In South Africa and elsewhere on the continent, radio is still king

With all the buzz around virtual reality and social media, tech enthusiasts and futurologists alike would laugh at the idea that the next big thing in the way we communicate is (still) radio. Radio denialists might point to a recent announcement that the Norwegian government has decided to permanently switch off its FM transmitters in 2017 as a portent of radio’s imminent downfall. Other detractors might cite the rise of Snapchat and YouTube as a clear preference for the visual components of communication.

But as radio professionals from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, the Central African Republic, and beyond would tell you at the Radio Days Africa conference in Johannesburg last week, radio will not be silenced any time soon on the continent. Under the theme #radiowontfall, a nod to the recent South African university movements like #feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall, DJs, personalities, researchers, and activists came together at the Wits Radio Academy to talk radio. Here are just a few reasons why radio won’t fall, but will likely only continue to rise.

Radio boldly goes where no other medium goes

Despite the proliferation of new modes of communication, radio still reaches the largest audiences across the continent, with 75% of households in developing countries having access to radio. In South Africa, some estimate that 90% of the population can regularly find their way to a radio set. Unlike television, internet, and cell phone data, which cost more and cover less area in terms of connectivity, radio listening only requires a one-time purchase. AM/FM transmissions penetrate deep into rural areas, often out of reach of cell phone and television coverage. Though high, cell phone penetration in South Africa is skewed toward the urban population, with an urban:rural ratio of 1:2.25. Radio waves also extend to the most diverse audiences, including illiterate populations.

Radio speaks your language


In South Africa, much of the mainstream print media only publishes in a handful of the eleven official languages. This language imbalance often reserves print media for the elites or the highly educated, those most likely to have the highest English proficiency. With broadcasts in every language in the country, community radio both democratizes and localizes media.

South Africa’s public broadcaster, the SABC, recently drew equal parts harsh criticism and glowing praise after its announcement of a minimum 90% local music quota on all of its eighteen public radio stations. Some decried the move as censorship and voiced concerns that the radical quota completely ignored of the positive influence of international music on local artists. But many also viewed the directive as a stimulus to grow the local music industry, much as Nigeria did. No matter which side one falls on the local music debate, the SABC’s move and the debate that followed undoubtedly solidified radio’s place as the homegrown medium.

Radio keeps you young

On the world’s youngest continent, radio remains a crucial source of entertainment, education, and information for the youth. This belief has led organizations like the Children’s Radio Foundation to use community radio as a platform for young people to engage in issues deeply important to them.  On over seventy stations across six countries in Africa, young reporters can speak out about topics like teenage pregnancy, racism, and gender-based violence.

Radio thinks outside the box

Perhaps radio’s greatest strength in the digital age is its ability to escape definition. Decisions like Nation Media Group’s, East Africa’s largest media company, to shut down three of its radio stations will only help to redefine the medium in the future. People will always crave the intimacy that comes with audio, something that only becomes more pronounced with headphone listening as smartphones multiply. Africa’s podcast boom demonstrates a growing appetite for the intimacy of audio. One podcast called Sound Africa has even taken this intimacy into a shared space, hosting pop-up audio cinema and live documentary listening experiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

As we continue to connect through technology, no other form of media has quite captured the shared experience and closeness of listening to radio. Tech trends come and go, but radio will never go out of style.