It's been a tough week for the burgeoning industry of online radio in South Africa, after blogger Shaun Dewberry made short work of inflated listenership figures, and an independent investigation confirmed his suspicions: the 40 000-plus listeners for certain online stations were revealed as little more than a few hundred.
But while two prominent online radio stations were equally affected by the revelations, their different PR strategies have made all the difference.
"I think 2OceansVibe has been quite exemplary whereas Ballz Visual Radio has continued playing the bully role with which they initiated the debate on their side," said World Wide Worx MD and ICT analyst Arthur Goldstuck.
"What's been made clear from 2OceansVibe is that they want to resolve this issue and be transparent whereas Ballz, although they acknowledged the situation and want it to be resolved, are still taking a shoot the messenger, and bullying approach."
"There was quite a difference," said Dewberry, a blogger and IT expert. "Ballz responded with a direct phone call. They seemed to be under the impression that they didn't know what I was talking about. 2OceansVibe seemed to keep a back seat."
DJ Darren Scott from Ballz Visual Radio was slammed for his heavyhanded interview with Dewberry last week after the latter's damaging report was published on his blog and widely circulated on social media. Dewberry was cold-called and derided on air.
2OceansVibe reacted to the initial blog post by taking it up with their supplier NetDynamix and calling for an independent audit. On Sunday local tech website, MyBroadband, conducted an in-depth independent analysis using the original data, which showed listenership numbers had been inflated by between 20 000% and 30 000% for both stations, vindicating Dewberry's suspicions. Soon after, 2OceansVibe released a statement announcing they would cut ties with NetDynamix, and addressing concerns that had been raised in the uproar.
Scott conducted a more cordial interview with Dewberry on Monday afternoon, after the MyBroadband report was published.
"I unequivocally apologise on behalf of our entire team. I take full responsibility for my outburst at you," said Scott in Monday's interview, in stark contrast to his original hostile interview.
Dewberry accepted the apology on air but later told the Mail & Guardian: "I wasn't looking for an apology. I didn't want it to be a bunfight but I know a lot of people wanted him to apologise. I accept it for what it is."
But Goldstuck said the apology was "too little, too late" given how Dewberry was treated on air. "It was bad media manners, to put it politely."
Scott told the M&G it was wrong to have a kneejerk reaction, "but it was wrong for him to publish without talking to us".
'I've had an interesting year'
Scott left traditional radio station Jacaranda FM after a racist row last year and started Ballz radio, which enjoyed surprisingly high listenership from its first day, according to figures provided by streaming service provider NetDynamix.
"I've had a very interesting year, and this is just another thing to add to it," he said. "I was sort of thinking this is someone trying to tell me this is not the business I should be in. I'm not happy right now," said Scott frankly. "It's been a terrible few months."
Meanwhile service provider NetDynamix emerged as the player in the incident with the worst PR of all, when they did not answer their phones all of Monday and failed to even get back to their own clients.
"We've heard nothing back from NetDynamix except for a wishy-washy sales email to clients," said Scott. "We spoke on the weekend and they still haven't explained what they have been up to."
He followed 2OceansVibe's lead by announcing on Ballz radio station that the station would also look at cutting ties with NetDynamix.
Dewberry and others have emphasised that NetDynamix was primarily responsible for providing such flawed statistics to their clients, which were used in good faith to secure advertising: something that was tantamount to fraud, according to Scott.
"A lot of questions must be answered by NetDynamix," said Muller, who also could not contact the company for comment after his analysis. "They must answer for what they have done. They admitted to us that they should not have provided statistics because they are not statisticians."
The company also served Dewberry with legal papers last week, trying to force him to take down his posts about the company and apologise or face a high court interdict and a claim for financial loss. Dewberry refused to do so until they offered him proof that he was wrong. He told the M&G he had not heard from the company since receiving the letter, neither has the company responded to the M&G's requests for comment.
Industry standard on the way
Meanwhile respected online publisher's association, Digital Media & Marketing Association (DMMA) has stepped into the fray and has advised 2OceansVibe radio station on a new service provider, and will be meeting with online radio measurement providers, Triton Digital, this week.
"Thereafter the DMMA will be working with the major stakeholders to determine the needs of the industry around digital radio metrics and based on this information, will work with a selected measurement provider to allow digital radio publishers to accurately report DMMA approved metrics," the organisation said in a statement, in response to the controversy.
But the future was still bright for online radio in South Africa, according to all the players involved in the spat. "The key thing for online radio is content," said Scott. "There are more and more people of high calibre getting on to online radio as we speak, including Jeremy Mansfield."
Dewberry, who is involved in a small indie online radio station called Interwebs radio was similarly hopeful. " We're not going to be looking at tens of thousands of listeners any time soon, we'll maybe reach 1000 at some stage. But I'm positive about that. The terrestrial space is so locked up, people can't get licences and there is a lot of good content that doesn't get provided on mainstream radio stations."
Update: 2OceansVibe's Seth Rotherham said on Tuesday morning that the station had finally been provided with audited listenership figure from May 2012.
"We thought it pertinent to report that while numbers of 200 to 300 listeners per hour have been quoted up until now – and following a review of the audited stats – Rudolph Muller from MyBroadband confirmed that 2oceansvibe Radio 'had typically 2 000 unique listeners per day'."