Breaking into radio and television is ridiculously tough, the industry is cutthroat. This holds true not only at a national level but university level too. Consider the case of a South African university with 5000 students (conservative estimate), the university radio station club will have say upto 50 active members. That translates to approximately 1% of the student population, leaving so much potential radio talent untapped and undiscovered.
Considering my personal experience, the first university I attended did not have a radio station during my era. However, some friends and I attempted to put together a podcast show and unfortunately the rigmarole of getting approval from the university administration stopped us dead in our tracks. The next university that I then enrolled into did have a radio station which I auditioned for, but unfortunately the demands of my studies did not afford me the luxury of time to make a meaningful contribution thereof. However, both of these experiences did lead me down a path of questioning whether something could be done to tap into undiscovered university radio talents, bypass the formal structures and admin that are part and parcel of traditional university radio stations as well as create curated online content available on demand.
In the years that followed, the seed had been planted – I had some chats with close friends about various talk show ideas and content distribution models. Most of these conversations seemed to drift towards creating a central platform that would be home to a number of curated shows. In the midst of these conversations and reflections, that is when I had an ‘aha’ moment and the idea of Varsity Podcasts was birthed – an inter-university, online talk radio (podcast) platform, home to various university focused shows. Whilst the idea was still fresh and vivid, I immediately purchased the domain name www.varsitypodcasts.co.za, on 2nd October 2014, 1:25am to be exact. This was just but the beginning.
Why is Varsity Podcasts only being unveiled now, if the domain name was purchased just over two years ago? Timing. Why timing? Since the concept of Podcasting was not as established or as big in South Africa as it was overseas, I was hesitant that an online podcast platform for university radio in South Africa would be ahead of its time. Launching Varsity Podcasts now does not necessarily imply that now is the right time or that there are no hesitations. I doubt one can ever have absolute certainty whether the time to launch is perfect but one can also not wait indefinitely. In addition to this, recent developments in the South African media landscape do suggest that podcasting and online radio is finding its place in South Africa (e.g. CliffCentral and Niche Radio) and that does give a sense of reassurance.
After the purchase of the domain name, the reality kicked in about the planning and effort required to get the Varsity Podcasts cog wheel turning. Coming up with ideas is easy, the execution is where the hard work and magic lies. Over the course of 2015, the branding for Varsity Podcasts, brainstorming of the show ideas as well as the initial design of the website were commenced. Once the initial branding and foundation work was complete, the crux of the matter was ready to be tackled – the recording and producing of the podcast shows. It was evident that it was time to grow the Varsity Podcasts team in order to move forward.
During the last weekend of May 2016, I took a road trip with some friends to a weekend long camping, music and arts festival in Mahlanya, Swaziland – The Swaziland Bushfire Festival. This was meant to be a getaway from the daily hustle and bustle of work and routine in Cape Town but it proved to be much more than a getaway. I re-connected with an acquaintance I had met the previous year in Cape Town, Miss Tinashe Kushata. It was rather ironic that we had to travel 1800 kilometres to re-connect. We sat by the campsite catching up and in the midst of the various conversations, I talked about Varsity Podcasts. The rest was history, when we got back to Cape Town, we chatted in more detail about Varsity Podcasts over coffee and Tinashe joined the team. Having Tinashe onboard has been nothing short of epic, Varsity Podcasts gained momentum over the course of the second half of 2016 and a lot of this can be attributed to the much-needed gusto, accountability and structure that she has brought as well as some of the production work which she has taken on.
What is Varsity Podcasts
Putting together the various pieces of the puzzle, Varsity Podcasts is best described as an online platform that is home to quality and curated South African university based content in the form of talk shows (podcast format), targeted primarily at South African university students, staff and related stakeholders. Is Varsity Podcasts a replacement to the traditional model of university radio where each university has its own radio station? No, it is simply an additional choice of content to listen to that is available online, accessible on-demand and inclusive of all South African university communities. Distribution of the shows on Varsity Podcasts will primarily be via the website and complementary channels – SoundCloud, iTunes and Facebook page.
The debut show on the platform is The Research Report, which has been in the works over the last few months. This is a talk show aimed at creating awareness around research being carried out at postgraduate level in universities around South Africa, through interviews with the respective student researchers. In addition to creating awareness, the other objectives of the show are to stimulate the desire to pursue postgraduate research as well as demystify it as a whole. The target audience of The Research Report Show is undergraduate students aspiring to do postgraduate research, current postgraduate students, companies / donors involved in similar fields of research and related research stakeholders.
I am excited to announce that the Season One of The Research Report is ready! You can listen to the very first episode here – Research Report S1 E1 – Colourism (or if you prefer to first listen to the teaser episode released last week, you can find it here – Research Report S1 E0 – Teaser). It is exciting and equally nerve wracking to be releasing something into the public domain after having put in a significant amount of effort behind the scenes, but as innovation literature suggests, it is ideal to release and get feedback as early as possible. Season One of The Research Report Show features postgraduate students mostly from the University of Cape Town (UCT). Whilst this may appear to be contradictory to the “inclusive university” model that Varsity Podcasts is founded on, we deliberately chose to go this route because Tinashe and I have existing networks within the UCT student community. Tinashe is a current postgraduate student at UCT, I am a UCT alumnus and we both reside in Cape Town. This made the logistics and admin manageable and allowed us to keep our overheads at a minimum as we start out.
Apart from The Research Report Show, we have a handful of other shows that are on the drawing board for recording and production in the near future. In addition to this, we are also planning on tapping into some of the undiscovered radio talents within South African universities as we grow the team and add more shows.
A journey of a thousand steps starts with one. This is our first step, we have enjoyed the journey to date and look forward to enjoying the journey that lies ahead but most importantly, we hope to share it with the rest of South Africa.