Financial sustainability of community radio stations in Cameroon (by James Achanyi-Fontem, Cameroon Link)
Date Posted: May 3rd, 2010
Sustainability is very high on the agenda of all community radio stations, especially at this moment when international donor funding is declining. This paper outlines how community radio stations – both new and well-established ? manage survival. The information is based on interviews conducted with managers of six community radio stations in different regions of Cameroon.
Most community stations in Cameroon are co-operatives or operate like co-operatives because they raise funds through shares. Shares in community radio stations vary from CFA 50.000 to CFA 1.000.000 (Note: $100-$2000 US or 75-1500 Euros), depending on the location. Some stations also sell memberships, with members being offered the right to receive transcripts of popular programmes.
The role of projects and partnerships
Projects are effective in generating income. Lebialem Community Radio in Menji, Dynamic FM in Douala, and Sweet FM in Bonapriso-Douala provide good examples. They run various income-generating projects like daycare centres, a children’s radio programme, school outreach programs on AIDS and drug awareness, and an alternative education program for youth, including guesthouses for day students. All these are funded by local corporate entities. Community radio has also drawn interest from community-based organizations and NGOs, and partnerships are developed whereby stations use the resources of these organizations to support development programming. Resource persons from the organizations present on the radio or participate in specialized broadcast shows.
Although commercial advertising often runs contrary to the norms of community radio, it can be a valuable source of funds. Classified ads are purchased by individuals, small groups, or businesses. All community radio stations run death and birth announcements, and employment agencies pay a small fee to advertise new jobs.
Many stations in Cameroon focus their funding efforts exclusively on obtaining advertising, and so compromise their role as small media. One alternative to focusing exclusively on advertising is the concept of social marketing. Social organizations, NGOs, and the government pay for production and/or airtime to create and run short social messages. Ocean Radio, Eden Radio, Nostalgie FM, Sweet FM and other stations in Kumba, Limbe, and Douala run short, creatively produced messages that are underwritten by the public health ministry, to create public awareness about HIV, infant and young child feeding, and child immunization.
Airtime sales and trade exchanges
Another strategy that has worked well for stations in Cameroon is airtime sales, where blocks of air time are sold, bartered, or traded to another organization. For example, the local council program on democracy and local governance narrates the story of efforts taken to improve the well being of communities every week. Churches buy air time for live religious services during special times of the year. In these cases, the presenters and producers become members of the station, and receive technical training before going on-air. However, the station makes sure that the content does not conflict with the station’s principles.
In-house infrastructure and potential
Community radio stations use their in-house infrastructure in various ways. Stations have successfully run training courses for various organizations on “How to use the media effectively.” Stations may offer equipment rental, studio and premises rental, and consultancies to business and social organizations. Other innovative income-generating projects are as follows:
Community events and remote broadcasts: Funds are raised by bringing together members of a community for specific events. For example, Radio Veritas sponsored a folksong festival in which competing groups paid a fee to perform.
Promotional items: Items such as T-shirts, caps, and bags do not generate huge amounts, but do generate publicity.
Internships: With a growing scholarly interest in community broadcasting, most community radio stations in Cameroon “sell” internships to foreign (predominantly European) journalism students.
Some thoughts on social sustainability
While the issue of financial sustainability is paramount, it is also necessary for stations to sustain themselves in other ways. A station that has enough funding, but not sufficient, well-produced, good quality local programming, or one which is well-resourced but cannot retain listeners, will not be able to sustain itself for long.
Program production: Audiences no longer accept programs that are not “professionally” produced. The challenge for community radio is to professionalize programming without losing the values of access, participation, and empowerment. What is key here is to be able to provide a unique and locally-relevant service. Some stations have begun to depend on programs produced internationally or by independent production houses. The key is to localize such programs.
Audience research and development: Stations cannot be sustainable if their audiences do not feel a sense of ownership. Stations need to conduct community mapping and low-cost, participatory audience research projects in order to produce appropriate programming.
Volunteerism and community participation: Sustainability of a radio station depends on a core of staff members, who are usually volunteers. In Cameroon, volunteers tend to be unemployed or unskilled, and after receiving training at community stations, are then often poached by other organizations or radio stations that can pay a salary. Many station managers note that a station’s financial success is not necessarily related to the number of radio hosts, but instead to the volunteer structure, in which age and gender balance appear to be the primary factors. For Radio Femmes Mbalmayo, drawing on older female volunteers with more time to donate proved to be successful.
If one looks at sustainability from a point of view that is not restricted to income generation, it is found that community involvement and the development of a sense of ownership over the project is the best guarantee for keeping equipment safe and in running condition. History shows that community radio stations cannot depend on outside or donor funding for their survival – they need to foster self-reliance, ownership, and the investment of local communities in order to promote institutional, social, and ultimately financial sustainability.