The baby and the bathwater
The year was 2010, we were faced with a dilemma in Rwanda media. How could we get rid of the bathwater without throwing out the baby? The Baby was the nascent Rwandan media, the bathwater was all the tabloid rags doing rounds on the streets; the Umu’s, Umuseso, Umurinzi, Umurabyo and so forth. It was a Rubik’s cube of a puzzle, to close down press with all the outrage in Western media, while plotting a way forward for Rwandan media. In the end, it was asking the wrong questions, these tabloids were on their last legs anyway, they were not the future, yet they formed the basis of Rwanda media policy going forward. The bathwater was thrown out, but the baby would be left to fend for itself, to self-regulate, the sector was not ready to regulate itself but the Rwandan Government did not want to regulate media directly. Therefore, so many problems have arisen since that could not have been anticipated, Rwanda media has largely stagnated in the time since, and we have been unable to solve the structural issues dogging our industry. I would also venture that this was to the Government’s detriment, having a weak internal media industry has harmed the government. Instead we chose to outsource our media to mostly Foreign publications, with planted or paid for stories that give us a hit of heroin until we need to do that again. We could have had a local media generating these stories organically, we have spent millions of dollars that could have gone to develop a local media industry. For the media, we also should not feel entitled to government funding, but we must solve the problems affecting us.
Since 2010, we have seen the slow death of Rwanda media, zombie stations with just a playlist, one-man bands all over the place. We have lost all the best, all the best journalists are now some PR for an NGO earning $1,600 per monthplus benefits. Why take all the risk of being a journalist; being arrested, harassed, not being paid, getting ostracized, and all for what? The Greater Good? So I bump into a great journalist at the lights, “Where have you been?” She points to a baby seat in the back. The world of journalism was too unstable to raise a family, better to take the NGO job, with the paid holidays, travel, benefits, school vouchers and a RAV-4. PR took over, companies would pay plenty to have positive coverage, individuals would pay to be interviewed, the focus switched away from the Reader/listener/viewer to the subject of the interview. Now sales and clicks didn’t matter, just what they were willing to pay. All this time we have had growth in terms of numbers, more stations, more publications, now digital TV stations but no real growth in professionalism, in content creation, in standards, we are spreading the little we have very thinly. A station owner bragged to me that it made $3,000 a month, a much better station makes $9,000 a month, even the best barely make more than that. How can you run a good newsroom, sales team, marketing team, DJ’S, presenters, researchers, reporters, on that money. We have 37 stations, that is past saturation point, most are for Kigali only, 37 stations for 1.3m people. We have 90% of Rwanda mostly served by the government station Radio Rwanda, in these other stations there is just “Katogo” music and talk, no specialized programs, no product differentiation, just copy cats on copy cats. There should be forces of consolidation at work, mergers and acquisitions, forming Syndicates, partnerships, and overall cooperation, but nothing of the sort. The market continues to fragment and is not enticing to media investors because of the Cowboys in the market, people who are untrained but trying out their luck. Cowboys are happy with diminishing returns.
There was a time not long ago when Radio stations all made huge profits, many have seen revenues drop by 75%, the market is too saturated, government cut its ad buys, private sector has also reduced ad buys and many prefer direct marketing via social media, where they can get instant feedback and also provide customer service. Many radio stations put all their hopes in TV, but they are just producing radio with pictures. They quality of their pictures shows this, no professional cameramen, lighting, sound, make-up, electricians, wardrobe, producer, scriptwriter, director, and presenters trained in media. They use amateurs and enthusiasts, they exploit them for a short while and exploit another. Radio stations now pay in “exposure” but we can’t eat it, I do 2 hrs radio a week for free, I’m told I can “leverage” it into something else. Even commentators in football have to pay the bills “the best milk, cake and Fanta bikonje is at Mama Fils at Kimironko market, hmmm, so nice. Neymar with a shot!!!! Goooooooal !!!!!!!!” you are expected to pay yourself. This is how our cowboys have stayed in business, by not feeding the cow, just driving us to market for less and less. As long as the meager returns can pay the owners lifestyle of 2m+ they are fine because their salary is untouched.
Lack of investment
This is the biggest obstacle to investment in Rwanda media, the government has a dim view of media, instantly suspects anyone before you even start. It doesn’t matter if you have forensic evidence in Rwanda to back up your story, it is not true until the Government accepts it is true. A simple fact like “The sky is blue” might be obvious to some, but if you were to state such a fact before the Government accepts that the sky is indeed blue, then you can face prison. Look at the Story of Hunger and famine in Eastern Province last year, local journalists who reported it were harassed till the story died down. Only for the President to castigate the local officials for denying and pretending there was no problem. The truth is that the power of government even extends to local officials who have strong backers in central government that can kill a story. It is easier to make a story go away than it is to fix it, journalism is a losing game in Rwanda. This requires a gesture of goodwill by the government, to openly encourage investment in the media. Many big Rwandan companies want to invest in a media wing, they have to capital to start professional stations in Rwanda but they fear contagion. Imagine you invest $2m in a media empire then just one little story by a junior staffer brings down your entire company, and this contagion spreads to all other arms of your business empire. It is too risky, hence we have these cowboys who can thrive in the Wild Wild West of Rwanda media. We also need a business code of conduct for the media, a media investment code, copyright law enforcement, and direct investment in a media college. We also need a cessation in issuing new Radio and TV licenses, it is devaluing the media industry, any new entrant will have to buy out an existing company. Compel the existing media companies to work together in networks, raise the price of owing a radio/TV station, or at least set standards required in technical staff. Most Rwanda TV stations belong on YouTube where it is free to broadcast. Let us get down to 4 networks, consolidate the market, increase audiences and revenue.
Owners need to evolve
The entry barriers to media in Rwanda were set very low, one can chose between buying a car or opening a TV station, it is that cheap. Costs have been continually dropping that offset the loss in ad revenue. This led to the saturation of the market, huge reduction in ad buys because smaller audiences just weren’t viable. Saturation leads to duplication, lack of specialization, lower skills levels, exploitation of workers, it becomes a race to the bottom. Saturation also stops outside investment, investors do not mind a small market, a small market can grow into a huge market, but a saturated but small market is like a pond of piranha. We have to work on the reduction of stations, to have more regional coverage, smaller broadcasters cannot afford reporters in every district. If we stop issuing new licenses then their values go up to whatever the market price is, owners can sell out for higher. For the ones that remain, you need networks, there is no radio or TV station in the West that stands alone, all are part of a network. This helps increase audience, bargaining power of media is increased with larger markets, it reduces costs as well, less duplication, more specialization and more professionalism. Instead of having an accountant for each, you now share, you share HR dept, publishing and clearing, sound tech, cameramen, all these can be shared and somehow you collectively get the staff you need. Consolidation is so important for our survival, especially in a small market, but there are factors stopping consolidation, mainly the easy purchase of licenses, we should even review if some existing license holders qualify to hold one.
- Stop issuing TV and Radio licenses, the digital switchover assumed that frequencies are infinite, but the attention span of listeners/viewers can be overwhelmed with too much mediocrity. For Frequency owners, it increases the value of stations. It will mean new investors will have to co-invest, or buy out current owners. The amount of money for investment is limited, so we cannot have 37 stations all standing alone, each taking minute shares of the market. Radio Rwanda still has 80% of the audience most of the time.
- Make Radio and TV form networks, the reason for networks is to increase audience for ad buys. You sell an audience of 2m and now you have a viable proposition. Let us have 3-4 Networks, even with 37 stations but in networks. Adverts would be synchronized across the Network, say at :13mins, 27mins, 42mins and 57mins on the hour. A total of 12 minutes per hour. Revenue is shared across the network according to ratings. The results will be instant; more ad buys, better quality of ads which have be properly designed and focus-polled using metric data.
- Once stations are in a Network, there is no point duplicating the same thing over and over. Some stations will move to rural areas as part of this Network and to smaller towns as well. Content will have to be much more varied to fit the various segments. One station can be Pop music only, another News and Talk, another Educational providing lectures, another doing religious content. The news becomes more varied, both in region and content. News in Rwanda is 90% Kigali based, yet events are unfolding all over the country, the audience is 90% outside of Kigali.
- Exclusive deals – turn on the radio and you can find 5 stations all commentating the same game, all doing it badly, unprofessionally, lying to their listeners, their commentary has nothing to do with what is on the screen. We should sell the rights to the EPL on the Radio, let only one station get it, then they can get the ad revenue, then we can have professional coverage not semi-drunk guys jerking around. Rwanda football League, Basketball, any sport should have exclusive rights bought, not random coverage.
- Outsourcing News – we can have a Rwanda Independent News agency, where several stations outsource their news to a company that provides bulletins across networks. It allows smaller stations to fulfill their public service remit. It allows for better news as an agency can have reporters everywhere and just send in News, Sport, Weather, traffic updates, public service announcement and have them across a joint network. This allows pop stations to just do pop, or if it is a talk show, you can focus on your content exclusively without the distraction of hourly bulletins.
- Setting content quotas – due to poor regulation of our digital TV we have stations that just show content illegally all day without paying copyright. All day, even new movies are screened illicitly, Black Panther was showing for free when Century Cinema paid for the right to screen it. These TV stations are just a 24 Replay machine. No one is developing local gameshows, quiz shows, comedies, soap operas, lectures, news analysis, human interest, science. It is just a morning talk show “Radio with Picture” then they just link up the Hard Drive and play western stuff without paying. These TV stations are not fulfilling their obligation to create local content, they don’t have the inclination, the money, the skills, or the IMAGINATION. That is why I’d advocate revoking most of them. Local content must be 75% of content on air. Movies shown must be paid for, because we’ll get sued, and those who want to buy rights legitimately are put off by the lack of enforcement of law.
- Set standards – we just set a price to buy a license but we left standards behind. Let the criteria be technical, workers must be skilled, paid a minimum wage, worked only a certain number of hours. Standards can be set in numbers and metrics, equipment, skill level.
- Set up a Media College – we shd have a media college with at least 2,000 students a year. Not these little media courses with 20-30 people. We need to train so many skills; journalism, camera, sound, make-up, editing, producing, special effects, around 200 different skills. We say that Africans must tell our story, we don’t have the tools, telling our story is not just standing and shouting, it requires skills. If we had a big media college then Rwanda becomes the center of African media, we sit on the cusp of Francophone and Anglophone and could cater for both markets.
- Media Park – set up a facility where media companies, content providers, skilled workers, can set up shop at an affordable cost. This can attract media companies from all over the world. This only happens when you have a skills base, when you’ve built a media college and you have a large pool to choose from. Media can make billions for Rwanda, with our fast internet, livable city, no power cuts, we already have a headstart on many regional rivals.
The government of Rwanda cannot blame lack of skills for bad journalism in Rwanda, it is their duty to teach these skills. How can you blame a child who was never taught? If we had bad engineers, we would open a better Engineering school, we need to invest in media skills to actualize the vision we have for Rwanda. Let us begin a dialogue on the way forward, discussing how to mitigate political risks of investing in Journalism and media, the saturation of the market, the lack of content, the localization around Kigali, the lack of ad buys, the high costs of running, and all factors affecting media. I believe the only answer is consolidation, setting egos aside and working together for a bigger pie, it can be syndication, mergers, affiliation, but we need to pull together. We need to stop issuing new licenses, to increase the market value of frequencies, to force consolidation and end the “ever diminishing returns” games. We need a signal from government that media is a viable industry to invest in. We need investment in skills and training to equip us with tools to tell our story. We need to see media as central to our development, a media company with 100 workers can bring in billions of dollars if the content is right. We need a common sense approach to media.