Community radio stations play a key role in ensuring access to information and freedom of expression, particularly for those communities with limited access to the mainstream media.
Through their approaches and unique community-led methodologies, community radio stations continue to create opportunities where local people receive information and send information to their duty-bearers. The use of local languages on community radio enhances its potential to mobilize the population for growth, because it cuts through boundaries of literacy, education, economic status, gender, and age.
However, community radio itself needs the community to safeguard and replenish it in order for the community to draw full benefits from it. This is the point at which the debate for sustainability of community radio comes in, with a key question: to what extent can local communities support the sustainability of their radio station? What does it take for a community to sustain a community radio station?
There are challenges that threaten the very existence of community media and in particular, community radio stations. The fact that community radio stations subsist on voluntary energy from community members, most of whom are not adequately trained in broadcasting and in management. In a study currently underway by Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf), on The State of Community Media in Zambia, some challenges have been highlighted including:
- Weak financial base and fundraising ability by community radio personnel: Community radio stations in Zambia struggle with a weak financial base which compromises their capacity to hire and retain qualified staff, and manage and maintain equipment. These factors inhibit their ability to produce high quality programming, thereby weakening their potential to attract sponsored programmes which can in turn contribute to strengthening their financial base.
- Limited skills in analysing economies of scale: While struggling with a weak financial base, in some instances, community radio stations are unable to read where their economies of scale exist and where diseconomies of scale are. For instance, a frequently asked question has been: why do some community radio stations operate 24 hours in a situation where the cost of running the station between 23:00 and 05:00 costs more than the station can generate during that time and the listenership is very minimal? Who pays for those costs? The costs include electricity, personnel and other overhead costs. Possibly, instances exist where running the station 24 hours may be beneficial, for example during an international football match or elections monitoring. These programmes would probably or most likely be sponsored, but planning and proper business management should direct when and how this can be done.
- Unfavourable advertising environment for community media: The advertising environment is highly unfavourable to community radio stations weakening their ability to generate revenue. In some instances, community radio stations fail to break even because opportunities for income are very limited. While it is appreciate that community radio stations exist to serve the community, appreciation of the fact that it takes resource to do so needs to made taken. Unless community radio stations are able to do so, they will not sustain themselves.
Some experts argue that while we say community radio stations face sustainability challenges, Zambia still boasts over 50 radio stations. However, the state of some of these radio stations speaks for itself the challenges that this sector faces. If unaddressed, the vibrant community media sector of Zambia may become a thing of the past.
There is an urgent need to address the challenges facing community media. These include capacity building (in programming and content generation as well as business management skills), advocacy for favourable policies (in advertising environment, as well as governance of community radio stations as part of sustainability), among others.
The Zambia Community Media Forum (ZaCoMeF) exists as a voice of community media, but this will also only make a difference if it is well supported to champion the cause of community media in Zambia.