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Why meaningful content matters

Opinion
There is definitely an interesting dynamic occurring at the intersection of journalism and entrepreneurship - where many hybrid new media makers like myself operate.

Producers of my sort are enabled by the plethora of digital tools and platforms that make it possible for anyone with internet access, ideas worth sharing and a fair amount of persistence, to build and monetise audiences in unprecedented ways.

In December 2013 I was at a crossroads in terms of which direction to take my broadcasting career.

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Andile Masuku

Four years of working both in front of the camera and behind the scenes at the early primetime business advice show, “It’s My Biz", which aired on South Africa’s eTV channel, had just come to an end.

My options were as follows: to use my business degree and brand management experience to land a job in the corporate world; pursue a traditional broadcasting career as a journalist, presenter, writer or producer at a leading TV network or radio station; or to throw myself into creating and curating niche content for digital platforms of my own inception. Needless to say, I went with the third option and committed myself to cultivating highly-engaged communities around digital properties built from the ground up.

Within that genre, the AfricanTechRoundup.com portal is easily the most successful new media platform I have had a major hand in building. After just two years, the Africa-focussed tech and innovation podcasts published on the site have become staple fare for a global audience. No small thanks to reputable media publishers syndicating this content, those podcasts are now eagerly downloaded every week by people all around the world.

Pleasant surprise

While I can honestly say that podcasting was never a casual pastime for me, in many respects, the breakout success of the African Tech Round-up podcast, in particular, came as somewhat of a pleasant surprise, and it has inspired me to try to reflect on some of the lessons I have so far learnt on this new media adventure.

A few years ago, when South African radio personality, Ian Fraser, aka Ian F, introduced me to a popular podcast called Startup - produced by Gimlet Media, he suggested that I create a story-telling podcast of my own.

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A month after he gave me that idea, I bought my first microphone and started taping interviews with inspiring entrepreneurs whose work I admired. A few months into doing that, I ventured into using the mic to tell my own stories. As I did that, I started to catch on to the commercial potential of my efforts. The African Tech Round-up podcast concept was birthed.

Lesson One: Experimenting with digital tools is never a waste of time.

Like many podcast fanatics, I love how disarmingly endearing and "human" podcasting is, as a form of communication. In this digital age of über-choreographed media production, the candidness and deliberate randomness of podcasting can be like an oasis in the desert. By comparison, traditional radio is, at best, a passive accompaniment to life - weighed down by alienating professional and commercial obligations.

The relationship between a podcaster and an audience, on the other hand, is a far more intimate affair. Podcast hosts talk rather than present what’s on their minds, and there is a trust that characterises that dynamic in a way not dissimilar to the trust that exists between a theatre audience and actors on the stage.

Overall, podcast audiences tend to look for a certain level of vulnerability in their host that is pretty much impossible to capture or deliver in linear, commercial audio formats.

Growing community

Also, without any of the traditional time constraints associated with radio, and free of jarring commercial interruptions, podcasting provides storytellers with the freedom to communicate more fluidly and authentically. Happily, there is now a growing community of highly experimental producers around the world who have embraced the opportunity to shun audio industry norms and figure out how best to connect with their audiences within the digital context. The result? Rich, meaningful content which puts good storytelling first.

As corny as it may sound, every time someone chooses to listen to a podcast I host or produce, they get roped into the ongoing story of my life. You see, I spent part of my childhood in the Philippines, in the 90s, where I got called "chocolate boy" by mean children and struggled to "feel normal" amidst flawed stereotypes reinforced by films like The Gods Must Be Crazy. That’s why one of the main reasons I believe it’s important to produce podcasts featuring African voices is because we simply can’t trust non-Africans to accurately represent our interests on the world stage, or expect them to adequately articulate our values and convictions. This, I say not with a chip on my shoulder, but simply as a matter of fact.

Lesson Two: No matter how digital the world gets, clinging to our humanity and leveraging digital to share authentically will always leave us in good stead.

I am often amused at how new media ventures are perceived as “easy” to launch and operate. In fairness, when I first entered the podcasting arena, I too woefully underestimated how hard it would prove to be to consistently produce compelling content, and how difficult it is to “be yourself” on the mic.

Lesson Three: The old adage rings true - nothing worth doing is ever easy. Success in the digital media arena goes to the persistent and the patient.

Here’s the rub, though. As long as web access remains a luxury most Africans can’t afford, podcasting along with all other new media broadcasting ventures are, in fact, more elitist and exclusionary than mainstream media platforms that are often criticised for failing to embrace the democratisation potential of the internet, and condemned for having dubious political and commercial affiliations.

For most Africans, accessing podcasts, or indeed any other web-based new media content, is not nearly as frictionless an activity as tuning into free-to-air radio.

Lesson Four: It’s okay to be bullish about digital trends, but it’s important to remain humble to the realities that shape the diverse, real-world experiences of African consumers found in various markets across the continent.

Finally, my interactions with a significant number of potential media-making talents in Africa have led me to conclude that there are too many content creators who are only willing to create digital content when there is a significant commercial incentive to do so - despite having the time and resources necessary to get it done.

I believe it’s time those of us with the means seized the opportunity to make the most of this unprecedented wave of digital disruption sweeping the traditional media industry.

Those concerned about the sustainability of accepting that charge must realise that the future will inevitably yield cheaper mobile data, more widespread internet use on the continent, and hence, more sizable digital audiences - audiences that commercial interests will definitely be keen to influence. In the meantime, what we need is more men, women, boys and girls creating meaningful digital content for its own sake.

Otherwise, we may very well wake up a few years from now and look back on the chance we blew to tell our own stories, build our own platforms and cultivate engaged communities online.

Lesson Five: Just get on with it.

Andile Masuku is a broadcaster and entrepreneur based in Johannesburg. He is executive producer at AfricanTechRoundup.com. Follow him on Twitter @MasukuAndile and The African Tech Round-up @africanroundup.

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