Connecting the Continent: New Technologies and Improving Economies Are Helping the Media Reach an Ever-Growing Audience across the African Diaspora

Article excerpt

The forces of globalization and democratization that have swept across Africa and much of the developing world over the past two decades have brought both boom and boon to sub-Sahara African media. The global winds of democratic change, kicked off by the collapse of both the Soviet Union and South Africa's apartheid, have ushered more than two dozen peaceful political successions. The past 20 years have also seen the emergence of fragile democracies in more than 40 of Africa's 53 nation states.

In short, Africa's second wave of democracy has been a remarkable success. As one analyst pointed out, between 1960 and 1980, no African leader left office having lost an election. In the 1980s, one did, and between 1990 and 2006, 20 did. Many others who have survived political exclusion during this period have had to put up with formidable opposition parties in national and local government politics.

One key feature of the newfound political freedom has been the proliferation of mass media, thanks to neoliberal economic policies of the new governments in power. Liberalization of the airwaves in nearly all African countries has resulted in an explosion of radio broadcasting and, to a lesser extent, television broadcasting. A tool of oppression only two decades ago, FM radio has come full circle to become the voice of disenfranchised communities. For example, at the height of Uganda's 1981-86 civil war, ascendance to power was measured by which rebel group was in charge of Radio Uganda. Today, Uganda boasts more than 200 FM radio stations, four daily newspapers, and dozens of weeklies and other periodicals. In South Africa, where broadcasting was heavily controlled until only 12 years ago, radio is also the fastest-growing medium, especially the community media segment, with more than 180 stations in operation.

Print media has also flourished, albeit to a lesser degree. Nigeria's indomitable press boasts more than 150 daily newspapers and thousands of weeklies. Tanzania, a former bastion of African socialism, has nearly 20 morning and afternoon dailies and a plethora of non-daily periodicals. No doubt, mass media have permanently altered Africa's political landscape.

Globalization has also left an indelible imprint on Africa's media history. Through promoting communication technologies and a global exchange of media content, African media have been thrust onto the global platform through innovations such as the Internet. Almost all African media organizations, regardless of their editorial stance or political affiliation, have an online presence and regularly update their content. Content is heavily globalized, so much so that even what is considered local content is heavily influenced by the international context.

Essentially, a typical African radio station is a microcosm of the political economy of global communications: a lively mix of entertainment and information, digital production systems and sophisticated (maybe even satellite) transmission capability. As the signal goes out to highly discerning local audiences, it is also streamed to audiences in the African diaspora via the Internet.

"The emerging reality"

The radio-web simulcasts would be world-class if it were not for connectivity hurdles in many African countries. But connectivity is expected to improve when several major submarine optic cable systems on the eastern and western seaboards of Africa are completed. The optic cable systems are cheaper than their satellite communications alternatives, and are expected to dramatically reduce the cost of both connectivity and telephony.

The initial ownership models were small, independent operations dotting the continent's mediabarren landscape, but this, too, is changing. The emerging pattern is one of concentrated ownership and even conglomeration. In Kenya, for instance, the largest media firms have operations across multiple media platforms. Cross-media ownership is also evident in South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania and Nigeria. …