By Nigel Nyamutumbu
Annually on February 13, Zimbabwe joins the global family of nations in commemorating World Radio Day.
The occasion to celebrate the milestones and reflect on the challenges of the world’s most accessed medium was proclaimed an international day by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012.
Over the years, World Radio Day has grown to become a significant day on the media calendar.
Amid the pomp and fanfare associated with commemorative days, especially among those behind radio, from the founders and owners, management, editorial team, producers and presenters that work tirelessly to deliver programming every single hour and day without fail, there is despondent idealism on the future of radio broadcasting globally owing to a myriad of factors.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), the UN agency that takes the lead on media freedom issues have linked some of the challenges of radio broadcasting to the declining professional standards of the content being produced on radio, sustainability challenges, lack of adaptability and failure to transform to the digital realities affecting the medium.
To this end, Unesco has themed the global commemorations “Radio and Trust” in recognition of how audiences are drifting away from the medium owing to the loss in credibility.
While recognising that radio remains the most accessed mainstream media platform, there is need to critically reflect on interventions that will safeguard the medium into the future.
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Three thematic areas have been suggested by Unesco for reflection across the globe during this year’s commemorations, including radio and trust, accessibility and inclusivity with the third area being that of sustainability.
On the first thematic area, there is an argument for the respect of basic standards of ethical journalism, a critical area that radio broadcasters are grappling with in the present high-tempo digital age.
There is disjuncture between what audiences are consuming in real time through digital platforms and the content that is then packaged through radio.
Unesco argues that for radio to maintain listeners’ trust, there is need to revert to the basic ethos of journalism; that of basing whatever is produced on verifiable information.
More often than not radio has now been subsumed by what is trending online and in the process the public interest role of holding power to account is lost.
On radio and access, the second thematic focus area for the global commemorations, there is an assertion that for radio to maintain relevance it ought to be more inclusive, reaching out to specific audiences with specific needs.
There is need for radio to reach out to selected audience groups, serving the informational needs of all listeners, including persons with disabilities.
That way radio becomes a catalyst for integration and social participation.
In order to fulfill this obligation, radio broadcasters ought to embrace convergence, more so given the opportunities provided through digital radio platforms.
Radio broadcasters could be more innovative in catering for the needs of specific audiences, including but not limited to making use of sign languages or automated subtitles for hearing-impaired audiences when streaming.
While most radio stations are embracing convergence, they are not going as far as harnessing new audiences or tailor making information for persons with disabilities.
The third policy dialogue proposition by Unesco for this year’s commemorations is on how radio can continue to compete on the economic market.
Like most businesses, radio faces an existential threat in so far as surviving the financial crisis that has been worsened by the scourge of the Covid-19 pandemic is concerned.
Radio broadcasters are seized with the critical question on how to transform their mass audience into financial sustainability.
This thematic area goes beyond defining the large audiences that radio commands and potentially grow, but further seeks to link the base of loyal listeners to financially sustainable business models.
It is not enough for the sustained existence of radio as the most accessed medium as an end in itself, but for radio broadcasting to become an industry in itself with potential to be an economic development driver, steering the creation of jobs and contributing to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
All these three thematic areas that will take the global centre stage in reflecting the future of radio are relevant for Zimbabwe.
They are more so relevant at a time that the country’s radio broadcasting sector is at the crossroads, given the opportunities presented by the historic licensing of community radio stations, yet Zimbabwe remains seized with pertinent issues that need to be attended to.
For this submission, I suggest five broad areas that include the transformation of the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) to a genuine public broadcaster, the need to review the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), the issue of convergence and embracing new technologies that enhance the quality of our radio services, sustainability and conditions of service and the question of high quality journalism.
The solutions to the above issues are critical in redefining the future of radio broadcasting in Zimbabwe.
Underpinning the interventions required to reshape the agenda of radio broadcasting is political will and a shift from an archaic culture of control and interference to that of inclusivity, meritocracy and maintaining high standards of professionalism.
For instance, there is no question that the Zimbabwean citizenry has lost trust in the ZBC, more so due to its biased political coverage.
The often used counter narratives to this assertion are bogus audience surveys that are not based on any tested empirical methods.
Realistically, the public broadcaster’s market share is dwindling and there is clear need to rebuild trust and confidence, something that our courts have categorically ruled upon.
Transforming the public broadcaster is also a constitutional imperative.
Government also needs to stick to its word on the question of reforming the broadcasting regulatory framework.
The Broadcasting Services Act is no longer fit for purposes, technology has outdated certain provisions of the law, much as other issues relating to the licensing framework, independence of the regulatory authority and taxation need to be addressed.
The need to address issues of professionalism, quality content, convergence and sustainability cannot be overemphasized.
Zimbabwe needs to move with the times and digitising the radio broadcasting service can only make it more relevant and a critical cog in the development matrix of the country.
Ultimately, there is need to buttress the point that the airwaves belong with the people.
The future of radio broadcasting can only be imagined if the services provided through the medium resonate with the audiences it serves.
- Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the head of the secretariat of a network of media professional associations and support organisations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on +263 772 501 557 or [email protected]. This article was first published by the Accent, a MAZ initiative