more than a career boost -- after he arrived in Cape Town from the Eastern Cape in 2004, he reunited with his best friend through Radio Zibonele.

"My friend came here, and he doesn't know where I am. So he came to the station and shouted my name" on-air, he said. The two reunited a few days later.

In the townships, community radio functions as a kind of on-air newspaper, broadcasting everything from residents' personal ads (Radio Zibonele's most popular program) to local news that wouldn't necessarily make Cape Town's major papers.

"If someone has lost his dog, or one shoe, they come and make an announcement," said Zamile Mkowtwana, Radio Zibonele's assistant program manager. "They could come here and say, 'I'm looking for a girl.' "

Like most employees at Zibonele, Mkwotwana works long hours for little pay -- a typical situation at most South African community radio stations, but one that couldn't be farther from the norm across town at Radio Tygerberg.

Voices for many communities

Across town in his large, brightly lit office, underneath a painting depicting Jesus shaking hands with two businessmen, Hardus Zevenster leans back in his chair and smiles. As the CEO of Radio Tygerberg -- one of South Africa's most successful community radio stations and the largest Christian station in the country -- he says business couldn't be better.

Zevenster's father founded Radio Tygerberg in the late 1980s after, the family says, he received a vision from God instructing him to start a radio station. Radio Tygerberg started out broadcasting out of a Sunday school. Today, Zevenster says it has 528,000 listeners around the Western Cape.

"There are a lot of community stations that are still struggling. There are very few that run their stations like businesses," Zevenster said. "But I really believe the favor of the Lord is upon this radio station. We have the biggest budget by far of any community radio station in this country."

That's apparent at Radio Tygerberg's gleaming facilities, housed in a brand-new office building that the station moved into a few years ago. Autographed jerseys from national rugby stars hang on the walls outside state-of-the-art recording studios and pristine, glass-walled offices. Inside, presenters and producers say they're happy to be working for the Lord and stress how important it is to reach out to the community, offering HIV education and inviting listeners to speak out about social issues in between gospel music shows and daily prayers.

And though it's a far cry from the struggle stations of the early days of community radio, Radio Tygerberg and stations like it aren't going anywhere.

The robust underground press that emerged during the struggle against apartheid isn't necessary any more, and stations like Radio Tygerberg and MFM, the campus station at Stellenbosch Univsersity outside Cape Town, are stepping into the void.

At MFM on a sunny Monday morning, the station's breakfast team -- two undergraduates and two radio professionals -- are broadcasting a healthy mix of local rock and morning banter. Then it's on to a news segment in Afrikaans -- one of South Africa's nine official languages -- and an update on surf conditions.

"Stellenbosch is still very much into their rock," said breakfast team presenter Michael Bossenger, who's worked at MFM for seven years. "The pop music station in Cape Town, KFM, won't play Afrikaans music. It's not politically motivated, it's just not their target audience. But for the school kids here, that's exactly what they listen to."

Staff turnover is high at MFM -- many of its employees are students or recent college graduates using the station as a training ground before moving onto the bigger commercial stations. And while funding is a problem -- MFM will never get the kind of advertising that the commercial radio stations in Cape Town can attract - a steady supply of funds from the university keeps the station afloat, even thriving.

The funding challenge

But they're the exception to the rule. At Bush Radio, program integrator Adrian Lowe says the station struggles on a daily basis just to pay the rent for two floors of an office building in Cape Town.

"No two days are the same. I'll go from a feedback meeting with a presenter to fixing doors downstairs," he said.

Still, he said he feels he's making a difference. In a sense, Bush Radio is still a struggling station, broadcasting news and talk shows on social justice, covering human-rights issues like plumbing and sanitation in the townships, working with NGOs to reach Cape Town's poor.

But it's hard to reach listeners, he said, when you're battling shoddy, outdated equipment, high staff turnover and advertising shortfalls.

"Fundamentally, community radio in this country needs to address how it's sustained," he said. "We serve the poorest of the poor. You can't ask someone who's struggling to buy bread to help support the station."