Page 1 Kinshasa, République Démocratique du Congo (Photo Lam Duc Huen Fondaton Hirondelle)

Does the business model for sustainable public service media exist?

In January 2011, the highly acclaimed and independent STAR radio in Liberia closed its doors. Efforts to generate operating revenues locally through advertising, and to strengthen the station’s management and governance through the creation of a local Board of Directors, were too little, too late. Considerable investment over the years in journalism training and editorial support meant that STAR was breaking important stories, and was viewed by the Liberian population as a credible, independent source of information. But a fledgling commercial department was left understaffed and unable to tap into the steadily growing advertising market and translate this into revenue for the radio.

The story of STAR radio is not unique to the developing world. In the US, the rapid, radical and constant changes in how we get and use information have profoundly disrupted traditional media models. Consumers expect to be able to choose their platforms, while media develop new products such as multimedia, interactive features and specialized content in order to attract new consumers, some of whom are willing to pay for premium content.

Technology is altering the media landscape in post-conflict African countries where Hirondelle operates. In some cases, choices in technology are leapfrogging other parts of the world, as we have seen with the M-Pesa money and credit system, or peer-to-peer sharing of audio files over Bluetooth in West Africa. The challenge for public service media operators in Africa is to use new technology, tools and methods to create efficient broadcasting models with diverse revenue streams.

Radio Ndeke Luka in Central African Republic was the first of Fondation Hirondelle media to benefit from the lessons learned at STAR radio. Sonia Mackotous leads the team of the advertising agency at Fondation Ndeke Luka in Bangui. Established in 2010, the agency is a separate entity from the radio, ensuring that editorial and commercial lines are clearly respected. Sonia’s approach is based on market research and preparation and in many ways she represents a new breed of radio entrepreneurs that herald a shift from donor dependence to innovation, entrepreneurship, and ownership.

Successful private and community radio will no doubt have a multitude of revenue sources: paid announcements from listeners (obituaries, for example), institutional press-releases, sponsored programming from NGOs and international organizations around health, human rights, agriculture and other public interest topics. An important asset in communities that are off the grid is the power sources these stations need to operate, which in turn can be sold or used to power additional services, such as internet cafés, secretarial work, or even restaurants and bars.

In the precarious post-conflict setting, many factors contribute to sustainability. In Matching the Market to the Model: the Business of Independent News Media media expert Michelle Foster explores the numerous factors that can undermine a news organization’s ability to be self-supporting. Corruption, licensing restrictions or government regulations in the advertising market ensure that “sustainable is not interchangeable with profitable”. While much of the attention of media development organizations in post-conflict environments is focused on preserving important speech freedoms and protecting the rights of journalists, Foster offers compelling reasons why equal attention must be paid to establishing a level and transparent playing field for media as business entities. Without those protections, news media may thrive editorially but be starved financially.

In fact STAR radio taught us financial and social viability depends on more than simply putting in place a commercial department and creating a local Board, however accomplished and renowned its membership or how robust the radio’s popularity. Michel Colin, radio-advertising guru who has worked with several of Hirondelle’s media, is quick to point out that the commercial success of a radio depends on its management. All too often, radio management undermines ad sales by not providing adequate resources to the sales team, or by failing to broadcast and track ads once they are sold and produced. Hirondelle learned it needed to invest in understanding the dimension of revenue generation, and to create systems for translating these new skills into revenue.

One can argue that in a post-conflict setting, where “normal” developing world challenges such as infrastructure, corruption and security are amplified, successful media operations require excellent management teams that can operate well-run businesses on multiple platforms. And with that comes the need for greater safeguards to maintain editorial integrity. As Nicci Mele and John Wihbey wrote recently in “The end of big media: when news orgs move from brands to platforms for talent” the solution lies perhaps in not dismissing outright these new models but in finding new ways to safeguard editorial standards.

Anne Bennett, Hirondelle USA

Photo: Lâm Duc Hiên, RDC