Africa: in search of New Media

Radio is enormously important to the African continent. Designed for mass consumption, it is perhaps the most popular and affordable of the media. Music and entertainment programs, as well as educational and insights across a range of topics have all been a major source of inspiration for a large radio audience that has been built up thanks to a strong and predominantly oral tradition of storytelling.

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In the last few years a new audio feature has become increasingly popular in Africa. It consists in podcasts, the digital audio files inspired by radio programmes and initially dubbed elegantly "audioblogging". Described by its “creators” as the most intimate, as well as accessible medium, gained a good deal of ground in South Africa that has a world-class media production industry increasingly eager for innovation in technology and science.

No one has yet questioned the merit of the American production. It is difficult to find quality podcasts that are equally as entertaining. In an email conversation with me Wanjiru Koinange, project administrator at Badilisha Poetry X-change, an online audio archive of over 350 Pan-African poets from over 22 different countries comments, says: “I think we can thank Serial (the investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, ed.) for that. I read that listenership of podcasts almost tripled when Serial came out,”.

Having said this, Badilisha Poetry X-change (Badilisha means “change” in Swahili) was putting out audio files – mini episodes of 5-10 minutes in which poets perform one of their poems - well before Serial came out in 2014 (re)launching the medium. According to Koinange, “ that’s because our podcast fed a specific need that no other media on the continent was satisfying.”

Podcast is not a mainstream media; its listeners are a smaller group and consist of a more sophisticated kind of media consumer. The statistics are not available or difficult to verify, but Badilisha Poetry X-change, for example, says it receives about 3,000 visitors each month quickly finding its place on a scenario where numbers are not the primary concern.

Podcasting has been around for more than 10 years. It has won over desktop listeners and smartphones around the world, with series uploaded on iTunes, Soundcloud, different Android apps (available for subscription and download) or stylish websites where one can play and re-play the same episode endlessly . But the turning point didn’t come until around 2005, when iTunes added podcasts to its menu. This led to the influx of new programmes and millions of new listeners, according to different sources online.

The podcast is still a fairly young medium in Africa. Although limited in extent and sometimes a more or less  DIY product, there are some great series coming out not only from South Africa. Kenyans, for example, (can) enjoy the The Spread, a podcast that talks positively about sex and sexuality, and Afracanah, whose hosts are a couple of young girls from the diaspora now living in the continent.

In South Africa audiences are growing, as well as the number of creators of podcasts and radio programmes on streaming more in general (see South Africa has its own crime podcast (and radio feature), too, called Alibi, which made the list of the best new ones in the genera in a recent article by the Irish Times.

African Tech Round-Up executive producer and host, Andile Masuku, believes that a key factor for success with podcasts lies increating and curating niche content for my own digital channels, and building communities around them while positioning myself as a thought-leader within those tribes.” African Tech Round-Up is a popular South-Africa produced podcast, (one of a number) covering tech innovation on the continent. It offers unique tech news insights served in weekly episodes of 30-60 minutes with guest conversations on everything from the social media’s coverage of the Ugandan election to the Internet Blackout in Anglophone Cameroon. “We also play a key agenda-setting role in highlighting lesser known issues that impact our ecosystem,” says Masuku in an email conversation with me. According to him his series attracts listeners from outside the continent, as well. “Our content relies on the active participation of our community, via social media engagement, direct contributions via email or voice notes, and of course, by way of contributing insights as guests on the show.”

While South Africa has some of the continent’s biggest radio stations, the cost of data is high compared to other parts. An obstacle to the fruition of this medium is that podcasters cannot control these costs. That is why for most Africans “accessing podcasts, or indeed any other web-based new  media content, is not nearly as frictionless or affordable as tuning in to free-to-air radio and television, or even premium cable TV”, warns Masuku.

Whilst waiting for data costs to decrease, it is the podcasters and journalists who need to tell stories relevant to Africans, to catch up with their audience --- and eventually gain more sponsors. For many on the continent, there is an increasing need to create platforms that enable more people to tell their own stories in different digital formats. Just like when poets submit audios of themselves reciting their work to the friendly team of Badilisha Poetry X-change, thus helping shed light on the status of poetry in Africa, too. The Cape Town-based Africa Center, the no-profit under which Badilisha operates, has produced another popular podcast in South Africa called Talking Heads which reminds in the production of NPR’s Snap Judgment (a mix of sound effects, audio clips, narration and conversations with guests).

Making podcasts can take a lot of time and money when it is a professional product that requires script, field recordings, editing, in-studio post and final mix. But young independent “creators” should not be over-concerned having the perfect setup. Hip Hop African, for example, is a student generated blog and podcast from the Hip Hop and Popular Culture in Africa course in the African Studies Department at Howard University, U.S., about hip hop in Africa. It is uploaded on a website with a simple graphic that looks like a notebook. At the beginning the opportunity offered by the Internet to become “young producers” is more relevant for those who want to experiment with the new medium.  Rasmus Bitsch, editor of Sound Africa, a South African based podcast series of audio documentaries narrating the complexity of living in the continent (the last series is called Nuclear SA), believes that “podcasting is just the audio version of videos online and just like with video the low entrance barrier has meant that it is now possible for more and more people to create their own content. At the same time, professional radio producers have started producing podcasts, which has made the quality of podcasts out there go up, and therefore made more people appreciate the medium.”


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