by Gill Moodie (@GrubstreetSA)   Of the three new FM stations to hit the air waves in the past year, Vuma 103 FM in KwaZulu-Natal is the least talked about in media circles – and yet in many ways, it is the most interesting.

Both Smile FM in Cape Town and the Johannesburg-based Power FM got a lot of buzz when they launched (in March and June respectively) vumafmbut Vuma FM has been on the air since November last year, quietly gaining audience. According to the latest RAMS figures from the South African Audience Research Foundation, out last week, Vuma FM was at 93 000 listeners (past seven days) – and that was only its urban audience.

Based in Durban but reaching most of KwaZulu-Natal, the station goes out in 90% isiZulu with 70% music – most of which is gospel and also more broadly inspirational.

Owned by KNI, a consortium led by Revered Abe Sibiya who also heads the One Gospel satellite TV station, Vuma is unusual in the South African media landscape because it is a vernacular product that targets upper LSM groups.

Most vernacular media offerings, such as the very successful Isolezwe newspaper, target the lower LSMs.

“Our listeners are very proud to be Zulu and are very sophisticated as well,” station manager Phindi Gule told Grubstreet. “They want to talk about their health and finances… They have disposable income. They send their kids to Crawford and Durban Girls’ (College) and Kearsney.”

Gule, who has worked at YFM and Metro FM in Johannesburg and Gagasi FM and East Coast Radio in Durban, is aiming for Vuma FM to get to more than 1-million listeners after a year to 18 months on air.

Bearing in mind that the biggest radio station in the country, public-service broadcaster Ukhozi FM, is based in Durban and goes out to 7.4-million listeners, Gule does not see the vernacular market as overtraded.

“When we go do presentations to the trade, we are often asked where our listeners are going to come from,” she says. “They’re going to come from all three radio station (in KZN): Ukhozi FM, East Coast Radio and Gagasi.”

Regarding the giant Ukhozi, Gule says that it talks mostly to LSM 1-5 while Vuma is targeting middle class African families to whom Christians value are important and who are proud of their culture and heritage.

“We’re not only a radio station. We want to be a lifestyle that people should aspire to. Our Christian values resonate with who we are as a brand.

“84% of people who live in KZN speak isiZulu,” says Gule. “When we speak isiZulu on air, we make sure we do it without mixing it with English. Zulu people are very, very passionate about their language and it’s important that we respect that.”

One of the biggest challenges in setting up the new station was finding the right talent, says Gule.

“We had to decide: ‘How are we going to do this? Is it going to be a question of going to existing radio stations and stealing their presenters or are we going to start from scratch?’ My approach was to go for the more difficult route – and it really paid off: getting raw talent and getting the young people of KwaZulu-Natal to come in and audition. We also identified a few other people who resonated with the brand – people who are popular in this province. Leleti Khumalo is one them and we also have Felix Hlophe, the comedian.

“We started with five or six people and now I look around and there are 50 or 60 people. The team has grown. It has been challenging but also a very heart-warming journey. Slowly, you collect all the piece and even the place has its own culture now. We started with white walls and now we have pictures up everywhere.”

Advertising was a struggle in the beginning , says Gule, as was the timing of their launch.

“When we started in November, we didn’t make a big noise. Nobody was interested in listening to us. People were wrapping up the year and going on holiday.

“But it was a good thing for us because it allowed us to make mistakes and allowed us to find ourselves as Vuma FM… We made sure that when people were back at work (after the December break), we were able to do trade visits and that we were sure of who we were as a brand.”

A key turning point was when the first client, Game, committed to Vuma FM for a campaign for the retailer’s birthday.

The two-week campaign that involved a call to action – for listeners to say what mades them “a big deal” – blew Vuma FM and Game away, says Gule.

“We had 4 800 SMS-es,” Gule says. “Algoa (in Port Elizabeth) had about 1 300. OFM (in Bloemfontein) had just over 2000 and Kaya (in Jo’burg) had just over 1 100.

“And the stories that we got from our listeners were really heart-warming. It wasn’t people boasting but about people who came from a very basic background and didn’t let that stand in their way. They worked hard and now they are able to take care of their siblings; they are working; they are responsible. They were really inspirational stories.”

What is key to Gule is that the Vuma presenters remain humble and authentic.

“In South Africa we put presenters on a pedestal and they become celebrities,” she says. “They are always having a beautiful day. Everything is always rosy and that’s not true.

“I always say to my presenters: ‘The one thing that will make you a successful radio presenter is to stay true to who you are. People will make a fuss around you and make you feel special. Respect that and honour that but don’t let that go to your head. Be simple. Be normal. Remain humble and stay true to yourself.”

– SA’s leading media commentator, Gill Moodie, offers intelligence on media – old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet.

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