Ethnic minorities: If you're not in the mainstream, it's tough to stay afloat

These are bleak times for ethnic minority media as advertising agencies doubt their value and public sector revenue dries up. Jonathan Brown reports on the new body set up to fight back
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In 1951, a slim weekly digest of news and cricket results from the Caribbean's oldest newspaper arrived in Britain. The Weekly Gleaner, targeted at the Windrush generation, brought with it a sunshine taste of home for the new arrivals shivering in the austerity and overt racism of post-war London.

From these humble beginnings, the black and minority ethnic media were born. Today, black and Asian newspapers jostle for space on the newsstands. Bhangra and urban music stations ring out amid the babble of the digital airwaves, while African football results or the latest Bollywood news are just a remote control away. Society has travelled a long way.

Britain's ethnic minority media has a potential audience of 8 to 10 per cent of the population. After the high-profile pursuit of the pink pound and the grey pound, surely the race is on for the black or brown pound?

The leading players behind some of the most successful ethnic media brands would say - if only it were that easy. Firms are slowly waking to the potential, but many believe that non-mainstream brands are being let down by the media agencies and their clients. They are accused of having failed lamentably to understand the complexities of Britain's modern communities.

The other major problem facing ethnic media is that the often crucial public-sector advertising, which was once placed in big volumes by government departments and local authorities anxious to be seen as equal opportunities employers, is becoming increasingly scarce.

To overcome this, a new trade body will be launched at the House of Commons next Monday. The inaugural reception of the Multi-Ethnic Media Owners Association (Memoa) will be hosted by the culture minister David Lammy. He will argue that it is time that politicians engaged with all members of the media in an attempt to "plug into all our communities".

Memoa was the brainchild of Glen Yearwood, a second-generation Caribbean social entrepreneur who, from his office in Brick Lane, has been helping arts institutions shake off their white, elitist image. Memoa will lobby leading UK advertising executives and promote the "ethnic consumer success story".

Yearwood believes advertisers are wrong in believing they can reach ethnic minorities, and the burgeoning non-white middle class, through mainstream media alone. "We are as complicated as the middle class you will find anywhere in Middle England. But advertisers are struggling to understand these tenets of modern Britishness," he says.

To illustrate the point, he reveals his own media preferences; BBC Radio 4's Today programme in the morning, the Financial Times on Saturday and reggae music on satellite TV on Sunday.

Yvonne Wilks, the deputy managing director of GV Media Group, which owns the Gleaner and in 2004 bought out the struggling Voice newspaper, says the ethnic-minority media offer a more authentic voice to their readers, and so offer advertisers a unique platform.

"It is the same rationale as for specialist magazines. If I really want to know what the latest lipstick is, I don't look in the Daily Mail, I buy Vogue. That is the whole point of discrete editorial magazines - for advertisers, you are buying into a unique environment."

Surjit Singh Ghuman founded his Panjabi radio station five years ago. He has struggled to convince the media companies even to sit down with him. He made his fortune in property, retiring in his early forties. Employing a mix of Panjabi music and mixed-language speech, his Panjab Radio is the leading station among Britain's Sikhs.

Broadcasting on digital via the Greater London 3 multiplex and Freeview, with core audiences in London and West Yorkshire, Panjab has a maximum reach of 400,000 listeners. Satellite brings it within earshot of a million people in India and Pakistan.

Still largely dependent on the support of the community he serves, Ghuman took his case directly to the advertisers, signing up Ford and Western Union. "When they look at what you have got to offer, they are happy to give us the business," he says.

However, securing further advertising might be affected by his reluctance to pay out £7,000 a month to Rajar, the industry body that measures the profiles and size of UK radio audiences.

Alistair Soyode of BEN television, a free-to-air channel launched in 2003 on the BSkyB platform, is also fighting shy of having his viewing figures confirmed by Barb. The company, which boasts that it was the only channel to broadcast the 2003 Nigerian presidential inauguration live, claims a potential audience of more than 30 million. Exact numbers are hard to come by, and Soyode favours anecdote: "If you ask 10 black people on the street what they watch, six or seven of them will say BEN. We even have viewers in Torquay and Cornwall."

For Saad Saraf, the managing director of Media Reach, the UK's oldest and biggest advertising agency, the debate has shifted significantly in recent years. "Twenty years ago, clients didn't want a black or Asian person next to their brand because they thought it would put people off buying it. Urban culture has changed all that; the success of black people in sport and music has created new icons," he says.

But he still encounters a failure of understanding among the agencies and the advertisers who like to "play safe" with their marketing spend. "Sometimes I go and sit in a meeting room and I am surrounded by white, middle-class executives, and I wonder, 'What planet have these people come from?'"

But the black and minority ethnic media need to raise their game too, he says. And, as usual in business, it all comes down to the bottom line. "We have to make out the business case. This is not a charity; we have to tell them they can get a return on their investment."