JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — From its inception, radio has had a sense of community, drawing people together in a way that television can’t. Radio pulls people into a shared experience, allowing those culturally and geographically connected to feel an even greater sense of community. This is particularly important and attractive to people whose community is isolated and separated by language, which is very much the case across South Africa.
If you look at the different cultures and languages here — the country has 11 official languages — then the appeal of community radio becomes obvious. There’s a desire for radio stations to cater to all those. If you look at the many remote villages, one village may have multiple languages. As you move from village to village, town to town — sometimes hundreds of kilometers apart — the music also varies. There are also generational differences. National radio stations tend to cater more to a younger audience, whereas community stations cater to the traditions of an area. They are very specific to the culture.
There’s also a status situation in many communities. Being heard on the radio and having a community radio station is part of that status desire for individuals and whole communities.
But there are challenges, not least funding and the cost and installation of modern technology. Then there’s the lack of technical skills among those owning and operating these stations.
In the past, the stations used old analog consoles. These villages can be a long, long way from where we are — hundreds of kilometers away — so the challenge has been how to support them. With internet penetration rising via fixed and LTE-based technologies, these stations are asking how we can support them remotely.
If the system’s analog-based, then they’re in trouble, but if the technology is IP-based, and at the right price point, then we — and they — can remote in, any time, any place and carry on. This is where Calrec’s Type R for Radio comes into its own. These community stations are now seeing the benefits of this.
In South Africa, the Media Development and Diversity Agency works with the South African government to assist in developing community and small commercial media enterprises across the country. It provides funding and media education for local community stations. Eldos FM in Johannesburg is an example of such a station, and worked with Wild & Marr to install a Type R through MDDA funding. The station, which launched in 2008 and has 60,000 listeners, now has one Type R for Radio with a six-fader panel and a large soft panel in each of its two new studios.
If the system’s analog-based, then they’re in trouble, but if the technology is IP-based, and at the right price point, then we can remote in, any time, any place and carry on.
Finding good system integrators is also a significant challenge in South Africa. The experienced ones charge too much for community stations, and the budget-friendly ones don’t have the experience. So, we work very closely with these stations. We provide detailed assistance with the system design process, advise how to set it up and once they have done so, we then quality check the system and setup to ensure the installation is correct.
We can, of course, also remote-in. We provide as much help as possible, but we’re also trying to upskill the station operators and the system integrators, so we hold their hands and train them. This hasn’t gone as far as we want because as soon as we started, COVID struck, but we’re now rebuilding that momentum. It’s a major challenge to develop radio skillsets. Everyone understands analog audio, but that’s very different from IP and IP audio. And then there’s the addition of visual radio to the mix — something we are busy developing. It’s a skillset very few stations have in-house.
This dovetails with a broader situation around IP and AoIP: While stations are installing Calrec’s Type R and using IP connectivity for in-station control — from the core to fader panels — and for remote access, most still use the additional analog kit connected via I/O boxes for radio production.
Dwaine Schreuder, technical manager with Wild & Marr, says this is unnecessary. “With Giyani FM — and this was a first — we built the studio and production side using one Type R for radio core to power both of them. All it took was a single CAT 5e cable between the two environments and an I/O box. You don’t need two cores, and there’s still further expansion possible. This is the beauty that many community radio stations don’t yet understand at this price point. Everyone thinks about standalone systems rather than a core-based approach.”
But it’s not only the technological elegance that this kind of IP technology provides; it’s also sound quality. Vibez.Live, a streaming-based station that launched three years ago, installed a six-fader, AoIP-based Type R with dual layer functionality, which gives it extra faders at the touch of a button. Vibez.Live also added a Type R large soft panel with feature sets pre-loaded for more control.
John Badenhorst, cofounder of Vibez.Live, says, “Having used a variety of equipment for the first 18 months after we launched, including an analog desk, we knew that we needed to upgrade to enhance our capabilities. We spoke to Wild & Marr about Calrec’s AoIP-based Type R for Radio system and were immediately impressed.
While the Type R core has enough I/O for our current needs, we also purchased a Type R analog I/O box that provides an additional 16 mic/line inputs and six general purpose input/output interfaces.” Immediately after the switch, Vibez.Live’s online communication was flooded with listeners commenting on the improvement in sound quality.
Bringing visuals to radio
Wild & Marr continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Visual radio is a prime example. Schreuder adds, “It’s a growing business for us. The problem is the cost of available equipment. We have worked very hard to develop a three-camera solution. We buy the cameras and run our own software on them. We power this via the Calrec core and break out of that using I/O.
“For example, when the faders are closed, our software automatically publishes a still image of the presenter. When they open a fader, the cameras start switching. Using our software, we can program a lot of different automated functionality. For example, if the presenter opens fader one, the visual system cuts to camera one. If they open both fader one and two, it cuts to a wide shot because they’re in an interview situation. We can control as many cameras as they want.”
Wild & Marr also capitalizes on another of Type R’s functionalities. “We put a silence detector on the master output of the Calrec core,” says Schreuder, “so when the audio drops below a certain level, it triggers a GO output, and a CD player then kicks in. At the same time, it brings a GO input back into the system and opens up a fader. This is a prime example of us helping these stations beyond a simple sale.”
While there are clearly challenges in South Africa, when it comes to community radio, we strive to create cost-effective, future-proof radio installations — with the help of technology — to bring communities to life.
The author was director at systems integrator Wild & Marr, and is now founder and CEO of AV distributor AV Worx.