What’s up with online radio? The pioneers give their views

Traditional radio is not only having to battle against other mediums such as television, print and out of home for adspend and audience attention, but it faces growing competition from radio moving online. From solely online radio stations, to live streaming, to podcasts, the digital age is changing how audio content is being listened to, as well as when and where to find it.

TransAfrica Radio knows all about it: the station has been a pioneer in the space since 2000. Its motto and mantra outline its positioning, ‘One Voice One Africa’. “The trick with online radio,” says its managing director, Busi Ntuli, “is to have a unique selling point and a clearly defined target audience. Our unique selling point is our 100% African music playlist as well as the aggregation of African entertainment content.”

Ntuli says its the understanding of the power of the digital world that keep the station’s target audience – Africa’s millennials – coming back for more. “We have not only taken advantage of the online radio space but we are also highly conscious of data costs burden on our audience which is why we provide alternative access to our programming via our partnership with DStv since 2000 and OVHD in October 2016,” she says.

You can’t talk about online radio without mentioning ex-5FM DJ Gareth Cliff. One of the most prominent online only radio stations in South Africa is CliffCentral, which he launched three years ago because he was ready for a change.

“I was becoming stifled by imposed radio formats in a world where my audience was increasingly engaging online and having a new voice through social media,” he says.

According to Cliff, podcasting and online radio combined currently accounts for some 30%-40% of all listening in the United States (up 23% from last year), but he says it is still a relatively new discovery in South Africa. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t an insatiable demand for it.

“If our numbers are anything to go by, there’s a great appetite for this kind of material. During 2015, my show received 1.2 million downloads; in 2016 this grew to two million. CliffCentral in total enjoyed three million downloads in 2016. We are less concerned with live listening but that figure was 1.3 million in 2016 – a combined number of connections being 4.3 million.”

New entrants into the space

Another sign of the voracious demand are the new players who are deciding to enter the space. Recently former Metro FM DJ Tbo Touch launched TouchHD. “Online radio is a free form and it’s not conventional – so it presents a very dynamic and unique platform from traditional radio – we offer flexible content with a wide reach on audience, listening patterns vs. the conventional, licensed, imposed norm. Listeners can engage more with the brand during and beyond ordinary listening times,” he says.

For Touch it’s not only about listener numbers for his offering, but about the 360-degree format on influence online has. “TouchHD has impressions and influence across all digital windows that we have – be it online, podcasting, live stream and the broader social media conversations that we offer. Appointment listening then also comes naturally and we are able to embrace a captured audience”.

Another new offering recently entered the online radio space as DJ Sbu (real name Sibusiso Leope) launched MassivMetro, an urban metropolitan radio station targeting township residents. This includes putting free wi-fi in taxis so that commuters can download the MassivMetro app. Speaking to Channel24, Sbu said, “What is beautiful is that Tbo Touch, Gareth Cliff and I are proving it can be done. We are not competing but targeting different audiences, we all have different target markets”.

Specialised online offerings

A major advantage of online radio is that a station can be dedicated entirely to one topic and target that audience. One of the best examples of this is eBizRadio, which was launched in 2011 and has the tagline, “the place to go if you want to know about the world of business and the business of the world”.

Its focus is Africa and to date it is the only dedicated stream focusing primarily on business on the continent. “On an average hour on our stream we have approximately 900 IP addresses streaming in, but it has gone up to as much at 17 000. The average connection to the stream is approximately 1h23, but we find that the downloading of our podcasts post live airing has a much higher rate – on average 30gigs of content is downloaded in a week and if you work out that the average podcast is approximately 20 megs, this relates to an average of 1 536 podcasts being downloaded and hopefully shared,” says founder and CEO, Ingrid von Stein.

“I had experienced online radio in Europe and just loved the concept. I came back to South Africa and literally built this plane while trying to fly it. There were no guidelines, there we no experienced people to offer guidance and mentorship. It was literally built on a dime and we started broadcasting with a single laptop and the assistance and incredible ingenuity of the team at NetDynamix.FM.” The journey has been so successful for eBizRadio, Von Stein reveals that the platform is currently in final discussions around being bought and integrated into a global media house.

Another example of a specialised online radio offering is Transafricaradio.net, which was created in 2000. The station’s current focus is to grow listenership and get through the strategic use of its online platforms, such as its website Transafricaradio.net, which has click rate of over 250 000 unique clicks a month.

Less expensive and more space to play

For Tony Seifart, owner of Hashtag Radio, getting into online radio is easier than its traditional counterpart. “Building a traditional radio station, with a transmission frequency is prohibitively expensive. Besides the license fees and the regulations that you have to subscribe to, there is a distinct lack of available frequency. In markets like the US, local and/or niche radio stations are quite ubiquitous.

“That’s also because their larger audience provides everyone with the piece of the pie. If you want to start a radio station in South Africa, then getting online is far easier. It’s still regulated, but the start-up capital is far less.”​

He says online radio in South Africa is still in its infancy and faces major hurdles including high costs of internet access and expensive mobile data. But there is a bright future, with cities like Tshwane and Cape Town rolling out free wi-fi which will make online radio offerings more accessible to the general public.

Reception from advertisers

It is one thing to create great content for online radio, but if this content can’t be monetised then there isn’t much point. While advertisers were sceptical of this emerging radio platform, Cliff says some are starting to see the opportunities. “Clever advertisers have started to smell the change and have been fundamental to our success. The big agencies and some of the more conservative clients have ploughed on with traditional radio. Many are questioning the value of the old ways but are still unfamiliar with the new.”

Von Stein shares Cliff’s views adding, “Right from the get go the concept of online radio which already had gained massive traction in Europe and the States was met with opposition from the traditional media buyers and strategists in our industry. The reason for this was that it was new and there was no history yet. They knew traditional radio and struggled to get their heads around how they were going to explain it to their clients and how they would be able to track.” But she believes that online radio is much more measurable than traditional radio, as IP addresses are identified and tracked when they log on to an online stream.

Ntuli reckons TransAfrica Radio “clearly understands the power of the digital world and we have created a platform for advertisers who want to access the African middle class and millennial target audience via our various digital platforms”.

In Seifart’s experience, advertisers have taken to online radio partly due to the fact that it is less costly. “Advertising on traditional radio can be very expensive. Because online radio has lower overhead costs, we’re able to provide advertising at a lower price, giving the advertiser a higher ROI. We also bundle our advertising with our Facebook and Twitter audiences giving added benefit to our advertisers.”

The benefits of online radio

The main benefit of online radio for Touch is its reach. “It offers opportunities for a broader society to access content on different times and spaces based on their needs. Also advertisers have more opportunities to converse with their markets and engage more with them”.

Cliff lists many positives that come out of this emerging medium including: being able to take it anywhere you go, listening to what you want no matter your taste, eliminating wasteful stuff like traffic, weather and music you don’t like, offering the best story-telling, no censoring, filtering or interference, more interaction, more engagement, and better, targeted advertising. “Online radio and even more so, content on demand in the form of podcasts is something which appeals to people because their time is precious. We get very little free time – we’re always busy and the one thing you can do while you’re in traffic, at the gym or making supper is listen to the stuff that stimulates, entertains or inspires you. The content you care about, just like all the good series, audio books and news, is online. We provide a huge catalogue of niche-interest shows that cater to just about any listener.”

Von Stein agrees. “As the consumer you are able to choose what you want to listen to and when, as opposed to having terrestrial radio on and having to listen to all sorts of other things just to get the bit that you really want to hear.” Another major benefit for online radio stations is that their audience is not restricted solely to the country where they are based. Seifart explains, “Because we’re online we can reach out to any country in the world. We already have a loyal following in the UK and US. This wouldn’t be possible with traditional radio.”

It is not only just online only stations that see the benefits of online radio and are utilising it. Most of, if not all, traditional radio stations in South Africa, host either live streams of their shows online and/or podcasts of the shows after they have finished. Not only does this increase listener numbers, but also allows people to catch up on shows they may have missed.

Primedia Broadcasting, owner of 947, 702, KFM and Cape Talk, shared these benefits in a statement. “Online radio allows us to create a deeper relationship with our listeners and a potentially bigger reach as streaming gives us (as regional stations) access to a global audience. Internet radio in all its forms gives us more chance to be part of a consumer’s audio day. And then we’re able to offer a fairly unique and targeted advertising offering to clients through our digital audio offering which has started with pre-and post-roll advertising.”

DJ Sbu perfectly summed up online radio in his chat with Channel24. “The online space is going to keep growing every year. It will be interesting to see how far our radio stations will be in five years’ time. I guarantee you; they will have more than tripled their listenership.”

Seifart can only see a bright future for online radio in South Africa believing there will be more online stations in the future, “There’s an incredible amount of talent in SA that’s not being tapped into because of capacity constraints in traditional radio. The online radio space gives stations like Hashtag Radio the opportunity to tap into and develop incredible talent for the future. And that’s what we find incredibly exciting.”

Von Stein gives her final thoughts, “Traditional agencies have realised that the more agile digital agencies are fast moving in on their space and there seems to be a bit of a scramble now to quickly get their clients onto or involved in the online radio space. Great for us, but I do caution that they should go gently and make sure that what you want is what is best for the clients and not your pockets. Yes the media buying space is changing – embrace it, play a little, spend a little, analyse the results and then work with your client and their budgets and allocate at least 25% for now of their traditional ad spend into the online space.

Cliff concludes simply, “The future is right here!”

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