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An honest look back at radio amid Eusebius McKaiser sto...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

An honest look back at radio amid Eusebius McKaiser storm

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David L Smith is Executive Director of Okapi Consulting, a media organisation that sets up and manages radio services in zones of conflict and fragile states. He is founder of Radio Ndarason Internationale in the Lake Chad basin, Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Radio MINUSCSA (now Ndeke Luka) in the Central African Republic, Radio Bar-Kulan in Somalia, a former producer at Radio Netherlands and Radio Canada International, and former Station Manager and Head of programmes at Capital Radio. His radio career began as a journalist at Capital Radio after moving to Johannesburg from Zimbabwe, where he was a teacher.

The Twitter storm that erupted after the announcement that Eusebius McKaiser was leaving 702 reminded me of the toxic legacy apartheid has left in South African radio.

“What a joke, he is a disgrace,” This was as one of the kinder comments from “white” Twitter. Another: “How bad must the rest be if this is considered the best they had.” The word most often on Twitter to describe McKaiser was “racist”. To know what a real racist sounds like on radio, I’d advise you to tune into American stations that carry people like Rush Limbaugh and David Duke. McKaiser would slaughter them in a debate.

Whether I like Eusebius McKaiser or not is irrelevant. People listened, and shared their opinions, precisely because he could hold his own. What is the object of commercial radio? To attract as many listeners as possible, thereby maximising advertising revenue. People with opinions about McKaiser are generally listeners. If they have opinions and have not heard him, then what they think carries as much weight as most tweets.

McKaiser found himself in a familiar position in South African radio – a black man on a radio station that not so long ago was perceived as white, and one with a wider target audience not necessarily accepted by its old base of listeners.

In McKaiser’s case, it would be difficult to find a presenter in South Africa with a greater command of English. Sadly though, it doesn’t seem to help that he can run rings around these Jurassic listeners logically – instead, he’s their worst nightmare – smart, cheeky and dark. Having an opinion is more than enough for some listeners to label McKaiser as racist.

Let’s not forget the roots of radio in this country – radio was established expressly to be racist. Not counting the Bantustans (and I’ll get to that shortly), prior to 1994, the SABC had a monopoly on broadcasting. The SABC’s raison d’être was to divide and rule: it was an Us-and-Them entity. The white stations had a mission to help English-speaking listeners feel like they were in some sort of southern little Britain while Afrikaans-speaking listeners were soothed into believing that Orania extended from the Limpopo to Cape Agulhas.

For black South Africans, the SABC provided the option of listening to music in their respective languages while the spoken word programming had the intellectual depth of Bantu Education.

A well-developed network of FM transmitters was set up in the hope that black listeners would opt for the clear sounds of the tightly scripted SABC rather than the scratchy broadcasts on shortwave from the ANC’s Radio Freedom, the BBC, and other international broadcasters.

Eusebius McKaiser entered this dragon’s den when he took over from Redi Tlhabi, who also had to navigate shark-infested waters. The dragon is not as potent as it used to be; it’s more elderly now, but it’s still there.

The first small crack in the SABC’s monopoly on radio appeared in December 1979, with Capital Radio taking to the airwaves from Transkei, a Bantustan given phony independence by Pretoria. Capital Radio was allowed to exist in an effort to make this so-called independence look legit. Radio 702 and others would follow when Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei were given similar bogus status.

The first real chink in the SABC’s armour was when Tim Modise was hired in the late 1980s to present an evening programme on the new radio station for “urban” blacks – Radio Metro (now Metro FM). Modise introduced a talk format that his bosses staring at the Voortrekker Monument from the top floor of head office did not appear to notice. Until that time, if you were black and put in front of a microphone, it was to talk about music, sports, or read translations of the news bulletins that came from the Afrikaans or English services. I’m convinced that if his bosses had been listening from the start, Modise would have been fired. It was great radio on a bad radio service.

Capital and 702 were essentially modelled on white radio stations in the UK – Capital radio in Transkei, right down to the jingles, was a thinly-disguised version of Capital 194 in London. What set the Bantustan stations apart from the SABC’s white stations was their independent newsrooms – unlike the SABC, they didn’t have to abide by the rules and censorship set down by the Nationalist government. 

Apart from the news, however, which covered township violence, detention and torture, the banned ANC and other taboos not touched by the state broadcaster, Capital and 702 were essentially white stations, relegating the few black announcers to late night or early morning shifts – the ones that attract little advertising revenue. McKaiser, had he been old enough, would not have found a daytime slot on these stations.

The first real chink in the SABC’s armour was when Tim Modise was hired in the late 1980s to present an evening programme on the new radio station for “urban” blacks – Radio Metro (now Metro FM). Modise introduced a talk format that his bosses staring at the Voortrekker Monument from the top floor of head office did not appear to notice. Until that time, if you were black and put in front of a microphone, it was to talk about music, sports, or read translations of the news bulletins that came from the Afrikaans or English services. I’m convinced that if his bosses had been listening from the start, Modise would have been fired. It was great radio on a bad radio service.

The rabid response from white Twitterati to McKaiser’s decision to leave 702 was déjà-vu all over again – it brought me back to 1993, when, as station manager at Capital, I implemented a change in format at the Capital Radio with an Afritude. The changes included adding more music from South Africa and the rest of the continent to playlists, adding more news from the rest of the continent to news bulletins, introducing talk shows that included prominent guests from the ANC, PAC and other opposition groups, and, most important, putting black African presenters in prime time broadcasting positions.

Social media didn’t exist, but the changes we implemented provided lots of ink for the letters’ pages in the Durban papers – most not very flattering towards the new sound. Some of the old Capital staff quit immediately upon the announcement of the format changes – one DJ from the UK going so far as saying that he wasn’t prepared to work with “them”. 

Some DJs came to my office asking for individual headphones, telling me they didn’t want to wear those that the “new” staff members were wearing. Studio headphones are generally for communal use. The thought of putting on a pair of headphones that had been used by one of the new black presenters was a step too far for some of the old staff.

So yes, radio has come a long way since democracy was introduced, but the evolution is incomplete.  

Radio stations from the old days that remain on the air, including SAfm, 5FM, and Jacaranda still have to deal with comments such as “I can’t understand their accents” – well-disguised complaints about blacks replacing white presenters.

Kaya FM in Johannesburg is one of the stations licensed by ICASA since the end of the SABC monopoly in 1994 that is a good example of a commercial station that makes an effort to reflect the listenership within its broadcast footprint. 

Kaya includes content that sounds not only like the country it finds itself in, but also the continent it finds itself on, especially with the music it plays. There are, however, still a few kinks in the system – here’s one of them: far too often, I hear Kaya’s presenters referring to people, places and events as being “up in Africa”, as though Africa is a different continent. DM

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