Sustaining community radio stations

Financial sustainability is possible, but the most important ingredient for this to happen is that the development of community radio stations (CRS) has to be organic, arising from the community radio stations themselves


Sustainability is high on the agenda for community radio stations. With an international decline in donor funding, community radio stations are constantly searching for other ways of sustaining themselves. Some community stations are cooperatives and have raised funds through shares. Radio Lumbini in Nepal is a cooperative of 95 members who all bought one share of USD 40. Many stations also sell memberships, with members being offered the right to receive transcripts of popular programmes. Membership fees are collected by religious community radio stations of South Africa, which serve specific audiences (Christian or Muslim), and appeal to a sense of cultural identity. Audiences feel a sense of vested ownership, local advertising is easily obtainable, and the stations are thriving financially. Local churches raise money for the station, and local businesses owned by members of the religious community purchase advertising. This is a model that could be transferred to other geographically based stations as well.

The role of projects and partnerships

Projects can be effective in generating income and Bush Radio in Cape Town provides a good example. They run a daycare centre, a children’s radio programme, school outreach programmes on AIDS and drug awareness, and an alternative education programme for youth. All these are funded by local corporate entities. Many other stations have started such activities that subsidise their non-profit operations. Kothmale community radio plans to put unused land to work by building a greenhouse and growing saplings for sale to the community. Bush Radio also participated in several voter education programmes sponsored by the Netherlands Institute for South Africa (NIZA), and encouraged voter registration and political tolerance. Community radio can draw interest from community based organisations and NGOs, and partnerships could be developed whereby stations may then use the resources of these organisations to support their developmental programming.


Although commercial advertising often runs contradictory to the norms of community  media, it is often a valuable source of funds. In South Africa, community radio only attracted approximately R7 million (USD 1m) out of a total gross radio ad spend of about R795m (USD 113.5m). This certainly may have something to do with the ‘small’ audiences attracted by community stations. But it may also have to do with a perception that community radio is poor radio for poor people. Classified ads can be purchased by individuals, small groups, or businesses. Bush Radio runs an online Job Shop, where employment agencies pay a small fee to advertise. Memorials and similar messages could also be sent, as Nepal radio entertains condolences or other personal messages.

Social marketing

Many stations in South Africa focus exclusively on obtaining advertising, and so compromise their role as small media. These stations often emulate their commercial counterparts in order to compete for advertising with slick music driven programming. One alternative might be to explore revenue-generating opportunities based on the concept of social marketing. Social organisations, NGOs, and the government pay for production and/or airtime to create and run short social messages. When cigarette advertising was banned on electronic media in Nepal, the health ministry offered funds to stations to run health warnings about the dangers of smoking. Radio Sagarmatha and other stations in Kathmandu also ran short, creatively produced messages that were underwritten by a public health company, to create public awareness about HIV. In Chimoio, Mozambique, the day after a community radio station broadcast an interview with a person living with HIV, 32 people went to the voluntary testing and counselling centre – double the daily average.

Airtime sales and trade exchanges

Another strategy that has worked well for South African stations is airtime sales, where blocks of airtime were sold to another organisation. The local university law programme ran an on-air legal aid clinic; and the Institute for Democracy in Southern Africa (Idasa) slotted a programme on democracy and local governance. In these cases the presenters and producers would become members of the station, and receive technical training before going on- air. However, the station should make sure that the content does not come into conflict with the station’s principles. In cases where there is potential mutual benefit, media and business can barter or trade their services without any cash changing hands. Bush Radio runs trade exchanges with local newspapers