Radio “streaming” may draw in a surprising amount of listeners, but the business prospects have yet to evolve. Matthew Buckland considers the current landscape and future prospects of the net’s audio capabilities.
Thanks to the world wide web, regional and national South African radio stations have become, in a sense, worldwide broadcasters. Stations like 5FM or Joburg’s 94.7 Highveld Stereo can now be picked up, via the net, anywhere from Khayelitsha to Kazakhstan.
Primedia’s 94.7 boasts about 200,000 streams every month, and its sister station 702 about 95,000. The SABC’s 5FM – one of the first stations in South Africa to do live streaming of its shows – reports “dozens of gigs per month” in streams.
While streaming may be far from a core part of local radio stations’ business models, the service is starting to have an impact. 5FM webmaster and jock Reuben Goldberg says his station regularly gets e-mails from people listening in places like Baghdad, the Democratic Republic of Congo and oil rigs in the middle of nowhere.
Ryan Till, who looks after Primedia’s online properties, says 94.7 makes an effort to mention their streaming listeners on air for branding reasons – to show it is an “internationally attractive” radio station.
This is the effect the internet has had on numerous local media businesses – suddenly a regional paper or radio station can be accessed from anywhere in the world. But while it’s good to know that people are making an effort to listen or read you over the machine gun fire in Baghdad, the big, burning question remains: how does a local media company make money from a scattered, disparate international audience?
Both 94.7 and 5FM say they have no intention of charging for their streams. John Langford, 5FM station manager, is not convinced the money is there (or that it’s worth it) at this stage. But he does say there is more than revenue at stake: there is a service and “national pride” aspect in providing for expats. Langford adds that 5FM is investigating sponsorships for the website media player that plays the stream, although this is unlikely to equate to any sizable revenue in the short term.
Till insists that because radio is and has always been a free medium, overseas users are unlikely to want to pay for their streams online – they know it’s all broadcast for free on local radio anyway. (Not that all the streams are based overseas. About 60% of 5FM’s streaming listenership is international, which means that 40% comes from South Africa – mostly people listening from work).
Of course, looked at another way, radio stations do appear to be profiting from their locally-based streaming radio audiences, because this listenership is being sold to advertisers. RAMS makes no distinction between a local streaming radio listener and a normal radio listener, so the local streaming audience and normal radio audience figures are combined and sold as one to advertisers.
But radio streaming has yet to reach its full potential in this country. It won’t happen until we have more competition for Telkom and better, cheaper broadband services. A brave attempt at an internet-only streaming radio station briefly spluttered onto the scene a few years ago, but then soon crashed. It just wasn’t a viable proposition in the country’s cyberspace climate which was also reeling from the aftermath effects of the dot.com crash.
When South Africa’s cyberspace and telecoms environment changes, in Langford’s opinion, “radio is going to change massively”. He says listeners will have options to “pull” their content, rather than passively receive it – and they will “pull” it regularly from a range of devices such as PDAs and cellphones.
Digital satellite radio and the advent of 3G cellphones could also usher in a whole new era for radio streaming. In fact these new technologies are already making internet radio streaming look a bit “so last season”.
Matthew Buckland is the editor & manager of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za