Open up radio

THE arrival of Power FM promises some exciting rivalry on the Gauteng radio scene as it goes head-to-head with Talk Radio 702 and Kaya FM for audience and the other big radio stations — such as Highveld and Jacaranda — for advertising.

Media coverage has focused on its programme line-up, which includes well-known voices such as Eusebius McKaiser, old hands such as Tim Modise and relative newcomers to the airwaves, such as Chris “Spin Surgeon” Vick. But don’t judge the new station by these names, as they will chop and change over the next six months as the station finds its voice. It has to experiment and find new presenters.

What is interesting is the experience and money behind the venture: the MSG Afrika Investment Holdings guys in the form of Given Mkhari, Simphiwe Mdlalose and Andile Khumalo. Mkhari and Mdlalose in particular have roots deeply embedded in radio. They started at Turf campus radio station at the then University of the North in the mid-1990s and have both been at it since then. (Full disclosure: MSG is a partner in TV production with my wife at Quizzical Pictures).

MSG popped up recently as surprise late bidder for struggling TopTV. But it was a strange deal, funded by the rival MultiChoice, and it probably had a lucky escape when it lost that bid.

Its Capricorn FM station in Limpopo is a roaring success, with almost 1.5-million listeners, making it one of the biggest of the regional stations. Okay, they were homeboys there and now they are moving to a major market. They had little competition up north and now they are taking on the big players.

They know what they are doing in radio and they claim to be throwing a hefty R80m into the battle. Industry salaries are rising as they buy talent from other stations. Word has it that they have taken 28 people from Primedia, the owner of 702 and Highveld. Hopefully, the news station will introduce a new, urban voice, a contrast to the sometimes suburban sound of 702. It won’t be easy: 702 is one of the biggest brands in the country and its parent company, Primedia, is a formidable broadcaster.

Kaya is also well established with a black middle-class listenership.

Power FM will have a tough year or two ahead, but I expect it to flourish in the long run.

South Africans are loyal radio-station listeners. But this is likely to change as options open up. When we get tired of one talk station going on about Parkhurst parking or driving with your lights on, we will be able to switch to another.

SAfm lurks in the background somewhere, lost in the quagmire of the SABC.

The one surprise is that Power FM is saying little about news and its website barely mentions it.

Is this because 702’s Eyewitness News is so strong? Talk stations are driven by live, breaking news, and they have to take this on.

Another of 702’s strengths is that it sometimes seems to be the country’s best community radio.

It has a strong sense of its audience and what its issues are, and is quick to take them on, showing that sometimes commercialism is best practised through public service.

I love the slogans on the Power FM website: “We’re not hoping for change, we’re implementing it”; “We’re not knocking on the door, we’re sitting at the table”; “We are not striving for power, we’re passing it on”. Great attitude. If that comes through on air, then this is going to add a lot to our city.

But what is exciting here is the enrichment of diversity in an area where the authorities have the power to open up to more media ventures. If only the regulator would throw more licences into the pool.

At the moment there is no space for the small entrepreneur to enter radio: you either have to have a big stash of cash, or grapple with the unworkable complexities of community radio, with all its trusts and obligations and regulatory demands and restrictions. How exciting would it be if low-power licences were issued all over the place, allowing small operations to open up and bring more new voices into the field?

*This first appeared as a column in Business Day, 20 June 2013

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