by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Nadia Bulbulia, National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) executive director, explains about the Free Radio Initiative (FRI) and other ways to get social causes on the airwaves.

Q5: Tell us about the Free Radio Initiative: what inspired it, and what is it hoped to achieve?
Nadia Bulbulia: The FRI is a brand-agnostic campaign under the umbrella of the NAB Commercial Radio Committee. It was developed in response to the abhorrent escalation of gender-based violence (GBV) in our country. The idea of pledging free airtime and resources to create national awareness campaigns, aimed at impacting meaningful change on various public concerns, was immediately supported. All efforts are currently focused on the devastating coronavirus pandemic. Other critical issues facing society, such as xenophobia and racism, were also considered. Our members are committed to working collaboratively on public-interest issues that advance the values of our constitutional democracy. This is essentially how the Free Radio Initiative was established.

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Q5: What are some of the key challenges facing radio broadcasting in South Africa?
NB: The broadcasting sector is highly regulated in SA. Radio broadcasters adhere to a wide range of conditions as set by ICASA, from licence fees and levies to local content requirements and financial contributions to advance media development and diversity. These conditions are monitored and there are consequences for non-compliance — the most severe being the possible withdrawal of a licence. Broadcasters operate in an environment of great policy and regulatory uncertainty, and the declining economy makes it all the more challenging to remain viable. Notwithstanding this, radio licensees continue to contribute to the national fiscus through licence fees and levies. During the period 2015–2018, the NAB radio members contributed approximately R700m to the fiscus. They are committed to the audiences they serve and have supported corporate social investment programmes to the value of R638m over the same period.

With the assistance of PwC, the NAB conducted a member survey in 2019 to assess key challenges facing radio broadcasters. There was consensus on the need for effective monitoring by ICASA, more government support for community radio, relaxing of ownership restrictions and harmonisation of government policies. An overwhelming concern relates to regulatory parity, as disruptive unregulated online content services are beginning to impact on the regulated radio sector. We are hopeful for some regulatory relief, as government is in the process of considering enabling policies to mitigate the effects of covid-19 on the South African economy.

Q5: How do you see radio in SA changing over the next 3–5 years?
NB: Our radio members have conducted digital audio trials with the Southern African Digital Broadcasting Association (SADIBA) to test the efficacy of DAB+ and DRM technologies. We have engaged both the government and ICASA on the benefits of digital radio (more cost-effective, greener and cloud-based technologies). We are hopeful that, in the next 3–5 years, digital audio services will be realised toward even greater diversity of languages and content. It could enable opportunities for more radio dramas, documentaries and programmes for children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQI+ and other marginalised communities.

As data costs come down and access becomes more affordable, we expect more online audience engagement and some growth in podcasting and streaming services. A recent NAB “infinite dial” audio-consumption study conducted by Edison Research shows that, while SA may lag several years behind the US and other developed countries, traditional radio is still the primary mode of consumption in SA and across the countries surveyed.

Although the delivery model of radio won’t change dramatically over the next 3–5 years, the shift in audience engagement from call-ins to online social media platforms will continue to grow. Audio-visual posts, user-generated content [UGC] and citizen journalism may also prove to be challenging, if not managed effectively. Greater investment in ethical journalism and fact-checking may need to be prioritised if we are to deal with fake news and misinformation. The swift action by government to criminalise the deliberate spreading of fake news and misinformation on covid-19 [report it here, too, on — ed-at-large] during the national state of disaster could inform the way forward in this regard.

With government’s focus on 4IR [fourth industrial revolution], it’s reassuring to note that radio has embraced the natural evolution of technologies in broadcasting. There is also constant nurturing and mentoring of talent across the value chain, and personality-driven radio will not be phased out in favour of artificial intelligence [AI]. What makes us human is what makes for good radio.

President [Cyril] Ramaphosa cautioned that the future is tenuous. He stated that our country faces not only the coronavirus but also finds itself confronted by the prospects of a very deep economic recession that will cause businesses to close and many people to lose their jobs. Sadly, we are living through an extraordinary and unprecedented time. I remain hopeful that, despite this tough outlook, radio will still hold its own. [It’s] vibrant, relevant and robust! I think audience and currency research may have to be reviewed and strengthened in this age of app-based technology solutions. Especially in the context of social distancing, and as access to the internet improves.

Q5: Besides initiatives such as Free Radio, how can we better exploit the potential of radio as a tool of social justice?
NB: The growth of radio in SA has been impressive since 1994. In responding to the interests and concerns of audiences, we have observed issues, that were once limited in coverage, shift dramatically over the years. Social-justice issues are now front and centre on many stations. We are experiencing more breaking news on radio and in-depth reporting and engagement on critical issues — increasingly through audiences themselves. Inequality is high on the agenda, and there is a framing of a wide range of issues, from healthcare, education, service delivery to environmental concerns. I am confident that NAB members will continue to collaborate in pivoting more toward fostering social justice campaigns and upholding SA’s Bill of Rights outlined in the Constitution. They have certainly risen to the challenge with covid-19!

Q5: How can readers get their social causes on the airwaves this year?
The FRI campaign themes will be determined by the NAB Commercial Radio Committee; however, readers are welcome to send details of their social causes to info [at] nabsa dot co dot za, and we’ll assess the interest of our participating radio members. The FRI is independent of any existing radio programmes that our members may already have in place to support specific social causes.


Carey FinnCarey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with over decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to, her regular column “Q5” hones in on strategic insights, analysis and data through punchy interviews with inspiring professionals in diverse fields.

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