Eusebius McKaiser: Presenter pumps up the power

Power FM 98.7 talk show host Eusebius McKaiser insists that there is no way he can reinvent himself every time he becomes part of a new outfit. That might be true, yet the former Talk Radio 702 host came out of the new station’s studio after his 9am to 12pm show on a rather cold Tuesday this week flustered and sweaty, as if he had been on air for the first time.

As he was shepherded out of the studios, he was mobbed by adoring fans and colleagues, getting a hug here, a fist-bump greeting there. A company suit remarked that the station would probably receive a gripe from the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa for a rather careless comment McKaiser made towards the end of the show.

Discussing Bafana Bafana’s meek defeat by Ethiopia in a World Cup qualifying match at the weekend, McKaiser invoked the stereotype of hungry, starving Ethiopians handed down to him by his mother and wondered how the same emaciated ­people could defeat South Africa.

The gaffe aside, I witnessed the McKaiser who has etched himself on the national psyche. He was combative yet empathetic, rigorous yet unaggressive. He started off on a personal note: He was named Eusebius because his grandmother, while paging through a magazine, saw an “expensive name” — rare in coloured parlance — and when the talk show host was born, he was bequeathed the Hellenic handle. He is a McKaiser, he told his listeners, a mélange of Scottish and German.

A citizen of the world
McKaiser is a native of Grahamstown, where he did his undergraduate degree at Rhodes University before going on to do his master’s at Oxford.

At some point during the show, to explode the perception that Power FM 98.7 is a black station, McKaiser said JM Coetzee was his favourite writer; that he has had lunch with the queen at Buckingham Palace; and that he has visited 20 countries around the globe.

He is, in a phrase, a citizen of the world. He is also part of a new generation of post-apartheid scholars and public intellectuals who don’t just rely on their viscera to dissect issues, but also on theory and criticism. Included in this bunch are people as diverse as author and scholar Jacob Dlamini, activist Andile Mngxitama and Rhodes University lecturer and activist Nomalanga Mkhize.

On Tuesday morning, South Africa awoke to the news that the bid by Sekunjalo to acquire the Independent Newspaper Group, publisher of 18 titles, had been accepted by its former Irish owners.

Perhaps not unpredictably, Business Day editor Peter Bruce, and businessman Iqbal Surve were two of the first guests to be interviewed by McKaiser. Like others, Bruce raised concerns about the anonymity of Survé’s consortium.

“You have never demanded transparency from other newspapers,” McKaiser charged, name-checking media houses and media websites including Times Media, the Mail & Guardian, Politics Web and Daily Maverick.

Yet moments before that, the host cosied up to the newspaperman. He confessed his love for his weekly column in Business Day. The column, also a favourite of mine, is delivered in an easy-going style and digestible bites and probably works because it’s so deceptively laid back and seems to contradict the bust­ling logic of Mondays.

Survé, the next guest, didn’t get an easy ride. The business­man muted the aggressive voice he has used to drum out his industry foes in the past few weeks. McKaiser began by saying that titles that mean the most to him, such as the Sowetan, Daily Sun, Sunday Times and City Press are all outside Survé’s newspaper empire.

“What are you going to do to jazz up the Sunday Independent?” McKaiser asked.

But, of course, Survé was not going to lay out his plans for the newspaper group live on ­McKaiser’s show.

Us versus them
As a result of the management problems at the state broadcaster, the influence of SAfm, its flagship town crier, has declined. It is from this void that the privately owned 702 has risen as the station with the country’s biggest mouth.

This is the status quo Power FM is going to contest. McKaiser’s show will compete with that of his former colleague at 702, Redi Tlhabi, and Isaac Phaahla at SAfm. During the show, calls came in from some who had first listened to him while he was at the station on the other, glitzier, side of the M1. “I have been following you from the other station,” one said.

McKaiser, in response to a perceptive black-sounding caller who had questioned the “us versus them” narrative that has lubricated the station’s positioning rhetoric, said: “This isn’t a black or white station.” But it’s difficult to dismiss out of hand the argument that most of McKaiser’s followers listening to him on Power FM are going to be folk of a darker hue.

The word power isn’t value neutral — black power in the United States and amandla in Zulu — what with its overtones of other struggles, both continental and transatlantic, engaged in by black folk. And the station’s tagline, “Now We’re Talking”, doesn’t make it easier.

Does it mean “we” have been mute all along; and who, anyway, does the pronoun “we” represent?

Does the “we” represent Given Mkhari, head of MSG Afrika ­Investment Holdings — owners of the station — and other shareholders such as Khanyi Dhlomo’s Ndalo Media, Sandile Zungu’s Zico, or the amorphous black masses?

Is a hint of the identity of the “we” who called during the show ­contained in the colour of the 900-plus callers who phoned in? Of course, not even a quarter of these calls were aired. “From the range of calls, from their accents, it’s clear listeners are geographically dispersed,” McKaiser said.

Making a general point, he said: “There is a sense in which black South Africans are visitors in spaces in which they could be a numerical majority. The truth is we want to create a space in which we reverse that. It’s not a race-specific sound that we are trying to create. Let’s not pretend that South Africa is a rainbow nation; South Africa isn’t there yet. We want to create a platform in which people who are excluded can say: ‘Yeah, we can be honest about being excluded.’

“No,” McKaiser said, “we haven’t been mute. But you can talk without being actively present in a space. Black South Africans are forgiving of the media they consume. They are lazy participants in spaces that exclude them, which often allows editors and media owners to cite figures of black people as proof [of a satisfied audience] when, in fact,  they have no alternative spaces where they are authentically narrated about.”

That is a contentious statement, given the fury and attacks by what is commonly referred to as the “black twitterati” directed at any story that falls short of their standards.

Across Gauteng rival radio station managements and personnel were probably listening, wondering whether the new entrant will force them to reinvent themselves.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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