Radio stations' slow take-off worries govt

HARARE - Government is worried about the slow take-off of local commercial radio stations that were licensed more than a year ago, Media and Broadcasting Services minister Chris Mushohwe said.

He told the press on Wednesday that majority of the eight stations that were granted licences have been in fits and starts.

Last year, government went on a licensing spree, with the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) doling out permits to eight radio stations as part of broadcasting liberalisation aimed at breaking the jinx of the monopoly held by the State broadcaster, ZBC.

“In respect of the radio sub-sector, I was a bit concerned by the slow pace at which newly licensed stations for urban centres took off,” Mushohwe said.

“Of course, the reasons for the slow take-off are related to difficulties which were beyond the control of individual licensees,” he said, adding that “still, almost all the concerned stations have been able to make a start, however halting”.

The Baz licences run for 10 years and radio stations are required to pay $15 000 annually plus one percent of their gross yearly turnover.

Out of the eight licensed stations, Zimpapers’ Star FM, Mutare-based Diamond FM, AB Communications’ ZiFM, Hevoi FM in Masvingo and Faya FM in the Midlands have gone on air.

The struggling government-owned bookseller, Kingstons, has also launched a new radio station named Capital FM — originally registered as KE 100.4 FM — and Nyaminyami FM have also gone live in Kariba.

Zvishavane-based YA FM is also broadcasting in the Midlands town.

Skyz Metro FM and Breeze FM, beaming in Bulawayo and Victoria Falls respectively, finally went live in September, beating the Baz deadline.

However, some of the licensed stations have been silent for most of their terms, only turning on now and then to avoid having their licences cancelled.

Baz reserves the right to cancel a station’s license if it has been silent for more than a year, unless the station can demonstrate some overriding public interest reason for leniency.

To avoid the ultimate sanction of having a license cancelled, many stations facing economic challenges or other long-term problems with transmitting, among other challenges, find a way to broadcast for a day or two to avoid being off air for more than a year.

As long as programming is run on the station during that on-air period, the Baz has thus far allowed the stations to continue in this mode.

“We hope the year ahead sees all these stations fully established so the Baz can be in a position to invite new applications for additional services, but of course, always bearing in mind the need to ensure that primary services are protected, within frequency limitations, without undermining the principle of equitable services across the country, and of course mindful of the dangers of ruinous competition through over licensing,” Mushohwe said.

Mushohwe said the television sector, monopolised by the State’s ZBC, will also be opened up.

“As the industry gets truly plural, with the coming on stream of digital terrestrial TV services, our expectation is that viewers will not just be spoilt for choice, but will begin to access more affordable services, in the process taking us closer to our goal of universal access to broadcast services,” Mushohwe said.

He said tariffs for subscription services have begun to go down “in ways that make those services accessible and affordable to more Zimbabweans”.

Media advocacy groups have long advocated for the licensing of community radio stations, but Mushohwe skirted the issue completely.

Mushowe’s concerns come as press freedom groups argue that unlike commercial radio stations that are profit-driven, community broadcasting is by the community for the community.

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