Straddling Cultures

My parents live in Lenasia South. They love curry and, if the Grand Prix isn’t showing on a Sunday, they will watch Eastern Mosaic on SABC. Throughout my life they have bought the Indian Extra edition of the Sunday Times.
It has always been the first section of the paper they read. As I have grown up I have stopped reading Extra and concentrated on the main body, while my parents hungrily search the supplement’s society pages for a relative or long lost friend.

Here lies the key challenge facing Indian media in South Africa today. As the country becomes more homogenous, the so-called Indian media are fighting to attract the rapidly integrating youth to their brands.

The truth is that while Indian youth might fast on Tuesday and Fridays and celebrate diwali, they are more interested in fast cars, fashion, music and movies. They are more in tune with Hollywood then Bollywood, and most survive on a diet of McDonalds and Ocean Basket rather than Curry Den.

The Durban-based Post, belonging to Independent Newspapers, recognises this movement and they’re going after remarkably young readers. Instead of focusing on the 20-somethings, they are working at building a relationship with the seven- and eight-year-olds.

“In our vision for the future in which the younger reader is key, we found the answer was the child still at school,” says Post editor, Brijlal Ramguthee. The paper created a page called “Kids Corner”, which gives school-going children in the Indian community a chance to express themselves. “The response has been phenomenal. We have added a new dimension to the paper that few others have bothered with. There isn’t enough space to print all the issues that the kids want to talk about.”

Ramguthee believes that selling newspapers is all about relationships. “These children will grow up with the Post and will continue to buy into their adulthood.”

But is it that simple? Pinning down the Indian media consumer might become more difficult as time goes by. They no longer live in the same traditional areas, they are more brand conscious. They present more complex challenges than their parents once did.

Andrew Trench, bureau chief of the Sunday Times Durban office, which produces the Extra, says his paper is well aware that the Indian youth are grappling with problems that are unique to them. “We recognise that we have to move away from the Mom and Pop community issues. We don’t want to alienate our loyal readers, but in the last year we have had a rigorous look at the content of the Extra.”

In identifying the importance of an Indian youth readership, the Extra is trying to create debate about what it means to be a young Indian in a new democratic South Africa. “Our view is that they are trying to find some way of understanding their identity in the new South Africa. We try to tackle stories that get into those issues. What does it mean to be a Hindu in this new society? How do you straddle two cultures?”

Ramguthee agrees that the issues facing the youth are ones that media have to grapple with to attract their attention. But he also believes that the Post, which celebrated its 50th birthday this year, manages to capture the hearts and minds of both the traditionalists and the modernists amongst the country’s Indian population.

“We merge the requirements of both the young and old,” he says, although in his view the youth will eventually return to the traditional way of thinking. He maintains that the Indian community has a strong sense of identity that will not change. “At some point in their lives the centralists and the modernists become traditionalists. They will get married, they will have children and that’s when their roots become important. They will want to know more and that’s when they come back to their roots and things that seem silly now become important.”

Distribution areas, however, will not revert to the old patterns. Together with the management team Ramguthee closely tracks the movement of the Indian community into new neighbourhoods, and makes sure the paper follows.

Previously the Post and Extra were primarily found in KwaZulu-Natal and Indian areas in Johannesburg. Now they are slowly moving into Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, Pretoria and provinces such as Mpumalanga.

Trench and Ramguthee both assert that as South Africa’s political climate changed, their papers began to attract a more well-heeled reader. “Our core readership no longer live in Chatsworth,” says Ramguthee. “That’s a very old idea— our readers can now be found in Umhlanga Rocks. This was a natural evolution in the market as people’s circumstances improved.”

Some of the Extra‘s audience has also left Durban for Johannesburg and Lenasia for Sandton. “The paper has branched out to other areas as the Indian population has moved. It can now be found in Northcliff and Northriding and even Pretoria,” says Trench.

Ramguthee says he will further increase his own distribution into Johannesburg by the end of the year. Another avenue the Post is pursuing with its wealthier constituency is the female readership. “The woman of the house still controls the purse strings. So we introduced a couple of things targeting them, such as a recipe page and a fashion page.”

This upward mobility in the Indian community of course means that the television and radio sectors are keenly aware of new opportunities for audiences and revenues.

Although it is a very cultural community, many Indian South Africans - especially the youth - cannot speak an Indian language, so they have developed the art of consuming traditional content through English subtitles.

DStv’s recent introduction of a news service broadcast out of New Delhi, NDTV, has been very popular, says Vimla Frank, marketing manager of WorldSpace Satellite Radio.

Frank, who recently left DStv for WorldSpace, has been a key player in rebranding not just the pay channel but also the Lotus FM radio brand. She is something of an expert on the Indian media consumer.

Frank says SABC’s Lotus FM has managed to maintain its popularity and grow its listenership not only because of its English broadcast, but because it too has tried to build relationships with the community. About five years ago the station started hosting Bangra events in Indian communities. The parties were always sold-out affairs, with both young and old attending.

Frank comments that the trend of dual English/Hindi broadcasts is being seen on the Indian radio channels offered by WorldSpace. “East FM, a Kenyan-based station, Sunrise Radio broadcasting from London, and Jhankaar from India also use an English/Hindi mix. Radio has undergone a similar explosion to television with Indian news, religious and music stations becoming available globally via satellite.”

Frank believes the South African Indian community have become more discerning of late, as they have recognised that their consumer power has increased relative to their wealth. “They react if an advertisement is offensive, they will go to the highest office to demand that their linguistic/cultural needs are recognised or met and they are more than willing to pay for quality.

“Indian media in South Africa has been forced to raise the bar and can justly stake its claim to sophistication or trendiness.”

So have advertisers woken up to the ever-increasing buying power of this community? Several years ago the Sunday Times attempted to do away with the Extra, as it had with several other race-themed supplements. This attempt was met with firm resistance and the paper’s sales instantly fell by 50,000. The message was clear. The Extra returned and the bottom-line recovered.

Ramguthee, Trench and Frank all agree that with the increase in wealth and more South African Indians entering LSM 6 and upwards, the South African advertiser needs to take notice of the access Indian media grants to an important demographic. “No advertiser can afford to leave the Indian market out of its mix,” says Frank, pointing out that a brand like Corsa Lite has seen great success with its humorous approach to the community.

Still, Trench believes that the advertiser is, at best, confused about the Indian community. “There used to be this idea of a traditional Indian advertiser but you don’t have that pigeonhole anymore.” He acknowledges that in the last year “Oriental Plaza” type advertising has been giving way to new forms, but, he says, “the advertisers have been very slow to appreciate the value of this market. They have disposable income and are very brand orientated and love to consume.”

Still, Trench accepts that the media itself has to overcome the difficulty of talking to a community that maintains a strong sense of identity. “How do you address issues and not sound patronising? For any newspaper this is a problem. We have to write about this reader in a way that also fits them in with the broader South African society.”

The Extra has survived, says Trench, because of this sense of culture and identity built around it. “There is a place for ethnic targeted sections. There is a sense of community that people feel comfortable in finding in their paper on Sunday.”

Kalay-Vani Nair is currently a reporter for e.tv. She started her career as a general news reporter at Sapa. She has recently returned from Dubai where she worked for Al Nisr Media.

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