Commercial broadcasting beyond a community
Marco Ndlovu is proud that his radio station has "graduated". Base FM is the oldest community radio station in Namibia, broadcasting for some 16 years from Katutura, a poor suburb (which used to be called a "black township" during the apartheid era) of Windhoek.
In that time, the station has had plenty of support from donors; the Finnish, American, Swedish and French governments, and the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) are among those who have helped it grow, with training, with equipment and with grants of cash. But Ndlovu, the acting station manager, was pleased to inform visiting Finnish and African journalists at his studios recently that 2010 was the last time his station had received a grant.
"So we have graduated from grants," Ndlovu said. "Since then, we have survived on advertising."
He qualifies that statement by explaining that Base FM no longer receives direct budget support from donors. It does still get donations for specific training and equipment needs, but its "graduation" out of budget support clearly represents for Ndlovu a big milestone in the station’s evolution to what he wants it to become - a fully-fledged, commercial radio station.
Broadening the Base appeal
Ndlovu said that the station was launched in the mid-1990s as Katutura Community Radio, beaming almost exclusively to its immediate surroundings about local issues. It operated intermittently for some years, but has been broadcasting continuously since 2004.
"We wanted to broaden its appeal as our signal reaches to a radius of about 300km, taking in Rehoboth and Okahandja and beyond," he said, referring to the two nearest important towns to Windhoek.
"So we changed the name in 2008," he said - not only to reflect the wider audience, but also "to give it a more commercial feel."
With the expansion of its reach, the station also expanded the scope of its content, tackling more national and international issues, while keeping its roots firmly planted in Katutura.
For the international community, which has helped Base FM grow, the expansion also represents a success for its goal of drawing poorer people more closely into public debates - whether local, regional, national or international, that impact on their lives.
According to Ndlovu, one of many Zimbabweans working outside his home country, Base FM’s listeners range in age from 16 to 50 years - and there were about 60,000 of them the last time the station did a survey, in 2011. This audience is served by a small staff of 11 administrators, producers, presenters and reporters, which nonetheless broadcasts around the clock. That includes 15 hours of live radio daily, from 6am to 9pm - with a balanced diet of programming that comprises a breakfast show, a talk show, a couple of magazines, a news programme and an afternoon drive-time show. From 9pm to 6am the station broadcasts pre-recorded material - mostly music, including reggae, African, jazz and gospel.
Robin Tyson, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Namibia, remarked recently on the unusual diversity of Base FM’s audience, including the environment lobby, youth and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. He was, also, full of praise for the station’s reporters.
"A plane crashed during one of my classes," he recalled. "The Base FM reporters were the only ones in the class who dashed off to the airport to give live reports."
Balancing commercial and community interests
Ndlovu said the radio remains politically neutral - although it is not afraid to tackle controversial issues. He cited its recent story of a patient who was chased away from a hospital for ethnic reasons.
"Our presenters get an allowance, rather than pay. They mostly stay for one to three years before going on to commercial radio stations and NBC (Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster). So, we’re a training ground."
Perhaps reflecting a transitional status, Base FM is still registered as a non-profit organisation, a trust - so, basically it just covers its costs. As Ndlovu explained, "It costs about N$70,000 to 80,000 a month to run."
However, like a commercial radio outfit, it’s mainly advertising which covers those costs - with MTC, the biggest Namibian cellphone service provider, being the biggest advertiser.
"And we do pay taxes," Ndlovu said.
What of the future?
Ndlovu said, "Our objective is to grow. We would like to have more programming, retain staff for longer and get a licence to cover more ground."
However, to do the latter, Base FM would have to have the law changed to allow a community radio station to broadcast beyond its community. That would be, shall we say, post-graduation.
Peter Fabricius is Foreign Editor at
Independent Newspapers, South Africa