This year marks the 100th anniversary of radio in South Africa, as the country celebrates the first experimental broadcast from Johannesburg’s Railway Headquarters on 18 December 1923. Despite threats from television and other media, radio has maintained its place as the most popular medium in the country. Up to 94% of South Africans over 15 own a radio set in some form, and millions of people listen to 40 commercial and public broadcast stations and over 250 community stations daily. However, the rise of digital audio platforms such as online radio and podcasts suggests that audio broadcasting will play a crucial role in the future of mass media in South Africa.

The increasing access to smartphones and better internet penetration has led to a growing number of South Africans turning to digital audio formats. According to a 2022 survey, 61% of respondents reported listening to online audio compared to 39% in 2019. In addition, podcasting is becoming more popular, cementing audio broadcasting in various forms as a key player in future mass media trends.

Online radio and podcasts should be viewed in the context of South Africa’s rich oral media history. Although radio was initially not intended to include broadcasts in indigenous languages, black people were eventually considered as a potential audience during World War II as part of efforts to gain the support of the majority black population. The first isiZulu broadcast in 1941 at the Durban studios of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) paved the way for the launch of numerous indigenous language radio stations, whose speakers became both listeners and content creators, using radio to express their voice in a society that had otherwise silenced them.

Despite the growth of digital audio formats, radio stations in indigenous languages continue to attract more listeners than English ones. A scan of some charts, such as Chartable, which claims to rank podcasts based on popularity, shows that the most widely heard podcasts in South Africa are not produced by South Africans, and all top 10 podcasts are in English.

The development of indigenous language podcasts, such as Epokothweni (“in the pocket” in isiXhosa) and iLukuluku (roughly translated as “curiosity” in isiZulu), marks a significant milestone in the South African media landscape. These productions deal with topics such as personal finance, science, technology, and the arts and serve as repositories of indigenous knowledge systems, drawing on folklore, proverbs, and idioms to articulate key messages. However, the digital divide in African contexts means that citizens do not benefit equally from the technology, and the uptake of digital platforms will continue to trail behind that of radio in South Africa.

Despite the challenges, studies predict that the monthly listenership of podcasts in South Africa could rise to 19 million by 2024, and current podcast listenership is estimated to be around 10% of the population, roughly six million people. As such, digital audio platforms will undoubtedly play an increasingly important role in the future of mass media in South Africa, serving as a means for marginalised communities to tell their stories and express their voices.