Rural community radio in South Africa

South Africa has an active rural community radio sector and supportive legislation, but has encountered some difficulties in achieving sustainability.

In the early 1990s, democracy brought the deregulation and liberalization of broadcasting, and the number of stations operating outside of government control proliferated. Community radio in South Africa began in 1994, when the county's broadcasting authority began the continuing process of assessing and granting license applications from a wide range of community groups.

According to the World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC), in 2004 there were more than 150 Community Radio Stations in all nine provinces of South Africa. However, The Department of Communications lists only around 80 licensed community radio stations on their website as of June 2006.

The Broadcasting Act of 1999 defines a community broadcasting service as a service which:

  • Is fully controlled by a non-profit entity and carried on for non-profitable purposes;
  • Serves a particular community;
  • Encourages members of the community served by it, or persons associated with or promoting the interests of such community, to participate in the selection and provision of programmes to be broadcast in the course of such broadcasting service; and
  • May be funded by donations, grants, sponsorships or advertising or membership fees, or by any combination of the aforementioned.

The rapid growth of community radio may represent successful policy outcomes to the following major objectives of the broadcasting legislation:

  • Promote diversity and the range of services, content and ownership through a variety of geographic and cultural means;
  • Provide, develop and protect a national and regional identity, and culture and character particularly through local content development and independent production; and
  • Restrict cross-media ownership and control and foreign ownership.

From 1994, the Independent Broadcast Authority began issuing community stations with temporary 12-month licenses. Since 1996, South Africa's regulations for Community Radio have allowed four-year licenses. However, many community radio stations are still working with temporary licenses.

The Department of Communications and the national network facility provider SENTECH undertook a signal distribution upgrade programme when it became clear that community radio stations were not covering areas they are designated to cover according to their license conditions. This was largely because these stations could not afford the high fees charged by SENTECH. Consequently, they opted to conduct their own signal distribution. In August 2002, the Department and SENTECH entered into an agreement to provide all unallocated signal distribution equipment to SENTECH to cover capital expenditure.

By the end of 2004, 19 community stations were distributing through the SENTECH platform. The project has had a highly positive impact in that SENTECH has reduced tariffs for community radio stations while the coverage of these stations has increased dramatically. All remaining stations are engaged in discussions with SENTECH aimed at signing Service Level Agreements.

National Community Radio Forum
The National Community Radio Forum (NCRF) is a national association of community radio stations and support service organizations that lobbies and advocates for the licensing of more community radio stations. NCRF was launched in 1993 in order to support the diversification of the airwaves in South Africa. The NCRF assists community radio stations by facilitating workshops focused on the training of presenters. Today, most community radio stations in South Africa are affiliated with the NCRF.

The South African Community Radio Information Network (SACRIN) project is a satellite transmission and receiving system that links NCRF affiliated community stations around South Africa to shared programming. There were 37 community radio stations sharing programming through the SACRIN network in 2005.

Lessons learned
South Africa’s has more progressive broadcasting policies than other long-established democracies. However, the sector is struggling. There is a wide diversity of stations and organizations that are incorporated under the banner of community radio. There have been problems with implementing legislation for community radio and for many of the stations this has magnified problems that historically disadvantaged communities continue to endure.

On the one hand, the development of community radio in South Africa has been a successful example of building democracy and civil society. On the other, there have been serious delays and shortcomings. In 1993, provision was made for permanent four-year licenses, but no regulatory framework was created. This only happened through an inquiry that was planned to take only one year to complete. However, it took until 1997 for a position paper on four-year community licenses to be issued.

When the invitation to apply for four-year licenses was issued, the regulator received 252 applications when they had been expecting about 100. They were overwhelmed and had to make legislative amendments just to facilitate hearings for the applications. Development was further hampered by budget cuts, a council restructure and a reduction in numbers of staff.

Funding is also a problem, especially where the stations are serving communities that are unable to support it because of serious social and economic underdevelopment. Stations need to use a variety of sources for revenue generation. Funding is linked to the ability to achieve the specific community oriented goals that community radio promises.

The amount of advertising and sponsorship that a station may take is unrestricted but many of the struggling stations find it hard to generate income precisely because of the impoverished communities they serve. The advertising problem leads to a lack of funds to remunerate their presenters adequately. As a result, numerous community radio stations have inexperienced staff members doing the job as volunteers. Added to this, some stations are still operating on temporary one-year licenses rather than the full four-year licenses, making the generation of income and financial planning more difficult.

Some community stations are able to start out with start-up grants (some from the government) and then run with a mix of advertising revenue and donor support. The government made USD 2.1 million available in 2005 for programme production concerned with HIV/AIDS, women, children and the elderly. International donors make a significant contribution to the sector in some areas. The Open Society Foundation has distributed USD1.0 million per year since 1993/94.

Sources: “Community radio in South Africa”;
“Legislation & Community Media For Southern Africa: A Guide”, AMARC Africa;
“Applications For Community Sound Broadcasting Licenses: In Terms Of The Urban Renewal Strategy And The Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy Ruling And Reasons”, ICASA, May 2006;
“For the love of community – An overview of community radio in South Africa”, February 22, 2005,;
“Department of Communications 2003 – 2004 Annual Report”; “Promise of a citizens' media: Lessons from community radio in Australia and South Africa”

Learn More