By Conrad Schwellnus | 14 July 2020: Taking a long hard look at existing regulations within any industry is always going to be a challenging undertaking. RDA 2020 Day 7 panelists Nadia Bulbulia (Executive Director at the National Association of Broadcasters), Duduetsang Makuse (National Coordinator at SOS Support Public Broadcasting) and Violet Molete (Senior Manager for ICT Policy at ICASA) were up for the challenge today, discussing some of the key hurdles related to regulation in the radio industry, while also diving into the necessity of action and transformation as we continue to operate in an increasingly globalized world. 

Moderator Franz Krüger got the session rolling with an interesting story involving the most famous ship in the world. When the “unsinkable” Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, it naturally attracted a tremendous amount of attention. Amateur radio operators clogged the airwaves with what we would now call ‘fake news’, and it became difficult to keep official channels open. Subsequently, the FCC was created and broadcasting regulation trickled into markets all over the world. The Titanic sank over 100 years ago, back in 1912. Is the existing system of regulation still fit for purpose now?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this question becomes an even harder one to answer. “We are operating in an abnormal environment,” Violet suggested as the session got underway. “As the regulator, we need to be flexible in our operations”. Franz remarked that regulators are not always known for this, indicating what some may consider to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in terms of existing challenges. “A shift is necessary,” according to Nadia. “[As an industry] we are not short of great ideas, we’re short of implementation”. Violet echoed this, suggesting that the whole broadcasting system needs to be looked at. According to her, this would need to involve the regulator, policy makers and broadcasters all coming together for a serious conversation, and soon. 

So why has it been so hard to move forward in this regard? For Duduetsang, political crises around the public broadcaster have certainly gotten in the way. “We still have a problem around the funding model of the public broadcaster,” she said. “ANC policy talked about 60% funding, when the reality is 3%. The model is not working for this environment”. She also spoke out against a hybrid funding model altogether, which leaves very little room for flexibility – a key element that is holding the existing model back from transformation. “We have to review the model, while simultaneously getting the public broadcaster ready for a digital model”, she said. 

From here, the discussion suggested that we can’t talk about the future of broadcasting or the creation of any new models or systems without discussing how the digital format is changing the industry. “You’ve essentially got a highly regulated industry competing with an unregulated industry” according to Nadia. “Some of the [conventional broadcasting] regulations need to be relaxed,” Violet suggested. “We also have to ask whether all regulations are still relevant”. She proceeded to mention the nature of digital streaming, and the grey areas that exist around regulation of broadcasting outside of South Africa through digital means. Big tech companies are slowly being roped into a bigger global debate around this and developments here may shape the future of broadcasting altogether.  

In response to this, Franz wondered whether it is even possible to regulate tech companies like Google in a small market like South Africa. For Duduetsang, doing so is more than just a pipe dream, and according to her, we have some chips to bargain with. “If we had bandwidth in each house, these companies would have major commercial interests in the country,” she said. “We are a young economy, but over time, that will change”. For Nadia, an important part of the digital transformation conversation involves ensuring that streaming doesn’t dilute the delivery of local content to a local audience. “Our fetishisation with everything foreign has to end,” she said. “We always need to see ourselves being reflected to ourselves”. 

The road ahead might not be clear, and there are certainly numerous hurdles to cross. From the panel discussion today, it was evident that all major players involved in the process need to sit down together to build a way forward. There should be less focus on the fact that we should be talking to each other, and more energy put towards the actual ideas that will become part of those discussions. For Nadia, one such idea revolves around a reimagining of what a public broadcaster should look like. “We don’t have to have a list of 10 ideas. Pick 3, and move with them,” she said. For Violet, these ideas should talk about whether existing regulations are fit for purpose in the digital age. She touched on the importance of a system revamp including all the new (digital) players entering the market. “We can’t all be chasing the same advertising pie,” she suggested. “We need to sit together and have serious discussions as to what we exactly see as broadcasting in the digital age”. 

As the session drew to a close, Franz pondered what the future of regulation in the radio industry might look like. “Are we looking at a single regulator, or no regulation at all?”, he asked. Nadia was quick to respond that there will always be a regulator, offering a view that what it will actually look like is still to be determined. Duduetsang emphasized the importance of radical changes through collective action. “We need to mobilise support and can’t operate in silos,” she said. “We need to find a way where we can bring all the players together, to get a coordinated approach to the government”. COVID-19 has revealed the fault lines, but this is an industry that is robust and competitive. We have to be bold enough to make hard decisions and have difficult conversations, in a bid to propel the radio industry into the future as a collective.