Radio is the future in Zimbabwe

WRITING for the Mail&Guardian in 2008, I did predict that the free-to-air South African Broadcasting Corporation’s signals would come to an end around 2013.

Column with Sonny Jermain Ndhlovu

I partly wrote this in 2010 and have been sitting on it. Contrary to what was reported, the issue isn’t necessarily about a flimsy law suit in some Botswana desert!

South Africa really is somewhat of a developed country and the free-to-air signals sell-by date has simply come.

Kenya is already done with migrating to the digital age of broadcasting and expects to have fully shut down all its analogue transmitters by the end of January 2014, a whole year ahead of the international deadline set by the International Telecommunications Union for supporting the old infrastructure.

I cannot speak for our local broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) (and the country’s signal company, Transmedia). I don’t know when we are joining the new age. Right now, they have been enjoying a few “old” eyes. TV 2 isn’t bad at all and is a mini version of South Africa’s eTV.

This is not the first time that decoders that access signals without going via the subscription route have gone bust.

Remember in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, few people who had those huge satellite dishes on their roofs had white elephants till the cheap Fortec Stars and Wiztech’s decoders came along?

I guess right now it’s only a matter of time before the tech geeks from the East create a new decoder or something that will sweep television business.

It remains to be seen whether ZBC will put pressure on the new government (rather than the other way round it has been for the past decade) and lobby for a decent Budget to upgrade its broadcasting systems.

I don’t care whether you like the co-orporation or not, but in any self respecting country, the public broadcaster must prevail. In any case ZBC has indeed prevailed. They still command a good following by their target market. That is why the establishment has never been concerned about the “dishes” adorning roof tops.

The primary reason of having satellite is to access foreign entertainment — so to ZBC and the old school guard, you might as well be living in Guadalajara.

All it takes is vision from the mandarins (I’ve always loved how all sections of the media call them that!) at ZBC to get their house in order and reclaim their playing field.

The reason why Zimbabwe Newspapers (Zimpapers) does amazingly well compared to the ZBC is that their products are well cooked!

It therefore follows that many investors have faith in their newspapers. It is always funny and annoying at the same time hearing South African broadcasters make parody about Zimbabwean radio after visiting here.

I’ve been listening to South African radio since 2001 and six months does not pass by without a discjockey (DJ) paying homage to how they were groomed by Zimbabwean radio in the ’80s and ’90s! As radio is my first love, I have to note the recently year-old Star FM and ZiFM Stereo who have come in to give ZBC a run for their money.
I remember this time last year trying to “tune in” to the new stations, a task that one only got to do when in a foreign country.

I couldn’t remember how to tune a radio! What a task! Even with almost all radio receivers having a digital tuner, I wonder how many young people even know what it is to run the frequency dial. Even more so here in Bulawayo, the radio stations range from 90.00MHz to 107.00MHz and it is indeed a long stretch of spectrum!

So what does it mean to have such a long stretch of spectrum? More broadcasters please! The space is there! There is a lot of it in the spectrum between the six radio stations the country only has.

Radio is more of an intimate and personal experience as compared to TV and if you ask anyone this side of the country – ZiFM Stereo, Star FM and Power FM, the main three, are just not cutting it!

The task of being a national broadcaster is one that should be taken very seriously and I remember lazily sighing last year when I learned that the two new radio broadcasters were being given national broadcasting mandates.

It showed that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) had no idea about this industry. Get this — in any country, giving any other broadcaster besides the public one a national licence is passing a death sentence for it.

This would be the ZBC in this case. When — yes, when Star FM and ZiFM Stereo perfect their craft, ZBC’s general manager for radio services will have a midlife crises of acne!

Think South Africa right next door. Imagine if their broadcasting body had given Johannesburg-only broadcasting and SA’s top year-on-year performing radio station Highveld Stereo, a national licence! It would have been a disaster! SABC radio stations would be laden with spider webs! It’s not just radio. It really isn’t. Radio is much more delicate than that. That is why the authorities went into overdrive in seizing the solar powered radio receivers early this year.
It, however, showed that competition is good and BAZ should add more broadcasters to this country, that’s all. This is where community broadcasting is perfect — or let me call it by its proper term “narrow casting”. Remember that radio is personal and intimate.

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