There’s no hyperbole here: the weekday breakfast show is the axis on which commercial radio spins. This slot, more than any other, defines a station’s personality. It attracts the bulk of the audience and (if done right) generates that holy grail of allegiances – the type that’ll get the listener to set the tuner to one frequency. This is where the best jocks wind up, the point of focus for the majority of strategy sessions, the item in the status report that management looks to first. The breakfast show is adult contemporary radio’s biggest money-spinner by a long shot and, as such, the final arbiter of its fortunes.
It’s a reality that doesn’t escape any of South Africa’s radio conglomerates. Primedia’s chief executive William Kirsh is well aware that the 6am to 9am Rude Awakening show (also known as RAW) on 94.7 Highveld Stereo is the heaviest gun in his group’s armoury – almost too heavy as far as shareholders are concerned. Highveld’s contribution to Primedia’s total profits in 2004 stood at 46 percent, half of which famously came from the breakfast show. The obvious question: what if Jeremy Mansfield, the show’s anchor and the most successful breakfast jock in South Africa, got hit by a bus, abducted by aliens, transferred full-time (and in Wag’s opinion ill-advisedly – see “Not the Medium of the Month”, page 12) to television?
On this issue Kirsh has been quick to respond, bringing Highveld’s contribution to Primedia’s profits down to 40 percent in the year to June 2005, which moves him closer to his stated objective of 25 percent. What’s pushing the proportion down is general growth in Primedia’s various assets and Kirsh’s earnings enhancing acquisitions – the advertising rates on Mansfield’s show, meanwhile, remain the highest of any radio programme in the country.
At R9,418 for a 30-second spot the rates on Rude Awakening are almost R3,000 more than those of its closest competitor, Jacaranda 94.2. Again, this is to a very large extent a function of Mansfield’s popularity – notwithstanding the parent group’s shareholder concerns, it places the station itself in something of a precarious position. The king of the traffic joke has been at it for nine years now. He’s taken local toilet humour to a whole new level – something for which he will be fondly remembered – but can he keep Gauteng amused and entertained forever?
Highveld’s general manager Ryan Till acknowledges the predicament. “Obviously your morning show is the major draw card. To be absolutely honest, yes, we’re aware. With your biggest asset comes your biggest risk. But you can’t worry about what you can’t control. What would we do if he [Mansfield] got hit by a bus? That’s something that’s consistently on our minds, but it’s true of any show.”
Till adds that Highveld’s immediate concerns on the show are to keep Mansfield happy – “through offering opportunities for personal growth” – and shifting the focus to the on-air team that surrounds him. Station manager Ravi Naidoo elaborates: “We’ve recognised that the context of the show needs to be more broad—.As the years have gone by we’ve evolved from Jeremy on his own to a cast of characters, and we’re now looking at Jeremy with Samantha [Cowen], Darren [“Whackhead” Simpson], Bongani [Nxumalo], Graeme [Joffe] and Paul [“Pig” Rotherham].”
Putting more eggs in the basket seems the logical approach, but there’s no getting past the show’s dominant factor. Once more, hasn’t the country moved beyond Mansfield’s fart jokes? “There’s a certain element of truth in that, but it’s a couple of years old,” says Naidoo. “The plan when Jeremy first started was to create as much controversy and publicity as possible. We did that for two years and then had a bit of a dip—the criticism is not as pronounced now as it was six or seven years ago. If it becomes a trend again we’ll react. But from the research and the numbers, we’re not particularly worried. The show is now more crude than downright rude.”
This close relationship between controversy and publicity is something that Jacaranda’s new breakfast jock Kieno Kammies knows intimately. While Kammies insists he’s not a “shock jock”, that he’s more interested in the “light and shade” of thoughtful debate, his first week on the job was anything but tame. In a heavily publicised R1-million lawsuit filed against Jacaranda in early July, Idols judge Mara Louw claimed Kammies said the following about her on air: “Would you sleep with Mara Louw? Have you seen the woman! [Sleeping with her] is like sleeping with my grandmother.”
Kammies can’t talk about the Louw case, but he does admit that he spends a lot of time in front of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCCSA). “Over the past couple of years I’ve been there 10 or 12 times—Is that above average? I reckon, but I’ve won all of them. I think I understand very clearly how far one can take it. If I can’t back up what I say, I’ve failed.”
So Kammies takes his right to push South Africa’s buttons seriously, he’s a steadfast believer in free speech and the importance of unrestricted debate. But, if anything, the move from 567 Cape Talk to the adult contemporary format at Jacaranda has not (yet) done justice to his full range. And what initially promised to be a very public battle between him and Mansfield is now being played down by management on both sides. Their more pressing fight, naturally, is the one for advertisers.
Neither Siluma nor Till place much emphasis on the cost-per-thousand comparisons between their respective breakfast shows – the preferred gauge on both is advertiser demand. Highveld increased its rate by another 10 percent in July, a sure sign that the market is nowhere near turning against them. “One downfall of cost-per-thousand is it doesn’t allow you to value the environment,” says Till. “Mansfield’s ‘live reads’ sell enormous amounts of product. The advertisers know if he reads it, it’s different to if Jacaranda reads it.”
And what if Pat Cash or Ed Jordan at Kaya FM were to read it? Amazingly, the rate for a 30-second breakfast show slot at Gauteng’s third adult contemporary station is R7,000 less than Highveld’s. Station manager Charlene Deacon says she could probably up that rate and bring some of Highveld’s advertisers across if “they were interested in a more Afropolitan feel”, but she’s pragmatic about the country’s slow-changing realities. “The proportion of Gauteng’s LSMs 8,9 and 10 that are black is small. That’s rising, but it’s going very slowly. You can tell that government also recognises it’s too slow.”
Moving out of Gauteng, demand for East Coast’s breakfast slot is in the same range as Jacaranda’s (both rates are around R6,000), which has a lot to do with its dominance over Durban’s LSM 8 to 10 listeners. KFM’s penetration of Cape Town’s upper LSMs is slightly lower, placing it at around R5,000 for a slot. In the Eastern Cape and Free State the rates fall off significantly, with African Media Entertainment’s two stations, Algoa FM and OFM, both at around R2,000.
Algoa’s managing director Dave Tiltmann says advertisers know that his station delivers the best returns in LSMs 8 to 10 across the Eastern Cape, so his strategy is to broaden the appeal. “In terms of our slogan, on ‘Your Music’ it’s easy to maintain a consistency. ‘Your World’ is the harder part. That’s where we’re focusing, so LSMs 6 and 7 will move in.”
Tiltmann says the natural style of his breakfast show anchor, Daron Mann, is risqué. “Not as risqué as Highveld’s, but then we’re a more conservative market.” So the key issue in adult contemporary breakfast radio – right across the country – seems to be the balance between controversy and mass appeal, between gripping radio and soaring revenues. They’re not always the same thing. And, for better or worse, Naidoo’s philosophy on Highveld’s audience is still the winning one. “As long as they have a pulse and a cheque book.”