by Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) Two major disrupting forces are headed for the South African radio market that have the power to shake up the industry, just as online and blogging platforms have done to the print media.

CliffCentralThe one force for change launched on May 1: Gareth Cliff’s new CliffCentral show on the web, on WeChat on mobile and DStv’s Comedy Central while new MW licences granted by the broadcasting regulator, Icasa, bring with it the advent of DRM – or Digital Radio Mondiale –  to this country.

DRM is a digital broadcasting system that delivers FM-comparable sound on frequencies below 30 MHz – including medium wave and shortwave over long distances.

The first DRM broadcast was in 2003 in Switzerland and today it is being rolled out in India on a massive scale while other broadcasters using the system include the BBC World Service, Deutschlandradio, Radio New Zealand International, Vatican Radio and the Voice of Russia. (Click here for more info on Wikipedia.)

Magic AM, which was awarded a licence for Cape Town by Icasa, is planning to broadcast on MW and DRM simultaneously from the outset while LM Radio – which won a licence for Gauteng and is already broadcasting in Mozambique – is part of a group that is testing the new technology.

Veteran broadcaster Tony Sanderson, who guided the Magic AM bid through the Icasa process, says that DRM is better quality than FM.

“It’s stereo MW. It goes further. It goes through tunnels and over mountains and buildings,” says Sanderson, who originally trained as a broadcast engineer. “You can get it on your computer and in cars that are less than four years old. If you go to Orange Grove in Jo’burg right now you can buy DRM-level receivers for R300. It’s becoming more affordable.”

Magic AM’s main shareholders are Cape Media – of which Sanderson is a director and which publishes B2B magazines such as Leadership – and Dr Iqbal Survé’s Sekunjalo, the new owner of Independent Newspapers.

Sanderson – whose career spans 40 years in SA radio and television and who is probably most well known for the hit Chuckle & Chat show –  says he has no intention of going back on air but will oversee the setting up of Magic AM and run it initially.

The music station has long been in the planning, he says, and staff are already lined up – one from the US, one from the UK while the rest are South African.

He hopes to be on air in six months’ time but Magic has to build its own broadcast tower in Cape Town before it can launch.

LM Radio – a music station started in 2010 in Maputo by former broadcast engineer Chris Turner – has also planned for DRM and is part of a South African trial with Radio Pulpit and Radio Veritas.

LM Radio was the name of Africa’s first commercial radio station, started in 1936 in Mozambique. It reached South Africa on shortwave and AM and picked up a large following in this country in the 1950s when it became a youth music station. It was taken over by the SABC in 1972 and shut three years later.  Turner, who registered the lapsed LM Radio trademark in 2005, is targeting listeners of 35 and older in Gauteng.

He believes, however, that DRM is not going to a viable proposition until about 2020 in South Africa. “It all has to do with the availability of receivers… At the moment most of a portable (DRM-receiving) radios go for about R1 000 and that needs to come down to under R300 for it to pick up. India has started rolling out their DRM and it’s very successful. They want to complete the process in 2024.”

One of the options in this country, says Turner, is for broadcasters to get together and give away DRM when the time is right. “But you know, the new AM technology is vastly superior to what it was 10 years ago. It’s more energy efficient and the quality is so much better.”

Turner believes he won’t need to convert his potential audience to the idea of AM and that once people find LM Radio, they will stay.

“Our style of broadcasting is the style of the ‘70s. It’s intimate. Our presenters talk to the listener… We don’t have a bunch of people sitting in a studio talking rubbish to each other and the listener is a voyeur,” he told Grubstreet. “Our music ranges from the ‘50s to the present day but the feel of the music is in that happy, mid-70s music with meaning, music that’s poetry. Music you can sing to.”

Because the MW licences have taken so long to get the go-ahead from Icasa – the process began about a decade ago – Turner decided to set up shop in Mozambique first. LM Radio has been broadcasting in English from Maputo since 2010 with studios there and in Johannesburg.

The audience figures in Mozambique are between 100 000 and 150 000, says Turner, but he points out that this is from research commissioned by LM as there is no equivalent of Saarf in the country.

The Mozambican audience has picked up recently, he says, adding to the English-language ex-pat listeners. “It’s not just Mozambicans in the older age group but a lot of the under 25s… When I ask young people why they enjoy our style of music and programming they say: ‘It’s different. It’s music you can sing to and listen to’. I think a lot of the new music that’s coming out now is based on the music of the ‘70s and late ‘60s.”

Now that the Gauteng licence has been granted, the Mozambican studios will continue to run, says Turner. Till now the Jo’burg studios have served as a place for presenters such as Brian Oxley and Tinky Pringle to record shows for broadcast in Mozambique.

LM could start broadcasting tomorrow in South Africa except that it has to wait for Sentech to upgrade an old SABC site near Springs, says Turner. The site needs a new tower, the transmitter buildings need cleaning up and the power supply needs to be upgraded.

Meanwhile, CliffCentral is a fascinating new experiment in DIY broadcasting.

Naspers, the owners of DStv and part owners of WeChat, is leveraging Cliff’s celebrity to grow the Chinese-originated WeChat messaging WeChat icon (with wording)service in South Africa, which is dominated by WhatsApp and Mxit. But this also has the power to break the stranglehold that the big broadcasters such as SABC and Primedia have on our radio market.

True broadband is finally, slowly coming to South Africa and if anyone’s going to get the new platforms right as a broadcast medium, it will be Cliff with his massive following after 10 years at  5FM. (His Twitter following alone is more than 650 000).

CliffCentral co-founder Rina Broomberg and Cliff told Grubstreet via email last week that the aim is to have a mix of revenue streams from “sponsorships of shows, features, direct advertising and creative campaigns that cover social media, internet radio, TV and mobile opportunities on WeChat.

“WeChat are our sponsor for the first six months and we’re delighted with the mutually beneficial nature of the arrangement.  The CliffCentral official account allows us to interact with listeners and advertisers in new ways.  Our  relationship with DStv is separate – we approached Comedy Central as we believed this was a good brand match and they have both the creative approach and flexibility to offer viewers content in a new way.”

They hope to be in the black within the first few months, the two said, and to that end it is possible for every portion of the audience to be measured in exact numbers.

“CliffCentral’s streaming has been most satisfactory so early after the launch.  Combined with the WeChat figures we broke records for internet radio in South Africa on the first day. Podcasts are being downloaded in great numbers.   We haven’t collated numbers yet as the sources include CliffCentral, DStv, WeChat and Comedy Central.  CliffCentral’s Facebook page has grown in 36 000 members in a couple of weeks and Twitter is over 16 000 followers.”

The sheer cost of the broadband must be very high but Broomberg and Cliff say: “We’re cognisant of the costs of internet in South Africa but are already finding solutions.   We’re delighted with MTN offering “uncapped unradio” as a special deal to listen to CliffCentral free on WeChat. Other challenges are logistical, and those can easily be overcome.

“People want great content, and we’ll give it to them. And advertisers can start accessing the richest, most tech-savvy audience there is.”

GrubstreetSouth Africa’s leading media commentator Gill Moodie (@grubstreetSA) offers intelligence on media, old and new. Reprinted from her site Grubstreet. This piece was published first on, the website of Wits University’s journalism school.

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