/ 28 July 2005

The Slow Road

Two ouens are sitting in a rusted Ford Escort with tinted windows, lowered suspension, 18-inch mags and an old Mariah Carey CD dangling from the rearview mirror. The sound of static intermittently broken by a radio signal crackles out from the over-amped sub-woofers.

“Sjoe, but the radio sucks in Cape Town broe!” says Irfaan, whistling through the gap where his front teeth used to be.

“Hosh!” says his friend, Pitje. “If it’s not this cheesy R&B and Americanised hip hop blasting on Good Hope FM, then it’s more cheesy R&B on P4, and if you sommer fliek the dial to Kfm you’ll hear that damn Doobie-Doobie-Doo song on repeat again. Jislaaik! I swear iss enough to make you mal.”

“Jus play the Brasse Vannie Kaap CD again, broe.”

It’s not uncommon in the urbanised coastal areas of South Africa to find young South Africans suffering from road rage, probably because there are no radio stations to soothe their frayed nerves. Bad jokes aside, visit any coastal town and you’ll find many South African youths who abhor the radio. And rightly so, there are no local stations in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape that cater for anyone under 35. Leaving young people to either burn CDs or listen to 5FM.

With the exception of Good Hope FM, all the major stations (Algoa FM, Kfm and East Coast Radio) are formatted for adult contemporary. Easy listening baby. So if you’re not into Mango Groove, Survivor and Sting, you’re on your own. But in the ten short years since liberation, these areas have also become boomtowns, with vibrant economies and a youth-oriented demographic.

Regulator Icasa is set to drop a bunch of new commercial licences next year, so maybe then these guys will get the sounds they’ve been waiting on. For now, in the safe business paradigm of South African media and its emphasis on profitable assets, the adult contemporary format is proving to be the favourite of media owners – top earners like 94.2 Jacaranda FM and 94.7 Highveld Stereo are the interior’s shining examples. In the same vein, Kagiso Media’s East Coast Radio is the undeniable champion of the coast, reaching a whopping audience of around 2,2-million listeners, mainly from the Durban area but stretching up and down the KwaZulu-Natal surf. What’s more, this station is pulling in ad revenue northwards of R200-million a year.

With Kagiso having acquired minority stakes in P4 KZN and P4 Cape Town, the group will be looking to extend the coastal radio strategy that’s made East Coast such a success. The deal was announced in mid May, and saw Kagiso team up with Makana Investment Corporation and Tiso Radio to form a new consortium in the South African radio environment, Makana Radio Communication. Subject to regulatory approval, Kagiso will soon own 24,9% in both P4 Cape Town and P4 KZN, with Makana retaining 33,3% in each station and Tiso holding the balance (41,8% in each). While the Rams and Nielsen Media Research figures for the P4s are nowhere near Durban’s monster, that just means the new consortium has a lot to work with (as mentioned in The Media a few times before, Makana Investment has already done the graft that’s rescued these stations from oblivion). P4 Cape Town is currently averaging around 600,000 listeners with yearly revenue near R8-million, and P4 KZN, at 700,000 listeners, has revenue nearer R4-million (the disparity has a lot to do with East Coast’s dominance).

Next up is the recently acquired Primedia station, Kfm. Its success story is not quite as glittering as East Coast’s, but it’s a success story nonetheless — you don’t pay R300-million for a station that’s doing kak. The Cape Town-based adult contemporary brand was taken to an impressive 1,2-million listeners by former station manager Felicia Roman, and under Primedia’s new station head Colleen Louw should continue to perform.

“Things have been going fine since we acquired Kfm from Nail,” says Primedia Broadcasting’s executive chairman Dan Moyane. “We took over in October and started putting in place operational systems that fit in with the Primedia Broadcasting culture, efficiency and organisational structure. And we took over the sales from Radmark in January this year. Kfm has been a successful brand, that’s why we bought it. Already, at the financial performance level, there has been a slight improvement in the profit margins.”

In the border region, while the surf continues to pump year round and sharks are a continuous threat in the line-ups, another adult contemporary station dominates. Port Elizabeth’s Algoa FM has seen listenership drop off slightly to around 450,000 from a high of 480,000, but ad revenue, at around the R30-million mark, has remained remarkably buoyant.

Like I said, SABC-operated Good Hope FM in Cape Town is possibly the closest thing to a youth-oriented radio station anywhere on the coast. However, the station has experienced some difficulty in capitalising on this segment of the market. It has dropped 260,000 listeners from its 880,000 average of five years ago — a decrease that coincided with the rise of Kfm — although they have started to claw back recently. Maybe that’s why they seem to have gotten so carried away, declaring themselves, via PR agency Total Exposure, “Cape Town’s biggest radio station!”

What a misleading bunch of hogwash. How can Good Hope be the biggest station in Cape Town when Kfm clearly dominates listenership and ad revenue?

“It’s all a mindset,” explains station manager Helen Graham. “At Good Hope FM we believe we have the biggest personalities, the biggest sound and the biggest appeal to our target market.”

Ja. Sounds like a cover-up job for sloppy PR, if you ask me. But loose-lipped spindoctors should not detract from what have been some hard-earned gains.

“Good Hope FM started repositioning itself in the marketplace a couple of years ago and we have spent a lot of time ensuring that the station’s programming accurately reflects the new brand positioning,” says Graham. “We hope that our new television campaign will encourage advertisers who have not been spending with the station to realise that Good Hope FM delivers a powerful audience of young adult Capetonians, predominantly female, who aspire to a trendy, fashionable lifestyle.”

That might explain the sexually provocative imagery and tone of the new advertisements: an attempt to attract a larger number of male listeners?

But back to the developments in coastal radio that are set to take place when regulator Icasa announces the new licences in Durban and Cape Town. Special advisor to the Icasa chairperson Michael Markovitz says it’s due to happen in March 2006.

Proposed amendments notwithstanding, current legislation holds that no media company can control more than two AM and two FM stations, which would stop at least one big player getting heavier on the coast. “The law is as it stands,” says Markovitz. “We made suggestions to the minister after completing an inquiry last year, into the IBA act, particularly sections 48, 49 and 50 which deal with ownership provisions in particular. Those proposed amendments would have allowed for more flexibility with regard to some of the ownership limitations. Unfortunately the law has not yet been amended in this regard.”

While it raises questions around business acumen and competence, the current legislation opens doors for new media companies to secure the new licences, and bring fresh formatting ideas.

The affected big dog of the industry, Primedia, has been watching closely. “Under the current legislation we are not allowed to control another radio station because we already own, operate and control Highveld and Kfm on the FM side and Capetalk and 702 on AM,” says Moyane. ‘But when the law changes, and it’s going to change as soon as parliament approves [the proposed amendments], it will allow us to own more than four radio stations. Obviously we’d be looking for a licence in the Durban market.”

Is the intention here is to break East Coast’s hegemony? “Of course, we think that competition is good for the industry. It makes one look at what you’re doing, focus more and raise the bar of your game.”

Here’s hoping that’s good news for Irfaan, Pitje and millions of other young, disaffected South Africans who live by the sea and have nothing to listen to on their radios.