In the United States, the recent podcast explosion has led to a renaissance for auditory news and commentary. But in South Africa, radio never ceased to be fundamental.
“Radio remains easily the most important medium in South Africa and on the broader continent,” says Franz Kruger, director of the Radio Academy at Wits University in Johannesburg and a professor of journalism at the same institution. “Because it is cheap, easily multilingual, immediate and flexible, it continues to be the most important source of information for millions of people.”
This is confirmed by the latest census data. Nearly 68 percent of households owned a radio in South Africa in 2011; the proportion of households with internet access was little more than half that, at 37.5 percent.
More recent figures indicate “the adult radio audience is around 85 percent of the adult population,” says Kruger.
Radio’s reach is not without problems: during the 2014 Ebola crisis “a lot of misinformation traveled on radio,” says Peter Cunliffe-Jones, executive director of Johannesburg-based fact-checking site Africa Check.
Radio’s centrality to the South African media context and role in spreading misinformation has meant Africa Check has long sought to work on the medium. Last Thursday, they launched a weekly segment on radio station Power FM.
A more constructed build-up to the claim and its rating could help make the fact-checking clearer, but both Rappetti and Wilkinson hope to build on the format to make it most engaging for radio.
Still, the potential for a segment like this was evident in the interaction between fact-checker and listeners.
One listener called in to note that he thought the Democratic Alliance’s figures on unemployment in the municipality of Midvaal checked out because “I have some family members living there and most of them are actually employed.”
Wilkinson responded by acknowledging the importance of personal experience but stressing that anecdotes are context, not universal facts: “We like to say the plural of anecdotes isn’t data.”
Rappetti told Poynter that while it is easy for radio hosts to focus on “sexier stuff,” she was keen to host a fact-checking segment as a way to enrich public discourse.
She noted that radio allows critical interaction with listeners: “Often as journalists we claim we are the voice for the voiceless — but they have a voice and it just needs to be heard.”
Wilkinson and Rappetti hope to encourage listeners through the radio show to send in photos or other documentation that would help fact-check assertions made by local politicians. Already listeners have started sending claims they want fact-checked.
In addition to expanding the reach of its work, radio could thus ultimately serve Africa Check’s broader mission of encouraging citizens to do their own fact-checking.