Zim’s radio space requires genuine, increased diversity

By John Masuku
On February 13 Zimbabwe will join the rest of the world to celebrate the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation (Unesco) – proclaimed World Radio Day whose  theme for 2020 is “Radio and Diversity”,focusing on radio’s responsibility as “a platform for democratic discourse”.
Three years ago, in commemorating the same day, local media watchdog Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) made the following, now almost permanent remark, due to snail’s pace progress and sometimes dodgy transparency regarding Zimbabwe’s media reforms.
“Though successive surveys and research papers indicate that radio is the medium of communication that attracts the attention of the national population, the industry is by and large an oligopoly. Its ownership is in very few hands of the ruling elite”, said Misa noting that the licensing then of new national commercial radio stations StarFM and ZiFM  only “broke the monopoly of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and created an impression of the dawn of a new era in broadcasting. Yet a closer look of ownership points back to the ruling elite and government-owned companies.”
While the monopoly of the state-controlled public broadcaster indeed ended, the increase in the number of radio stations did not necessarily translate to diversity of programming, news content and views. The majority of current radio stations in Zimbabwe belong to ZBC, Zimpapers and AB Communications whose proprietor is former journalist and ruling Zanu PF Member of Parliament Supa Mandiwanzira.
Although urban-based provincial commercial radio stations added a semblance of diversity to Zimbabwe’s radio sector through decentralisation, the ownership, content and editorial policy of the radio stations does not always reflect diversity in most cases, they remain extremely careful regarding how they critique or analyse unusual, sudden political developments, bad governance and cases of rampant corruption as exemplified by their quietness during the military “coup” in November 2017, a historic story widely told by foreign media. They do not openly give space to known government critics, opposition parties and civil society sometimes disregarding constructive points.
“Diversity of voices and opinions in radio relies first on the degree of media concentration and the coexistence of different types of stations with a mix of public, private and community broadcasters. The development of policy environments conducive to transparency and diversity of media ownership is the keystone to a pluralistic, inclusive and democratic radio sector” says Mirta Lourenço, chief media development and society, communication and information for Unesco, in an interview with Paris-based Radio World International magazine.
But the situation in Zimbabwe can be described as far from realising that kind of best practice in radio diversity.
The Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras), the mother body of most potential community radio initiatives has, since 2003 when it was established, laboured to have a single community radio station licensed. It has, year-in and year-out faced the reluctance of the government through the licensing authority, Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), to call for licensing of community radio stations and this has hindered development in community broadcasting.
In August last year government, through the permanent secretary for Information and Publicity Nick Mangwana responded that it was going to license 40 community radio stations while speaking on the sidelines of a community sensitisation meeting on the setting up of such radio stations in Beitbridge.
With evident proscrastination, communities themselves are now losing temper and getting tired of empty promises which have left them out of the local media diversity space.
“We feel like we are not part of Zimbabwe. I think in this area we are living in Botswana. ZBC television and radio stations signals do not reach this area. This makes us feel like we are not part of Zimbabwe. We don’t know what is happening in our country. We feel like inferior citizens in our country,” said Chief Mphini of Bulilima district in Matabeleland South province recently, while addressing information ministry and BAZ officials at another of sensitisation meetings, which government is single-handedly spearheading without involving advocacy groups like Zacras, Misa or even the recently established National Community Radio Forum (NCRF). In her humble response BAZ deputy chairperson, Audrey Chihota-Charamba said.
“We want to thank you for the encouragement that we should do whatever it takes so that your area, this area can have access to television and radio transmission,” stressing that community radio stations would be important for locals as they will harness talent at grassroot levels before it flourishes at provincial and the national stage.
Unesco’s Lourenco explains: “Through diverse channels of transmission,types of editorial content, programming and topics, radio reaches the widest audience globally and opens up a multitude of spaces for democratic debate on an infinity of subjects. Radio stations can offer a wide array of shows and programs”
In 2017 a radio survey titled Radio Landscape in Zimbabwe: A report by Media Monitors on the typology of radio in Zimbabwe, found that radio broadcasts music 57% of the time, with very few news bulletins or current affairs content available for listeners. Advertisements and sponsored programmes constituted 7%.
Stations show similar trends in programming, with high percentages of music, followed by talk shows or phone-in programmes.
Such surveys need to be conducted regularly for the benefit of policy makers,radio managers and content creators considering that there are more stations on board in an increasingly digital era that is aiding its reach.
Hypothetically speaking, a similar  survey today  would reveal a glut of sponsored religious programmes featuring miracle-performing “prophets” and many early evening shows discussing sexual matters explicitly across the stations as if to say that is the easiest way of luring audiences. Also, women and other minority groups still need to perform prominent roles in the newsroom leadership and programme making, especially male-dominated genres in order for diversity to take meaningful shape.
“Through diverse channels of transmission, types of editorial content, programming and topics, radio reaches the widest audience globally and opens up a multitude of spaces and opens up a multitude of spaces for democratic debate on an infinity of subjects. Within the programme, diversity in the choice of angles, languages, music, invited guests and sources can further portray, engage and reflect the diversity of humanity, thus fostering tolerance, inclusion and solidarity,” said Unesco’s Lourenco.
World Radio Day should not just  be for empty speeches, promises and colourful gatherings but should be known and remembered for promoting growth, effectiveness and genuine diversity of radio, the world renowned people’s medium.
John Masuku is a media trainer and writer who started broadcasting in 1974 and trained at the BBC, London and Radio Deutsche Welle, Cologne. He is a fellow of the Centre for Data, Media and Society and the Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary
The Standard