2023 marks 100 years since radio was introduced in South Africa through “the first experimental broadcast at the Railway Headquarters in Johannesburg” on 18 December 1923.
In a recent survey, up to 94 per cent of South Africans over the age of 15 confirmed that they owned a radio set in one form or another.
Radio remains firmly in place as the country’s most loved medium. Millions tune in daily to 40 commercial and public broadcast stations and over 250 community stations, the data revealed.
Although other forms, like television, have threatened, as the song goes, to kill “the radio star”, radio’s intimacy, immediacy and sociability remain unmatched.
And yet, it’s worthwhile looking ahead at digital audio platforms, such as online radio and podcasts, to forecast what the next century of audio broadcasting might and should sound like.
The data also revealed that more and more South Africans are turning to digital audio formats. This is in part because of an increase in access to smartphones, along with better internet penetration.
A 2022 study found that monthly online listening had grown to 61 per cent of people surveyed – compared with 39 per cent in 2019.
Apart from streaming and internet radio, there is also a growing podcasting trend. This has cemented audio broadcasting in various forms as a key player in future mass media trends in the country.
Hugh Tracey, then head of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Durban, said he got the idea of broadcasting to African audiences in Natal when he discovered that a rumour was spreading among Africans that every Zulu speaker would earn 10 shillings a day when Hitler arrived.
South African academics have argued that despite being designed mainly for propaganda, “radio was always far more multifaceted and slippery than was intended by colonial powers”. Through language and cultural knowledge, it offered the “ability to create new and sometimes unruly publics”.
The date of birth of online radio in South Africa is challenging to determine. But, no doubt, the introduction of the internet in the early 1990s meant that those with access and means experimented with various forms of self-expression using technology, as did the amateurs who first played around with radio in the 1920s.
Podcasting in South Africa is said to have taken off in 2015 or 2016. Listenership figures are hard to come by, but advertising spend indicates a growing appetite. A 2022 report found that podcast advertising revenue grew by 30.4% in 2020.
Despite these challenges, some studies predict that the monthly listenership of podcasts in South Africa could rise to 19 million by 2024. Some reports put current podcast listenership at around 10% of the population. This is roughly six million people.
While available statistics are not definitive, speculation is that podcasts are where audience growth lies.