Is community radio more reliable than commercial radio in reporting local matters?

Valuable portraits belonging to the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been unlawfully removed and burned, and the responsible suspects are none other than the #RhodesMustFall movement! Imagine reading this on your social media feed – where do you plug in to hear further? Your local community station (UCT Radio)? Or do you opt for the commercialised voice (perhaps KFM)?

Radio is a powerful tool. A tool that is consumed daily by millions, perhaps even billions around the globe. But if you wanted to hear the latest news that happened just recently in your community (for instance #RhodesMustFall) – so that you can gossip with all your friends and say “Oh did you hear what happened with so and so” – why do we immediately tune into a commercial station, instead of the community station that is practically on the scene? This phenomenon will be explained further by the use of student interviews at UCT and by placing myself in the environment of a community and a commercial radio station.


Image of me posing for the shot at a community radio station during my on-air shift

A clarification of what makes news reliable needs to be provided from the get-go. Keeping radio consumers informed with reliable content means providing an audience with information that is the truth, which has been researched and is covered from all perspetives. We want to be able to boast to all our friends about the latest news without being told that what we said is in fact not the true story.

So, do we listen to commercial or community radio to hear the real story? In all honesty, “put your money where your mouth is” or in this case, the mouth has been placed where the money is. In other words, commercial radio is bathing in wealth, which allows them to pay professional journalists with numerous resources at their disposal. On my visit to PrimeMedia owned KFM, an entire floor had been designated to journalists; whereas a community radio is often funded with limited resources and run by journalists [presenters] who produce content out of their own – free – will. If you are looking for the simple answer then there you have it – money availability. Individuals can perform weird and wonderful things when they are paid to do something. It is the sad truth, but the overarching game changer as to why so many people do not listen to their local radio station.

In an interview with three 2nd year students from UCT, a similar response resonated: all three of them would prefer to hear local matters from professional broadcasters. Lulutho says that it is a contradictory cycle because community stations stand to be independent by reporting on local matters from the student perspective. However, a lot of their news is leached off of mainstream news sources likes News24, EWN etc.

Where community radio does, without a doubt, have the upper hand, is their ability to talk about the matter more freely (whenever they want to) and in laymen’s terms (which consumers often appreciate).  So the accessibility to talk about a matter is more prominent locally. However, accessibility cannot be substituted for reliability. UCT students may say they will tune in to UCT Radio because they [rightfully] expect that would be the most talked about topic throughout the day. But that still does not mean that what is said on air is one hundred percent correct – and that is what is important. When asked about the matter, Alex said that if he wanted to hear about such serious matters, he would not want to hear it from the opinionated perspective of a student. This is in part a fair enough comment on Alex’s behalf, but one can quite clearly see how community radio is often shunted.

Community radio has a large uphill task ahead of them at maintaining their listenership. Last year marked one of the biggest student-led ‘revolutionary movements’ (#RhodesMustFall) in South Africa in a long time,   and community reporting (in general) on the matter was one-sided, opinionated and subjective. These are practically decrees that go against reliable reporting in the ‘news world’ mostly due to financial constraints. With that being said, we somewhat understand why radio consumers persistently opt for commercial radio rather than its community alternative.

“News told, rumors heard, truth implied, facts buried.” – Toba Beta.


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