Daryl Ilbury

There’s a new radio station in town, and it’s going to fail

In Eish!, media on March 4, 2016 at 8:36 am

radiomFirstly, forgive the hiatus in posting. I have been immersed in writing my next book, which is now finished and due out in July.

Now let’s talk radio. I think it’s fair to say that over the last decade no other industry in the world has been as disrupted as traditional media. For that you can thank two things: technology and social media. Technology has provided the tools to disintermediate traditional media organisations from their role of providing media content to consumers, and social media has further empowered those consumers, making them fellow media content creators and effectively competitors to traditional media organisations. Whereas printed newspapers are the most obvious victims, the vulture are circling over terrestrial radio.

So, it takes someone either very brave or very foolish to dip their toe into the traditional media space, especially radio.

This is why I was excited when I read back in 2014 that a new radio licence had been awarded in Cape Town, where I live. I immediately wanted to know who had the won the licence and what format they had proposed. The name Tony Sanderson popped up together with Cape Media and Sekunjalo Investments (part owners of Independent Media). I also noticed they had been awarded an AM licence, and the station was to be called ‘Magic’. But it was the format that surprised me: “mainly music”. Further digging around uncovered plans for a classic hits format. My heart sank. I had an idea what was coming.

Tony Sanderson is a highly experienced radio man and was a big name in the 1980s and 90s. But that was an unfortunate time for radio. Music programmers were taking centre stage in content creation, and on-air talent were being sidelined.  The key programming phrase was ‘more music, less talk’. Radio stations became beige wallpaper. When, as I predicted, the iPod revolutionised music content consumption, music radio stations found themselves lacking the creative on-air talent to engage with a listener who had all their favourite songs – without any ads – nestled in their pockets.

The arrival of social media empowered the listener further, and I saw how it was going to affect radio. In 2012 I told Omar Essack, then head of broadcasting for Kagiso Media, that radio stations would need to become social media hubs, recognising their listeners as fellow content creators, incorporating their presence and aggregating their content into programming. He agreed. He’s an industry visionary, so I wasn’t surprised.

Back in Cape Town, Magic 828 decided on a quiet launch in September 2015. I only found out early in 2016 they were on-air. I tuned in – I occasionally still to do, and almost immediately tune out again. It is a snapshot of 1980s/90s formatting of familiar songs delivered according to a strict ‘more music, less talk’ mantra. The station’s website – which should champion its programming and promotions – is almost sterile of active content (check out their photo galleries). The on-air talent, mainly seasoned radio people are delivering station-dictated content, with no little or no attempt to connect with, let alone include, the listener; and they believe playing Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ and then telling me it’s Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’ is not insulting my intelligence. All this on a muffled AM signal. Opposition stations, including Smile 90.4 and Heart 104.9 are playing similar content but in ‘crystal clear’ FM stereo. If Magic is to differentiate it needs to be creative, adaptive and entrepreneurial. In their defence, they can be picked up on the TuneIn radio app.

According to industry news Sanderson is banking on DRM technology to produce a better quality signal; but that would require listeners forking out for DRM receivers. And they’re not cheap. My belief is that by the time that comes about, if it comes about, the station will be bleeding money. Let’s hope its owners* have deep pockets.

*This has been edited to reflect that Sekunjalo Investments is part of the Western Cape Black Media Consortium, which, together with Cape Media, owns Magic 828AM.

  1. I think you have been too kind. While i do not wish ill will on any radio station (apart from those that spew hate) it was obvious when I listened to magic in November that a life insurance policy would cost this station a lot of money. Magic is to radio what Pong is to video games. Listening to it out of curiosity more than anything else, i was transported back to a pre-1994 South Africa, and that’s not a place i want to visit.

    • Too kind? Perhaps. It’s the science journalist in me. I tend to be measured in my writing and always feel necessary to provide evidence for anything I say. It can strip emotion out of the narrative.

  2. My thoughts: Older listeners, especially male, do not hear higher frequency sounds, so bringing music attracting an older audience via AM makes some sense. If costs are low, it can be made to work. A friend has done that out of his printing shop in Eugene Or. USA for decades. Ah… not dead yet, I see! http://www.radio84.com/

    • I would like to read any research you have to back up your assertions that older listeners “do not hear higher frequencies”. It sounds logical though. My wife says my hearing is going, but between you and me I just ignore her when she starts nagging me.

    • I clicked on your link for KKNX Radio 84, then clicked on the link to ‘listen live’, and got this: “404: Page not found. This error is generated when there was no web page with the name you specified at the web site”. This is unfortunate, as I was genuinely intrigued to see what it sounded like. The other point to note is that the station I referred to in this article is a new business, with investors, and therefore has to provide a return on their investment. That is the challenge. Personally, I hope they make it work; but it will require an innovative business model and approach to programming. See here: https://darylilbury.wordpress.com/2016/03/24/could-a-return-to-freeform-radio-be-the-answer/

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