Opinionista Vanessa Levenstein 13 August 2020

Survivor lockdown story: Music radio station strikes a chord to bring harmony into storm-tossed lives

Media globally are in crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the industry hard. Fine Music Radio, a plucky Cape-Town based community radio station, is attempting to weather the storm through loyal listener support.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” WB Yeats wrote The Second Coming in the aftermath of World War 1, and interesting for our times as the poem is connected to the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. As Covid-19 envelops its tentacles around the globe, the loss of lives, income and normality has kicked us off-centre. So where do we find our balance and seek a positivity bias, without becoming Pollyanna in a mask with blinkers?

Fine Music Radio 101.3 FM (FMR) is the only radio station in the Western Cape that plays classical music and jazz. As a community station, they receive no funding and survive on advertising revenue and donations. Lockdown has dropped a heavy curtain on the entertainment industry. As long as concert halls, theatres and performance venues are closed, FMR’s main source of advertising revenue remains snuffed out.

Many an insomniac will know the trick of turning the radio dial to white noise, which has a soporific effect. However, the intention of FMR is to soothe listeners through beautiful music, not through an ambient waveform. The station’s board and management are cognisant of the fact that without funds, the sounds of Mozart, Beethoven, Sinatra and Masekela will be replaced by the hiss of an abandoned radio frequency.

Fine Music Radio’s Station Manager Mark Jennings is unapologetic in his uncompromised belief in the station: “In times of crisis we have one chance to prove ourselves, and that time is now.” So began an appeal to FMR’s 113,000 listeners to become members and make donations. Among the bottles of methylated spirits, hand sanitisers and makeshift microphone gloves (flimsy packets used to pack fruit and vegetables) FMR played on.

In fact the very name PLAY ON! has become a weekly feature on FMR in which local musicians’ pieces are played and stories are told. Broadcasting from the now empty Artscape Theatre Centre on Cape Town’s Foreshore, the team is all too aware of the lockdown implications for not only the station but the industry as a whole. FMR’s daily events calendar has simply replaced live with virtual events. The station has offered public service announcements to numerous organisations including the Theatre Benevolent Fund, feeding schemes and NGO health institutions.

In four months the membership base increased from 2% of our listeners to 3% and donations poured in resulting in a boost of R1.1-million. This has helped the station survive the catastrophic loss of advertising revenue.  Mark Jennings deconstructs it:

“‘Unprecedented’ has become the buzzword when describing the pandemic, however we’re grateful it can now be used in a positive context. We believe this display of audience loyalty is unprecedented in the history of broadcasting in South Africa. The messages we receive all have a similar sentiment. In this time of uncertainty, FMR is keeping listeners sane. The music, which has survived for centuries, continues to provide nourishment and sustenance. There is a perfect anecdote to illustrate this. When DStv Audio Channel 838 went down one evening from 11pm to 6am we received a number of enquiries from our listeners. They weren’t angry, but they were bereft, they were worried that they had lost their radio station to the pandemic.”

“Bereft” and “loss” are words normally associated with grief and mourning. Yet the power of music is so vital, so intangible it resonates to the very core of our existence.

In July 2016, Fine Music Radio presenter Rodney Trudgeon interviewed the late Denis Goldberg. Denis told the story of how every night for 20 minutes all 3,000 prisoners in death row would sing freedom songs and Denis would play the melodies on his recorder: “It was a remarkable experience,” Denis explained, “somehow the emotion you are feeling gets into the way you play a note, and it taught me more about listening to music.” 

The majority of people will, thankfully, never experience the salvation music offers on death row. But in our non-equitable society when disaster strikes we all have vastly different resources to deal with the crisis and aftermath.

Fine Music Radio is not claiming to be society’s elixir. Their mandate is to offer calm in the chaos and play the world’s most beautiful music. Radio is largely accessible and transformative; a simple FM radio can unlock concert halls with virtuosi performers.

 “We are not out of the woods,” says Jennings. “Every month we need to start from scratch and go back to our community and ask for their support. Until our advertising revenue picks up this is our lifeline. In turn it’s our responsibility to support charitable causes and champion the arts.”

Yehudi Menuhin said: “Music creates order out of chaos: for rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent, melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous.”

The onus is on us to ensure that the pandemic does not turn Yeats’ poem into a prophecy. By claiming ownership of Fine Music Radio, the listeners have set their own tone. Their commitment to the stations’ sustainability is a commitment to a world where order, beauty and harmony prevail. DM

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