People want to engage, we want to connect, Tim Zunckel, Lusaka Radio Summit, Zambia, 21 June 2018.
My introduction to this beautiful medium was in 1995. The airwaves in South Africa had been freed and community radio stations were being licensed as an off shoot of democracy. My brother had a friend who was a DJ at our university station and he represented everything that was cool. I think in today’s terms we’d say he was “lit”.
We started listening in to the station, it became somewhat of a cult, it was where like-minded teenagers found a home, a common place and more importantly a voice. We made a connection.
In our matric year we had a prefab classroom that was reserved for Prefects and I promptly moved an old hi-fi set from my parent’s garage to the prefect’s room. It was one of those that had the record player, tape player and tuner built in, with knee high speakers. The radio used a tuning dial. The lines in the prefect room were soon divided between those who believed in the new voice and those who were still stuck on 5FM. The result was that the tuning dial was continually being moved between the two stations.
After a short period, an executive decision needed to be made, the tuning needed to stop. I took a ball of Prestik, tuned the radio to the desired frequency, took a cricket bat and snapped the tuning knob off the front of the Hi-Fi. The problem was solved.
A year later I wondered onto campus, filled in an application form and so my radio story begins.
It is here that my love for radio was borne and it is in radio that I still believe.
As part of my work in the radio space I attend radio gatherings like this one across the world. One of the recurring themes is that radio is under threat. The experts will tell you that radio is under pressure. The reality in the years in which I have worked in radio it has always been under pressure and it has always been threatened.
When cassettes replaced reel to reel, cd’s replaced cassettes, the introduction of computers, then MP3’s, the internet, social media and now Donald Trump, radio and its creators have always been under threat.
By show of hands who has had to grapple with choosing a new cell phone in the last year?
Who reached for their cell phone as their first point of reference this morning, possibly before even greeting the person next to you?
And who has taken their phone into the rest room in the last year and potentially used it whilst otherwise occupied?
Using the same hands who has gone shopping for an FM radio in the last year? Been woken by a clock radio?
Lastly, how many of you have worked on creating something for radio in the last year, and how many have you created any content for consumption on mobile devices?
Radio has always held the prized possession of being the most intimate medium. Radio has always spoken to the individual even in a group scenario.
One of the highest sold consumer tech item in the world is earbud headphones. These headphones connect the user to an isolated world of direct audio. The question is, how many people are listening to radio via these headphones?
I think the conundrum is obvious.
Technology puts unrelenting pressure on radio.
In South Africa, the national broadcaster the SABC has been through a torrid time. I believe it’s fair to say that when the SABC sneezes the broadcasting industry catches a cold. The SABC employs more then 3400 people, holds the lion share of audiences and have a signal blanket over the entire country. They are also 600 million rand in debt.
Community radio, 24 years into existence is also facing a variety of problems. A bulk of stations are in financial trouble or facing collapsing boards and legal battles. All this is happening at the expense of audiences who deserve more.
My favorite quote from the debacle at the SABC was in the local press when they commented, “There are so many people acting in management positions at the SABC it rivals Hollywood”.
How often do you hear of top management interfering with the business of programming? Just last week in South Africa, the SABC top brass made a programming decision regarding the procurement of a sport show that has far reaching impact on several aspects of their radio business. Everyone is a programming expert, but when the chickens come home to roost, they hang the programme manager out to dry.
To execute a plan, you need a plan.
Poor management puts unrelenting pressure on radio.
The biggest pressure for radio is however the radio makers themselves. It’s you and me and the others who create radio on a daily and weekly basis. I feel like we’ve forgotten how to rally people to join and love our cult. We no longer give people a reason to break the tuning knob off a hi-fi, we often give them a reason to tune out or consume elsewhere. We are not connecting with our audiences.
So how do we go about creating the golden age of radio?
I believe it is quite simple and is more easily achieved than we would like to think.
We need to:
And Rally behind our radio brands.
Radio is no longer a noun, it’s not a physical thing. Radio is a verb, radio is a medium of doing and creating, it is an action.
Radio is a community that has been built and developed over time. radio can mobilise and encourage. It is localized.
We need to respect our audiences and celebrate them. Ask not what your audience can do for you, but what you can do for your audience. We need to make the consumer the center of our content plan and we need to celebrate our communities. Radio must be more than the voice of a community it must represent the social fabric of that voice, radio needs to be a living breathing member of the community.
Radio is a trusted source. Radio has over time proved it is reliable and robust.
Radio creates an identity and a voice. Radio also speaks the language of the community.
Radio must entertain, inform and enlighten.
Radio is the sound that a community makes, in good times and bad.
If as a radio station, manager or presenter you are doing things the same way you were 12 months, no six months ago, it’s time to change. It is time to re-define your offering.
If you were to go back to your station today and ask each one of your staff to define what the station is, what answers would you get?
Think about this:
Inspirational and informative audio talks are created by TED Talks
The Best music shows are curated on streaming platforms like Deezer and Spotify
On demand TV owns the series space
Live TV owns reality shows
Social media allows instant access to a personality, all the time. Take your pick.
What is your radio?
Redefine your understanding of what radio is.
Radio must stop reacting to and repeating what others do and call it content. We need to be an original source of creativity. We need to re-energise of offering, we need to re-think our products. We need new inputs to challenge our thinking. We need to embrace uncertainty and failure. We basically need a kick in the balls.
It is a rare occasion that I celebrate anything said by a politician. Last year the then Minister of Communications Ayanda Dlodlo said the following, ´
“I cannot see why we cannot have a 24 -hour sports channel or a University channel but for that to happen, we need content. I cannot develop content, we need people for that”.
For once Ayanda and I are in the same WhatsApp group!
I work with radio teams in a variety of territories and we look at creating content for distribution on a variety of non-traditional platforms and for radio. It always strikes me that we as creators are looking for the magic formula, the miraculous secret pill that helps you make content. It doesn’t exist.
My message is make something, record, write, shoot, film, just do something. It’s impossible to consume something that has been created, so just make a thing. I am guilty of not applying this all the time. I speak radio all the time, where are my podcasts, YouTube videos and articles, if I was redefining my own product, this session would be on Facebook live with QnA afterwards.
Let us take the opportunity to create relevant content for the appropriate platforms. We are often too concerned with where we are going to place our content and not concerned enough with what the content looks like and why the audience would want to consume it.
Let’s remember that we are the medium that understands intimacy more than any digital device. Listening is more important than ever before, let’s rejuvenate our ability to make powerful audio.
The time is now to reinvent our service offering. Yes, audio is key to what we do, radio appeals to the auditory senses, but in becoming a verb, doing and creating. We need to embrace new skills.
It is time that we embrace the concept of a creative revolution. To do this, we need more creatives who are able to challenge creativity and content generation.
I was recently asked by the New York Radio Festival what is the one single piece of advice I would give people in the radio space. The answer. Invest in your own career, don’t wait for someone to give you an opportunity, make the opportunity, spend some money on making yourself better, more attractive than the person next to you, empower yourself. None can take that from you. In ten days from now we will host a similar conference in Johannesburg, to which you’re all invited entitled Radio Days Africa. The one conversation with an ex-colleague was that the ticket price was too expensive. When I noted that it was an investment of R10 per day for a year and that they had no other training lined-up, the money really wasn’t that much. Invest in your own career.
Don’t be BOB, Bitter, Outdated, Broadcaster. Understand that we are fighting for divided attention among consumers and those creators with the most skills will win. Do something every day that contributes to a reinvented creative you.
Lastly, Rally behind our radio brands.
We need to celebrate radio as a collective. Yes, there is competition and we often fight for the same slice of the action. But when a radio station or presenter does well, radio does well. We need to tell people about it. Radio people are great at complaining, let’s change that, let’s rally behind our brands and support colleagues.
Remember radio has a legacy and a reputation, and this helps create a trustworthy relationship with the audience. The legacy and reputation are created by you but lives in your radio brands.
Radio management is hard. Radio presentation is hard. Radio sales is hard. Radio operations is hard. There is no need to work against each other, these roles cannot exist in isolation. Work together to create a cult that people want to belong to.
Let’s connect with our audiences.
The intense human element that created the foundation of what radio is will never be replaced. People want to engage, we want to connect.
Rejuvenate and rally behind our radio brands.
Our job is to keep the integrity of what radio represents and what it means to our audiences intact.
The time is now.
Turn up the volume and make great radio!