Talk in transition

Ask any former exile now to describe the changes they remember in the South Africa to which they returned in the early 1990s, and they will give you a short list, sometimes with only two items: Yeoville had become a mixed suburb. And there was talk radio.

Some returning exiles remember actually phoning each other in the evenings: “You must listen to this guy John Robbie on 702.”

“You can’t speak about ‘the blacks’,” Robbie would be thundering at a caller, “you can’t say the country is going to the dogs!”

Robbie’s Talk at Ten started on January 26 1990. A week later FW de Klerk announced he was releasing political prisoners and unbanning political organisations.

“The world changed,” says Robbie, “and we were living through those changes in history.”

There was a point when audiences had not yet seen change except for TV coverage of the release of political prisoners, return of some exiles and jubilation on the streets.
Talk radio made it possible for them to hear the change.

When the first legal political rally was planned in February 1990, Robbie and Alan Matthews went in search of an African National Congress leader to put on air.

“We were hoping for Nelson Mandela. This was before Shell House. The ANC offices were somewhere near The Star. We knocked on the door and Saki Macozoma asked if he could help us. We ended up getting Joe Slovo and Raymond Mhlaba, who had just been released after 27 years on Robben Island, on the show,” says Robbie.

The show was cathartic. “It produced a lot of anger. But Joe Slovo was so eloquent, so decent, so humorous. The excitement was palpable. It became clear I was talking to a legend.”

Olsen’s beer had sponsored the show. Afterwards, Robbie recalls, Slovo asked: “Any chance of a drink from the sponsor?”

They raided station head Stan Katz’s liquor cabinet. Slovo had seven whiskies that night, while Mhlaba drank champagne.

It was the show Robbie will never forget. It made him imagine a future without censorship.

Over at SABC’s Radio Metro, the lines to Tim Modise’s Jungle Fever were jammed in 1991. Where Robbie’s callers started out predominantly white (a demographic that is now 50/50), Modise’s initial audience was predominantly black. That too changed.

“Talk wasn’t the mandate of the station, it wasn’t formal, we went into it guerrilla fashion,” Modise remembers. He had, from Jungle Fever’s inception in 1991 and on shows he’d hosted even two years before that, been inserting information about human rights, health issues and legal matters.

Audiences silenced by years of apartheid culture were suddenly talking back. What had started as a music station quickly became such an important forum that the Congress of South African Trade Unions complained to the SABC that it was difficult for workers to participate because it was a morning show, on air in working hours.

Shortly afterwards, the Sowetan took an interest and the Sowetan Talk Radio Show was born. Hot issues were carried over into a daily column in the newspaper: debate became the news itself.

Modise’s most memorable show happened in the early 1990s when he bumped into Chris Hani. “I hauled him into the studio, unscheduled, and did a long live interview. It was immediately after the Bisho massacre.”

The response was electrifying. “The key thing about that era was we connected people who were excluded from the evolving political situation at the time to leaders they might otherwise never have known about, especially during the World Trade Centre talks,” says Modise. “We also provided a forum to discuss the conflict in the townships — sometimes as a result of mass action, later Inkatha Freedom Party/ANC violence.”

Both Robbie and Modise started inviting fierce debates on their shows. Robbie put up MK bomber Robert McBride on one show, and the following day racist killer Barend Strydom. “The reaction was so extraordinary. People had never heard McBride’s point of view; while Barend Strydom came off like a halfwit.”

Robbie ducked the verbal punches that rained in on him thick and fast. He developed the sharpest tongue on radio, against which few white right- wingers were able to make a coherent comeback. But then, he had to. “People forget just how reactionary early callers to talk radio were,” he says.

Modise, who had moved to the BBC and then to current affairs before hosting The Tim Modise Show on SABC in 1999, used an entirely different tactic with right-wingers. Instead of baiting them, he wooed them — listened to them, met with them, shook their hands, debated human rights.

This appealed to even the most conservative white audiences, who phoned in en masse. The most regular caller was a white supremacist named Eddie, from Ficksburg, who had taken part in the attack against the World Trade Centre. Eddie eventually admitted he’d been wrong and he even went on to make statements of support for Thabo Mbeki.

For Modise, this is proof that talk radio can make people change. “He is no longer Eddie of the AWB [Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging], just an eccentric person who is no danger to society,” he says.

It is undoubtedly this sort of approach that won Modise the 2003 International Jaime Brunet Prix, of which the Dalai Lama was a previous recipient, for the promotion of human rights.

Says Modise: “My personal growth and development have been shaped by society. There’s not much difference between what’s going on in me and what’s going on around me.”

In February 1998, when SAfm switched to talk format, an entirely different type of host entered the early-morning market. John Perlman, like Robbie, had previously presented sport on radio and fell into the early-bird anchor spot almost by chance.

Serious, politely spoken and from an activist family, he seemed an unlikely host. He didn’t have the witty repartee of Robbie — his current on-air rival — but he made the differences work for him. Within a few years, Perlman was seriously threatening 702’s morning audience. In part it was 702’s own fault. Baffled by the soaring ratings of both Yfm and Highveld, both running with music and light-chat combos rather than news and information, it briefly threw Gareth Cliff into the deep end to test drive a more youthful “fun” formula.

Perlman’s trademark is pleasantly taking his time with callers, carefully checking the pronunciation of their names (“Is that MulWAudzi or MuLAwudzi?”) and urging them to back up their opinion, not just air it. Robbie, on the other hand, moves in and out of issues more quickly. He runs, in his own words: “A fast-moving show, short, sharp, we bounce in and away — hopefully with a little bit of attitude.”

Unlike Robbie, Perlman’s focus is not audiences as much as story — hence his delight in the After 8 Debate, which allows for in-depth analysis. Where Robbie will always privilege a local issue over a foreign one, Perlman is happy to take local ears on a complex foreign journey, his only difficulty being how long the journey should be.

“How long do we run with Sheik Yussein, how long with Haiti? Sometimes we focus simply on what interests me. The phone-in aspect is just one component of the show,” he says.

So Perlman is more likely to try to establish why there were bombs in Spain, while Robbie will run with the landmines of local governance. Perlman will point out the need for a bridge between the United States and the Muslim world, Robbie the logistics of building a bridge over the railway at Kliptown.

But for both Perlman and Robbie, the most difficult show they’ve hosted was on the Middle East.

Robbie: “There was so much anger; we got e-mails from both sides, totally bizarre, like pre-1990 South Africa.”

Perlman: “The two sides are so utterly intractable. It’s just a war of words. I felt like a passenger on a ship in a storm, I didn’t feel I was making a contribution.”

Because Perlman entered the talk arena long after Robbie and Modise, his audiences are dramatically different. He too enjoys a completely mixed listenership but claims his audience is getting younger and blacker, and is spread right across South Africa. He believes his show is not ahead of the culture, but of the culture.

Talk radio reflects a very democratic culture, he says. “I think it pretty fine that the minister of intelligence comes on the show for an hour and can respond to a call from a member of the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] criticising something.”

“We live in a very politically aware society,” Perlman continues. “Politicians who think that’s not the case are really going to get a wake-up call. South Africans are argumentative and have a desire for debate. And there is a fantastic sense of ownership. Callers no longer talk about ‘you people’. Instead they say, ‘we’ and ‘ours’.”

For Robbie too, talk radio in 2004 is different. “Simply having emotional, angry, passionate people coming with their views is old hat. The issue is: will South Africa survive? We’ve got a democracy now, we have to be careful with issues.”

Modise maintains that talk show in South Africa has seen three distinctive trends, or moods: “In the early 1990s, this was, ‘about change’. Between 1995 to 2000, it was ‘about reconciliation’. From about 2000 to the present, it is about ‘real transformation’.”

But even as the three wise men of talk define audience needs, sharp-eared DJs wait in the wings to go for any gap left by the “elders”, as Yfm’s Sanza da Fanatik, explains it. Bad Boy T, Lee and Sanza are experimenting with their afternoon slot Harambee and introducing talk to the youth. “The most critical listeners to whom the elders don’t always listen. We have discussed Gandhi, Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie, football, young stars imitating Americans. We understand the elders are trying to be responsible, but they produce boring talk shows, that’s why we have to create a dialogue,” says Sanza.

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