All in the Vernacular

Lesedi FM presenter Chomane Chomane, or the Chomaniser as he is known to listeners, jives in a chair to an R&B song before calling a contestant for a competition. Just minutes into his two-hour broadcast from 7am to 9am he has already helped a young student struggling to pay his technikon fees. Before the end of the show, there will be more competitions, more phone-ins and a steady stream of guests.
The entire show is done in Sotho.

Born on a farm in Viljoenskroon, Chomane is a teacher by profession who came to Johannesburg in the 1970s. He started working at Lesedi FM in 1981. “I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “Many of our people are from poor backgrounds, they have little education. We need to talk to them in the vernacular so that they get the message. It also shows that we respect them. By broadcasting in Sotho, the show talks to everyone, young to old.”

Chomane and Lesedi FM are a reflection of how successful vernacular media is in South Africa. Lesedi has one of the highest radio listenerships in the country—an average of 3.7 million listeners over seven days, according to the South African Advertising Research Foundation’s latest Radio Audience Measurement Survey (RAMS) carried out from August to November 2005. Among Gauteng black listeners, it has the highest share of the audience with 19.2 percent. It’s followed by Ukhozi FM which attracts 13.6% of Gauteng black listeners, and Metro FM is next with 11.7%. Lesedi’s total share of listeners in Gauteng is 13.1%, its closest rival being 94.7 Highveld with 10.7%. Chomane is the most popular presenter in Gauteng with 500,000 listeners, ahead of 94.7 Highveld Stereo’s Rude Awakening show with Jeremy Mansfield which attracts 475,000 listeners. Nationally, Chomane has 1.6 million listeners, with the bulk in the Free State.

On the newspaper front, vernacular mainstream newspapers - Isolezwe, Ilanga and Umafrika in KwaZulu-Natal - are all growing in circulation, readership, advertising volumes and revenue. Independent Newspaper’s Isolezwe is eyeing daily sales of 100,000 after recording a one-day sale of 100,308 in October last year. The latest AMPS figures show the paper attracts just under 600,000 readers daily while sales average around 89,500. Isolezwe has grown from a circulation of 34,057 between July and December 2002 to 86,231 for the same period in 2005.

Advertising volume growth has kept apace with the circulation growth. “The year on year advertising revenue growth from 2004 to 2005 was a dramatic 67%,” says Independent Newspapers executive director Nazeem Howa. “As with all new newspaper launches, some advertisers were sceptical but as the title has grown new advertisers are attracted. Lack of access or understanding of the title is still apparent. Still, the paper has run ahead of our expectations.”

Howa is coy about other vernacular newspapers - particularly in the Western Cape where Independent has a strong presence. “We continuously review all of our markets as well as new opportunities,” says Howa, “and are finalising several exciting business plans - some are at an advanced stage.”

University of the Witwatersrand journalism professor Anton Harber says the success of newspapers written in the vernacular goes beyond language choice. Content, distribution and price are important. “I think the key reason for the success of these papers is that they cover the day-to-day struggles of people not previously found in the media, and they therefore had little reason to read them,” he says.

Harber believes African language stations should be getting a larger slice of the advertising pie. “Decisions are still made by people who don’t listen to stations in the vernacular, it’s not high on their radar. It’s not just a race thing - it’s a class thing.”

Community newspaper Seipone is published in Limpopo in Northern Sotho, Xitsonga/Shangaan and Tshivenda. Publisher Diphete Bopape says apart from radio and limited television coverage in their vernacular, residents in the area were “starved for information in an information-rich environment because of lack of access to information in languages they understand best”. Established in 2002, the newspaper sells about 20,000 copies a fortnight at R1 a copy.

Advertising sales have been difficult. “It has been tough and still is,” says Bopape. “Many businesses are not convinced that rural people, most of whom read the paper, have enough spending money for the products and services they offer.”

Media Development and Diversity Agency chief executive Libby Lloyd says the organisation wants to ensure that all South Africans have access to a range of media in the language of their choice. A number of community papers print in a range of languages but English is still predominant, she says.

The latest FutureFact research shows that over two-thirds of the adult population in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and North West preferred information in isiXhosa, isiZulu or SeTswana. Could such a newspaper succeed in the Eastern Cape? Researcher Jos Kuper notes that poverty levels, the distance and spread of populations in the region would all impact on the success of such a venture. “Marketing and distribution are critical - newspapers have to be available and at a price readers can afford,” she says. “Advertising support is an issue for some of the vernacular media. A disproportionate share of the cake still goes to non-vernacular media, sometimes for cogent marketing reasons.”

Nielsen Media Research shows an increase in revenue for Isolezwe and Ilanga. Overall newspaper spend increased from R3,6-billion to R4,3-billion. According to Nielsen, Isolezwe increased from R15-million in 2004 to R24-million in 2005 and Ilanga from R16,7-million to R25,9-million.

Olav Westphal, business development manager for Caxton who oversees advertising sales for Ilanga and Umafrika, says there has been an upsurge in advertising revenue in this market with month on month increases of up to 40% being recorded. “It’s not just the basic trend of the increasing affluence of this market coming through— the publications themselves are doing very well in terms of the editorial content,” he says.

Nielsen Media Research public broadcaster radio stations increased their share of total adspend from 22% in January to November 2004 to 23% in January to November 2005. Among the public broadcasters Ukhozi FM performed better than other stations claiming 6.76% of the total radio adspend in January to November 2004 and 7.7% in 2005.

But SABC’s PBS radio stations also compete against growing access to television. Since 1994, the incidence of television households in South Africa has increased from 50% to 73%. The SABC’s national radio network comprises 18 radio stations - 15 dedicated to public service broadcasting. Ukhozi FM, broadcasting in isiZulu, is the largest radio station in Africa with a drive-time audience of 2,7 million listeners.

The SABC notes that media planners are coming to terms with South Africa’s changing demographic landscape and are beginning to appreciate the value of language marketing for their respective brands.

Thami Ntenteni, the acting head of PBS Radio, says Ukhozi’s drama series at 3pm on weekdays attracts 1,8 million views while Lesedi FM attracts 1,2 million listeners on Sundays at 9am. “While dramas remain the most popular across the PBS Radio Stations, religious programmes are also attractive,” says Ntenteni.

The corporation plans further investments in production, sound and imaging of these radio stations and anticipates that they are “poised for good growth over the next few years, notwithstanding the impact of television in South African society”.

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