Conference on Community Media Sustainability: Strengthening Policies and Funding
14-15 September, UNESCO Paris

Guy Berger, Director, Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Communication and Information Sector, UNESCO

Guy Berger

Guy Berger

Greetings to all participants in this event. We acknowledge the presence of HE Haq Inu Hasanul, Minister of Information of Bangladesh, and of the distinguished regulators, practitioners, experts and members of delegations to UNESCO, including Ambassadors.

Almost 20 years ago, I gave the keynote address at the launch of one of South Africa’s first community radio stations, in the town where I lived, Grahamstown. This was in 1996, two years after the first democratic elections in my country. Under the former racist system, broadcast was tightly controlled by the apartheid government and there was no prospect of licensing for community radio. The regime was against the democratic and the development potential of community radio for the majority of the citizenry. After the transition, the new independent licensing body gave priority to two issues: reform of state broadcasting into public broadcasting, and opening up the airwaves for community radio stations. The would-be commercial operators had to wait a while before the regulator turned to their concerns. Today, South Africa has some 100 community radio stations providing unique service to the society. They have clear regulation, and a degree of support from the state via an independent development agency, the MDDA, via public advertising and via support by some local authorities. That is what democracy and an official development agenda can do for community radio, and of course we participants at this conference know what community radio can do for democracy and development!

Sometimes when you look back at what you said 20 years ago, you get a bit embarrassed, and indeed this is no different when I look at what I said at the launch of Grahamstown community radio. But some of it is of relevance:

I titled the address back then: Grahamstown community river, and I said: “A river and a community radio are very similar. But the one is given to us by God; the other is made by human beings.”

Let me quote some more:

“I have seen the long, arduous work that has gone into the launch of “Radio Grahamstown” as a formal organisation. Can water run uphill, against gravity? This group has proved it can. Against all the odds, out of the midst of poverty and against the potential despair that progress would never be made, we have strong reason to celebrate today.

There is still a long way to go: this water may yet spread too thinly, evapourate, be channelled off elsewhere. …

Grahamstown Radio will succeed, not only because of its leadership, but also because, like water, it is something that is needed by the people of this town. It can be guaranteed to give life to 100s and 1000s of voices of this diverse and divided community.”

To quote a bit further:

“Just as a river needs new supplies of water all the time, so a radio station needs continuous content to put on the airwaves.

How do you pay to get the supplies? Even if you don’t pay for the labour, you need to pay to keep your equipment running and your costs. For all this you will need money. In fact, you should try to find money for some salaries even, because it is not likely this station can run forever on fulltime volunteers with families to feed.

What on earth can you do in this regard? From where in the world can you get money?

There are the typical sources, like funders and advertisers. Both need to be explored, and new ones discovered. The newly elected city council should be asked for sponsorship (without political strings attached). The government must be lobbied to create a top-up system for stations that are not viable because their listeners are too poor to attract enough advertising.

[All this] means, simply, making little streams to feed into the river.”

Today, I am pleased to tell you, that despite many ups and downs in terms of sustainability, compounded by the continued high level of poverty and unemployment in Grahamstown, the river continues to flow – within a state-enabled environment and a degree of support which should not be underestimated, but mainly through the interest and dedication of volunteers from the community. The issues I raised in 1995 continue to be substantial challenges for sustainability of the station. It has been able to survive and provide “water” for the community, but more can be done to support its efforts.

As in all contexts, the state has a key role to play in facilitating the efforts of the volunteers in community radio. Each government needs a policy that recognises the uniqueness of community radio, and it needs an independent licensing system that reflects this in terms of spectrum allocation and special dispensations for licence and signal distribution fees. And to allow a range of funding and revenue options for community radio. Governments need to support special content focus areas, without dictating content, and they should recognise the need to include community radio in paid for public service announcements. Without compromising the credibility that rests on independence of community radio, governments need to pay for airtime – not to deliver the official line in a one-way mode, but for the opportunity to dialogue with the public on air, whether the topic be on health, education, youth, gender, accountability, corruption, crime control, or voting arrangements. There are also issues of support for research and training. Governments need to recognise that they are vital to the success of the sustainability of community radio.

Today, 20 years later after Grahamstown Community Radio was launched, I have the pleasure of being part of UNESCO in hosting this conference, whose existence is a tribute to my colleagues Mirta Lourenco, Venus Jennings and their hard working team of volunteer interns.

A total of 195 countries come together in UNESCO, and they set priorities for the secretariat to follow. Since its founding 70 years ago, the Organisation has had amongst its objectives the “free flow of information and ideas”. The Organization works for this mandate by promoting free, pluralistic and independent media. A pluralistic media system must include free and independent community media. And for UNESCO pluralism also means gender equality in and through media, as well as societies that are media and information literate in terms of their appreciation, critique and engagement with media institutions.

For UNESCO, social media is a welcome new addition to media pluralism, but it is different animal from community media institutions. It mainly consists of privately-owned commercial platforms for communications between individuals, who often connect within a limited bubble of friends and like-minded contacts. Social media is not per se a media institution owned by the community, which informs people reliably and plays the role of a trusted public forum – although of course community media, and other media, can and should also be on social media as much as possible. Conceptually, the point is that community media and social media remain distinct, notwithstanding that there are some areas of similarity in terms of interaction and participation, and overlap where community media operates on the back of a social media platform. Social media does NOT make community media redundant. This is not just a question that more people still have access to radio than to social media, but it applies even when a society has widespread internet connectivity. Community radio is not a poor person’s social media – it is a very special and treasured institution within any wider communications landscape.

All this explains why UNESCO continues to see community radio as very important, and possibly even more important than ever in the continuously expanding cacophony of information and communication. We therefor continue to advocate for media freedom, pluralism and independence, because these indeed are preconditions for the existence of community radio. But we are also cognisance that while mission critical, on their own they are not enough to ensure that community radio initiatives can realise their full potential. A bunch of factors impact on the economic sustainability of community radio, and very high amongst these is the policy of the governments concerned. And this is not just a question of the politics of an independent licensing policy, but also of the economic concessions and incentives and fair treatment of community radio.

You as participants in this conference all also evidently regard the sustainability of community radio as very important, hence your contribution by coming from afar to get here, by giving your time over two days for the cause, and by many of you having contributed fine research papers to enrich the discussions that will take place. We trust you will find this rewarding, and your insights and expertise will be compiled in a publication for much wider dissemination afterwards.

I have explained to you why UNESCO is a firm supporter of community radio and its viability. But UNESCO itself has to wrestle with budgetary issues, and we wish we could do more than only host this knowledge exchange. There are some practical projects we are able to support – one has been with 32 local radio stations in 7 African countries, funded by Sweden;

Community media is also a priority for UNESCO’s IPDC which tries to allocate small grants of between $10 000 and $20 000 to about 20 community radio projects.

But we know while these contributions are very important to the particular beneficiaries, they are also a drop in the ocean. That is why we seek to encourage other ways and other actors so that community media can survive and thrive:

That is why we seek to catalyse actions around World Radio Day each year on 13 February, as an international day when people can pause, celebrate, and advocate for, this wonderful medium. And why we seek to aggregate global good practice into quality research publications like the Tuning into Development one you have copies of.

That is also why we promote the safety of community radio journalists as a significant part of the UN Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists.

It is why IPDC has developed the Media Viability Indicators which national community radio organisations, regulators and even partnerships representing the media industry as a whole in a given country, can use to map common problems and identify sector or sub-sector wide solutions.

It is also why UNESCO along with the Global Forum for Media Development has been advocating a great deal over the past year that any concept of sustainable development should embrace the existence of free, pluralistic and independent media. I’m sorry to say that this has not succeeded – but there is still a very valuable outcome on the cards.

I refer here to Target 16.10 of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which goals will take over from the Millennium Development Goals that originally agreed in the year 2000. To be finalised at the UN General Assembly in September, the SDGs will influence development agendas for the next 15 years. Target 16.10 is one of the very valuable outcomes listed within the draft SDGs. It states that sustainable development should include “public access to information and fundamental freedoms”. Community radio is relevant to both these – to enabling information access, and to exercising the fundamental freedom of the right to free expression.

What this means is that “officially” the package of development includes media-related issues in the mainstream. These are not relegated to nice-to-haves, to side-line issues. They are aspirations of development – it makes sense, who wants to have a developed society where people do not have access to information and fundamental freedoms? And more to the point, can we even get to development in terms of peace, education for all, improved health, gender equality and environmental sustainability – without public access to information and fundamental freedoms?

The point is that we now have media-related issues both as a goal of development, and we know that it is also a means to development. What this opens up is the opportunity to sensitise governments, donors and the public that a free pluralistic and independent media deserve support, and of course within this, that community media in particular need their place in the sun. Community radio supporters should use Target 16.10 to advocate, within government and without, with regulators and with donors, etc. Resources need to flow for community radio to function, and these flows need to respect the contours of integrity of the medium.

In other words, the SDGs constitute the sound of welcome rain coming, which can – if channelled well – help the flow of our rivers. The SDG context can, I hope, help invigorate and refresh the discussions you are about to have. And these discussions can in turn be one of the streams to swell these important rivers.

On behalf of UNESCO, this conference is therefore declared open.


Starting in 2011, Guy Berger has been Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO. Before this he was head of the school of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University in South Africa, the same university where he gained a PhD in 1989. Before joining UNESCO he served on the board of South Africa’s Media Development and Diversity Agency, a partnership of the state and the mainstream media, which provided grants to small scale and community media in the country. At the university, he also established the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership that for the past 12 years has, amongst other things, provided short courses on editorial and business leadership for community radio personnel in southern Africa. He raised funds for a project to promote citizen journalism via cellphones in Grahamstown, which involved a partnership between the local community radio station and the local newspaper. His record of research and advocacy for community radio include the following:
1995: Keynote address at the launch of Grahamstown Community Radio
1996: “Community media: what is it?” Keynote paper presented to Community Voices conference, organised by the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Malawi
2001 “It’s raining training”. Keynote presentation to National Community Radio Forum, Johannesburg.
2011. Chapter: “ A research agenda for community media”. In Foundations of Community Journalism: A research primer, (Ed) Hatcher, J. London: Sage
While at UNESCO he initiated the process of developing indicators for assessing media viability under the Organization’s International Programme for the Development of Communication.