On Tuesday June 18, new Gauteng radio station Power FM will start trying to do something tricky: finding a space between a boring, deadpan approach to news and a more riveting, sensationalist one.
"We certainly won't be an SAfm, but we're also not going to be a 702," said Benedicta Dube of the newsroom she'll be heading at the station.
Power FM this week released details of its line-up, offering a glimpse into its approach and programming. The station said it was in the final stages of testing and preparation ahead of its launch in just more than a week.
In radio, especially in talk radio, news still holds the same power it used to on television during that medium's golden age. Station managers believe – and audience research confirms – that listeners are attracted by a strong news offering. Capturing ears at the top of the hour is crucial if you wish to keep those ears during the rest of the programming, the sections that pay the bills with heavy advertising loads.
On paper, the SABC's radio stations should own the top of the hour – the organisation boasts the biggest complement of journalists in the country, with geographical coverage second to none. But within the industry, SABC bulletins that consist largely of droning newsreaders and are devoid of sound from the field are considered the epitome of dullness.
On the other side of the spectrum is Primedia's 702 (in Johannesburg) and 567 Cape Talk bulletins, with wall-to-wall coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial, disasters, protests, brutal crimes and malefactors in the public service.
In that spread, Power FM is aiming firmly for the middle. "We're not going to chase ambulances," said Dube. "We're not going to do random crime stories, we're not going to rehash what is already out there. We will avoid at all costs the sensationalist approach to journalism."
Like most news philosophies, what that means is not exactly clear in the abstract. Power FM's newsroom of 25 cannot ignore the Pistorius case, Dube concedes, and cannot risk failing to tell its listeners about the stories everyone is talking about, but at the same time it does not want to "throw more money into providing what is already being provided". Instead, it hopes to tell untold human stories and create a sense of community.
The station is also promising less breaking news and more context. In that quest, it had, for example, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi give its newsroom a presentation on the national health scheme, just to make sure the background was clear.
Giving context is difficult, in a maximum of 95 minutes of news spread throughout the day. The station intends to have 19 bulletins every week day and 13 a day on weekends, in standard slots of between three minutes and five minutes at the top of the hour. What to leave out to make room for more textured stories will be "challenging", Dube said.
Choices of presenter for the station point to a mixture of the intellectual and the more lighthearted, with veterans and rookies both on the roster. Lawrence Tlhabane (formerly Dube), the main anchor for the breakfast show (typically the big money-spinner for radio stations) started his radio career in 1983 at the state broadcaster of the Bophuthatswana homeland. Chris Vick, who will host the highly contested 6pm to 7pm slot, is best known for his stint as spin doctor for Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, and is a newcomer to the medium.