By Uyapo Majahana
Community media organisations in Africa are faced with a myriad of challenges in their quest to remain viable and relevant for the communities they serve.
Those winning the hearts and souls of their audiences are thriving owing to their sheer selfless determination for their communities, resilience in economic instability, and innovative application of ideas to their media organisations.
Located in the inner city of Johannesburg, Hillbrow Radio, an online community radio station, is one such example.
In order to reach their community, which is predominantly a low-income and migrant population that is usually underrepresented and misrepresented in the public media, the station employs creative communication strategies to address critical issues.
Siyanda ‘MasterMix’ Ziyanda, one of the directors of the station, said in order to complement their online reach, they embark on regular offline community events to address human rights and community development issues.
“We usually host sports tournaments, modeling contests, clean-up campaigns, and open mic sessions where poets, stand-up comedians, dancers, paint artists, and musicians of different genres gather to tackle community development issues like gender-based violence, drug and substance abuse, food security and crime to mention a few,” said Ziyanda, who is also an information technology (IT) specialist and resident DJ at the station.
“We believe sports and arts have the potential to reach our audiences in a more meaningful way because they can easily relate to it. We believe music can provide that escape and a gateway for the community to build closeness to each other as well as community belonging because it supersedes linguistic, cultural, and geographic barriers,” he said.
He added that what is more important are the messages that are infused in the music.
“We pay particular attention to the kind of artists we attract to our spaces. We are particularly interested in artists whose music is laden with positive inspirational messages. That is why artists like Mlue Jay and JB are always a constant feature in our events. In an era when GBV is termed ‘another pandemic’, it is great to see young people infuse this topic in their art in creative melodious ways, especially at a time when superfluous content dominates the music space,” he added.
Khanyile Mlotshwa, a media researcher and a decolonial scholar believes that the practices being done by Hillbrow Radio are laudable as they set an example of how the media must help address community challenges.
“I believe the practices that Hillbrow Radio is involved in are very good practices as a supplement to highlighting the challenges that the community faces. They are decolonial in that they are a departure from the objective journalism practice, which says a person cannot be involved with their sources or the community in which they operate. The practices that Hillbrow Radio has adapted or adopted are a clear indication that the media must be in the service of the community,” he said.
He however threw in a word of caution, saying that such activities should not be seen at face value because other media organisations carry out similar activities as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives just to maximise profits.
“However, I would like to point out that in the name of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), a lot of commercial media in the world are also doing seemingly social activities. But then, the extractive nature of these entities does not diminish simply because of these CSR stunts. This is because these CSR stunts have a profit motive in that they are expected to sell the company to the wider community, increase their audience figures, and be exempt from paying certain percentages of the expected tax,” said Mlotshwa.
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Professor Franz Kruger, a veteran journalism professional, trainer and researcher concurs with the sentiments about the importance of Hillbrow Radio’s work and approach.
“The key element of community media is the relationship that exists between the community and the media organisation. If that relationship is a close one, then the media organisation is going beyond extractive practices. The little that I have seen being done by Hillbrow Radio seems exciting. These offline activities are a very useful way of building that relationship, especially in the Johannesburg inner-city circumstances with marginalised audiences,” he said.
He also highlighted the need to be wary of corporate social responsibility drives disguised as community development.
“I believe that one needs to go beyond looking at the formal legal form and of the platform of a particular media project to see whether it serves the community or not. There are stations like Breeze FM in Chipata, Zambia, that are formally run as private entities but do more for their communities than others. And there are some radio stations that are registered as non-profits but serve narrow interests.
“So you differentiate the two by looking closely at how a media project works, and whether it takes its community seriously. You can usually recognise CSR work by the way it foregrounds the interests of the sponsor. If it adopts the former, then it can be said to be a way to decolonise the media and imagine new ways,” Kruger said.
Jamlab also spoke to some of the audiences of this online community radio station. Bernard Dube, an avid follower of the station’s work said he was quite impressed by the level of commitment the station had shown in helping the community.
“Hillbrow Radio has been great for the community of Hillbrow and surrounding areas. They are impacting lives in this community, especially the youth by giving them opportunities to showcase their talents be it music, modeling and sports. I have also noted how they are not discriminatory. For example, street dwellers, orphans and the elderly receive food through one of their initiatives and partner organisations Flames of Hope, while young girls receive sanitary pads through another initiative.
“As such, I believe the community needs to unite in support of our radio station so that its efforts can go even further. The government also needs to step up its involvement since one of its departments is already working in collaboration with them,” Dube said.
Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab