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Is ethnic media becoming an endangered species?

HISTORIC: Choice FM as it was in its heyday

THE DEMISE of Choice FM as the pioneering black radio station has reignited debate on the future of ethnic media in Britain.

One of the most repeated criticisms and concerns from Voice readers has been the reason behind the sale of the station a decade ago.

From the moment the independent black-owned station passed into the hands of a mainstream company, many industry insiders felt the writing was on the wall in terms of it staying true to its black identity and playing the music and broadcasting the news that would matter to its core audience.

Choice FM founders Patrick Berry and Neil Kenlock have both spoken out against the Capital XTRA rebrand – which resulted in a number of longstanding black presenters losing their jobs. They have also been forced to defend their decision to sell the station in 2004.

PIONEERS: Patrick Berry and Ivor Etienne at the House of Commons

As with most businesses, it came down to the bottom line: financial viability. Unable to access the advertising budgets of multinationals, Berry and Kenlock lacked the investment necessary to take their venture forward.

Berry said: “From birth, we were being smothered. We were constantly on the back foot trying to survive as a commercial enterprise. It was always difficult for Choice FM and for the size of us we did well to last as long as we did.

Choice FM attracted numbers but it does not follow that if you have the audience, you will get the advertising. There are some audiences advertisers simply do not want. The big brands that our listeners gave their money to did not want them. If you don’t support their media products, that’s the message you are sending and it has been consistent.”

It is a situation all too familiar for other ethnic media in the UK, including this newspaper.

The Voice, established in 1982, remains Britain’s biggest-selling and longest-running black newspaper, which has survived despite the recession as well as rapidly changing industry trends that has put all print publications under pressure.

Other titles such as New Nation, published by the now-defunct Ethnic Media Group, was launched in 1996 but folded in 2009.

In a better position though is sister paper Eastern Eye, a popular weekly newspaper for the Asian community. It was bought by the Asian Media & Marketing Group and is still on the shelves.

Eastern Eye’s executive editor, Shailesh Solanki said: “There is always going to be a place for ethnic media. Our readers want to know what is happening in their own communities.

STRENGTH: Executive editor of Asian Media & Marketing Group Shailesh Solanki

“All media businesses are under pressure to adapt to the changes in the way we consume news and the challenge of how to make money from that, but ethnic media has to contend with getting corporates to recognise this market. They perhaps don’t understand it, so it becomes far easier to ignore it and simply hope messages placed in mainstream media will get through.”

Research published by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in 2012 valued the spending power of Britain’s black and ethnic minority consumers at £300 billion.

The report, entitled 2012 Multicultural Britain, found that these communities were often subjected to negative stereotypes or dismissed as being hard to target, when in reality they are upwardly mobile and aspirational. In other words, they make ideal consumers.

“Britain’s ethnic minorities are younger than the rest of the country, they are more urban, they are keener to buy and use new technology and their purchasing power is growing,” the report noted.

But it is not just print media that faces challenges.

With Choice’s departure digital station Colourful Radio, founded by Kofi Kusitor in 2006, is now Britain’s only legal and fully-licensed news and music station for the African and African Caribbean audience.

He told The Voice: “As a business it means we are getting more calls than we ever have done in terms of advertising but it’s a negative because it reinforces that the African Caribbean business is not valued enough. My view is that as a community we are partly to blame.

“We have been in this country for God knows how long and are still struggling. The Polish, for example, came yesterday and already have their own radio stations and television stations. We thought we had Choice when we didn’t and now we’re crying after Choice – it was sold a decade ago. We need to be focusing on building and supporting our own industry. We can’t always be pirates, we have to move on, we have to move up. Where are the investors in our community?”

He added: “If we enlist outside support, they come in and call the shots. It becomes their business. They paid for it.”

The Colourful Radio boss said that the idea of an ethnic media forum had been attempted several times, but failed to get off the ground. He added: “It has not worked, partly because we don’t even have the resources to be able to leave the office because we are so hands on. We really need investors inside the community to show their faces as well as getting advertisers to see our market as viable and that means creating more research to support that.”

He added: “We’ve had instances where advertising agencies have turned us away but when you go to the client, more often than not, it’s a different story. We bring them the audience they are looking for. We need to do an undercover investigation and I bet that would confirm what I’m saying.”

Solanki said he was supportive of calls for ethnic media to form an organisation to have a united voice.

“It makes it much easier to target big agencies. There is plenty to be said for strength in newspapers. Ethnic minorities do very well in this country and have a high disposable income. They need to recognise that,” he said.

STRATEGY: Akin Salami, chief executive of OHTV

Akin Salami, chief executive of OHTV – on Sky Channel which was launched in 2008, said: “We need to develop the ethnic media audience. The fact is ethnic media itself is fragmented, we don’t have one voice so we are carrion for vultures; easy pickings. When we need to act as one, we segregate ourselves into Jamaicans, Ghanaians, Nigerians and Ethiopians. We need to start seeing ourselves as one and find ways to have one vision for ethnic media. For TV, our channel and other similar channels go to producers and buy the same show, which is then broadcast at the same time. The audience does not know where to go. If we were strategic we could steer our audience. We haven’t trained them where to go yet. It has not become the industry it should be.”

According to Berry, the community and advertisers were the most valuable resources it had at its fingertips, whose full support could tip the balance.

“Advertising is one way to fund media,” he said. “There is also subscriptions, for example. If you like the product so much and love it so much, why not pay for it? You pay Rupert Murdoch x amount for Sky without question, but Murdoch is not the one who will give your children opportunities to become broadcasters.”


By Christopher Barnes

THE SILENCING of ethnic media, whether directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally cannot be good for societal development.

Advertising spend, and subscription revenue where applicable, constitute the lifeblood of both mainstream and ethnic media. Without financial support the richness and quality of content is undermined and, ultimately, the content and interest in said content vanishes. Moreover, ethnic, or niche content is usually more expensive to produce or source than mainstream, given its uniqueness, and so publishing or broadcasting ethnic content requires a great deal of investment.
The pressures of the current economy, has caused big advertisers to cut marketing budgets, which are then moved to media with larger audiences, forcing many media managers to abandon niche ethnic format in favour of popular mainstream formats to chase this shrinking pool of advertising dollars.

It is an easy guess however that ethnic audiences form a large part of the consuming public and should constitute a valuable segment for businesses big and small (ethnic or otherwise) looking to sustain or to grow revenue. These businesses need to continue investing in ethnic media to ensure their brand messages reach this audience most efficiently and, indirectly, to ensure that the media proprietors are able to keep the captive audience tuned in.

Economics aside, ethnic content and media plays an extremely important role of integration in society which cannot be overlooked. Showcasing ethnic content and the airing of important ethnic issues has an educational effect on all (again ethnic or otherwise) which encourages better understanding and an embracing of cultural differences. Ethnic media constitutes valuable tools for policy makers and community leaders to keep a finger on pulse of what is happening in their constituencies. It is with this in mind that government investment in ethnic media should remain a high priority lest they lose touch with an important segment.

As the parent of The Voice, it has always been and remains our view that we have an important role to play in education and integration within UK society. However, as a business organisation with shareholders to keep happy we can understand the decision taken by the owners of the radio station and feel that something must and should be done urgently to protect ethnic media lest others start to fall out and the ethnic voice which enriches the UK experience is silenced forever.

*Christopher Barnes is the managing director of the Jamaican-based Gleaner Company which bought full ownership of The Voice in 2004.

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