In the wonderland world of the South African Broadcasting Corporation, things are getting stranger. I was probably harsh in my first comments on the 90% local fiat (https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/ninety-percent-local-music-on-sabc-too-little-context-too-big-a-number/) ; it seems now that the policy may have been less the result of political grandstanding and far more of worrying ignorance about how the industry works.
Buying a song to thank yourself for taking the decision, containing the lines “Siyabonga SABC/ Siyabonga Jehovah”, (http://businesstech.co.za/news/general/124967/watch-thank-you-sabc-song-praising-motsoeneng/ ) however, is a gesture of grandiosity uncomfortably reminiscent of the Info Song era. Flighting it at regular intervals every day – as stations have been ordered to do – will certainly provide more local content for the quota, and at least some local artists (Mzwakhe Mbuli, Deborah Fraser, Kholeka Sobiso and Solly Moholo, for example) will find their incomes improved by the commissioning fee. That fee has not been disclosed. We do know that the SABC in-house choir also heard can expect R3.8M of the cash-strapped corporation’s budget in 2016/17 for services such as singing “Hlaudi Motsoeneng reya o leboha” at staff meetings.
Needletime fee increases; monitoring & reporting don’t change
The grateful artists however, might have found it wiser to save their breath until they saw whether or not increased local music would actually result longer-term in increased hard cash for their community. The SABC has announced that it has increased the notional royalty payment for radio airplay from 3% to 4% for all collecting societies (SAMRO, SAMPRA, IMPRA and AIRCO). That’s a good decision, demonstrating genuine goodwill, and deserves acknowledgment. But it will only mean anything if monitoring and reporting procedures are improved, and payouts made more promptly; many artists are still awaiting back-payments. (AIRCO has just announced that fees due from 2013 can now be claimed.) The announcement of a once-off honorarium to be paid to certain prominent veterans such as Letta Mbuli, Babsy Mlangeni and Steve Kekana, in July, while a very welcome gesture, does not meet the financial needs of all the rest.
One step forward; one step back
And now, of course, the business implications of changing station formats are beginning to hit home, and the back-tracking has started.
Spokesperson Kaiser Kganyago initially dismissed assertions that formats would change, even on commercial stations. “A hip-hop station will still play hip-hop,” he explained, “[but] it will be hip-hop from South African artists.” He vehemently denied there would be exemptions for the commercial stations. SABC Board member Aaron Tshidzuma elaborated: “There is (sic) a lot of private stations. If people don’t want to listen to SABC, tune to another one.”
That kind of ignorance about what format means and how it relates to income is worrying in the people who supposedly help to run the SABC, currently sitting on a R395M budget deficit, partly caused by advertiser flight. Advertisers sign contracts to place their content within a programme with a specified format. If that format includes artists such as Beyonce, replacing her with Lira will actually breach the contract and permit the advertiser to challenge it and withdraw. Advertisers also sign contracts with stations whose formats can guarantee certain listenerships. If those listeners are encouraged by Mr Tshidzuma to “tune to another [station]”, advertiser flight will intensify.
I’m not saying this kind of advertiser-led censorship is a good thing. The diktats of advertisers were an important reason why SABC, until very recently, gave only scant respect to the previous, 30% ICASA-regulated quota. Indeed, in the current ICASA local content review document, published in March this year (http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/39844_gon345.pdf ), the SABC is quoted as supporting an upgrade to a 35% quota for commercial radio and objecting to a 70% quota for public radio, proposing 60% and recommending “that this quota be implemented in stages as this will ensure that the audiences do not experience a sudden change in their experience of the radio station. SABC is of the view that increases of the local music quota should be based on music research with the public thereby ensuring that radio stations respond to listener needs. The SABC was of the view that 70% is high and will lead to loss of audiences. This proposed quota will hinder the growth of the public broadcaster.” What’s changed since that submission was made?
Attracting advertisers is a fact of financial life for big broadcasters in a capitalist world.
Yesterday, the corporation announced that commercial station Metro-FM would now be playing 50% local music and 50% international on Sundays, because, according to Kganyago, “Metro-FM knows and understands its listeners better than us.” (Erm…shouldn’t you have asked them earlier?) The weekday Metro quotas would be “evaluated…over a period of time,” he said. “Some shows have different audiences so they will work around it.”
Let’s be absolutely clear here. Increased local music quotas are a good thing, for artists and audiences. Everybody should support their intelligent implementation.
But increased quotas implemented without thought for the right percentage (60-70% would bring very similar benefits while preserving formats and keeping a reasonable window open on the musical world outside) adequate advance consultation and a clear business strategy will help nobody – least of all the artists. A dumb decision taken without adequate consultation gives the commercial stations the best possible excuse to sneak back to their previous character – a character well described by music journalist and former presenter Andrew Marshall to Channel 24 (http://www.channel24.co.za/Music/News/sabcs-local-music-move-is-it-good-or-bad-20160513 ): a scene where music quality was determined by “marketing meetings, playlists by committee, and uncurated tastemaking by vacuous, colour-by-numbers, celeb-driven, radio pulp.”
The music quota tapdance isn’t the only odd thing happening on the state broadcaster’s airwaves these days. I’m not talking about the sanitizing of news in the run-up to the local government elections; enough has been said about that (see http://www.sanef.org.za/news/entry/sabc_to_stop_showing_destruction_of_property_on_tv_news_bulletins_may_27_20/) and it isn’t a very musical topic.
But check the curious whitewashing job going on in the self-praising inserts SAFM is flighting around its 80th birthday. One reminds us that “Contrary to popular belief, SABC news was independent”, harking back to the earliest days of Reuters and ABC news, with nary a mention of subsequent apartheid control and censorship. Another insert celebrates the foundation of Radio Bantu, with a jolly montage of various ethnic music styles. That one is particularly ironic in the current context. The re-tribalisation project was not only part of a poisonous divide-and-rule policy, but it decimated the South African music industry. It blocked black artists from recording in multiple languages and blending styles if they wanted to get airplay on ethnic stations where ‘authenticity’ and ‘purity’ were determined by white ideologues and apparatchiks. Artists of colour were re-named to appear on certain slots, so that the towering creativity of communities of colour was hidden (The late Tony Schilder became ‘Peter Evans’: “because they thought I sounded a bit like Bill Evans”.) Radio Bantu stifled creativity and fragmented markets, and that latter is in fact one of the reasons why artists today find it so hard to make a living.
Remembering history is important. Excising all relevant context is very close to lying.