SAfm changes reveal a broader malaise in a dumbed-down society

The SABC’s executive management team is infuriating some sections of the South African public because of the changes it is implementing at the public broadcaster this month.

Although the proposed changes affect several of the SABC’s 19 radio and five TV stations, it is mainly SAfm that is the centre of media attention, trade union threats and public anger.

At least two issues are the primary source of contention.

First, SABC management is modifying the programme line-up at SAfm. Second, it is reconfiguring the very philosophical foundation or format of the station from being driven by current affairsand hard news to a substantially talk-radio format.

Although many SAfm listeners are anxious, they seem less concerned about the programme line-up changes than about the possible removal or reshuffling of two popular current affairs presenters — Sakina Kamwendo (AM Live, 6am to 9am) and Tsepiso Makwetla (PM Live, 4pm to 6pm).

Apart from the SABC’s poor communication of its plans, exacerbating the matter are reports that these two popular black female anchors will be replaced by (or cohost with) two white men from privately owned media outlets: Stephen Grootes (from Talk Radio 702) and Jeremy Maggs (eNCA).

Maggs has since denied these reports.

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema wasted no time in accusing the SABC executives of bringing back “whiteness”.

Respectfully, Malema is exaggerating: two white male presenters joining an SABC radio station, in an institution largely managed by black people, is hardly a return of whiteness.

Furthermore, the attacks on SABC executives inadequately articulate the existential problem they face in the realm of South African identity politics as it relates to rebuilding the SAfm audience. The problem is bigger. As long as the SABC is a schizophrenic institution — a public service broadcaster that draws its revenue from open capitalist markets — SAfm needs to go hunting for audiences to survive.

SAfm, with its national footprint, has about 200 000 listeners. It has been improving, but needs to grow to be commercially viable. The SABC management’s solution, it told Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications, is to headhunt talent to grow the station.

This diagnosis is inadequate. In fact, committed people like Makwetla and Kamwendo, like the SABC 8, have managed to pull SAfm out of the gutter it had been thrown into by SABC executives who thought Luthuli House was the Union Buildings and turned a public service broadcaster into a state broadcaster.

Although the SABC suffered as a brand, the news division suffered the most. SAfm, a news and current affairs station, suffered as a consequence. Middle-class listeners started to doubt the objectivity of news coming out the SABC.

While the SABC was in chaos, private news media outlets, such as those at which Maggs and Grootes worked, presented themselves not only as more balanced than the SABC but also as the protectors of the South African democracy that was being, in part, ravaged by the SABC.

In short, some of the problems at SAfm emerge from the realm of ethics — good corporate governance and unbiased news reporting. This was not created by SAfm staff but by certain SABC executives.

While the latter were in effect destroying a national key point, SABC workers were trying to protect it and grow audiences. So, should new people, as good as they are, be brought in to take the crown? On the flip side, should new people not be brought in if they can help SAfm to reach its full potential? But they may not be able to.

SAfm’s problems, in part, also stem from a changing society. I am therefore surprised that the debate has largely revolved around line-up changes and personalities. This is important, but is overshadowing the main issue.

The management seems bent on converting SAfm into something between The Oprah Winfrey Show and current affairs, where serious news will be secondary. This is symbolised by a conversation between two female colleagues in an episode of the American television series The Newsroom:

“I want to give you five minutes every night to talk about where we are and how we got here.”

“Are you serious?”

“There are people more qualified than I am. I can give you the names of the professors I studied under …”

“The thing is, they are not going to have your legs. I am sorry, but if I am going to get people to listen to a lecture in economics, I am gonna get someone who does not look like George Bernard Shaw.”

“You want me to do pole dancing while explaining stuff like mortgages?”

“If you are up to it, sure.”

Speaking last week on SAfm’s Afternoon Talk with Ashraf Garda, Chris Maroleng, the SABC’s new chief operating officer, said: “On the talk format … one of the things we looked at about SAfm in particular … the news format, that current affairs and news being the main driver, did not really talk to what audiences wanted. And audiences in South Africa are particularly familiar with a talk format.”

SAfm, and journalism in general, can only thrive in a society that craves news and current affairs. The station operates in a country that is shifting more towards leisure pursuits and entertainment. It is, without exaggeration, a cultural change.

If you bank with Absa, you may have noticed that at some point its ATMs played music while dispensing money. It was not enough for the ATM to be functional; it needed to entertain you as well. To allow students more leisure time, academics are reducing the size of bulky readers and the list of readings; they must be “edutaining” too. Our political party rallies resemble music concerts; otherwise, only a few will rock up.

News formats are changing. Once, for example, you would not dare topresent news on the BBC without wearing a tie. Yet today, Ross Atkins, BBC News’ Outside Source presenter, hardly ever wears one. In South Africa, introduced larger and more glamorous TV news studios. It worked. SABC TV news followed. Not so long ago, wanted to get rid of its prime-time news altogether to free up space for more soapies.

So, regardless of whether SAfm has good or very good talent, whether it is new or old, black or white, the station will not grow as quickly as it wants to. The handful of talk radio stations in South Africa command comparatively fewer listeners than their music counterparts. The country’s transformation into a “normal” society post-1994 meant there was less motivation to follow the news.

The lack of interest in mainstream news media is far more pronounced among young people. Not only are they more interested in sport, entertainment and human interest stories, they are also less concerned with politics and voting.

Although I understand where SABC executives are coming from in relation to the context in which SAfm operates, I think they are surrendering without a serious fight to commercialisation and the dumbing-down of a critical public platform.

Dr Musawenkosi W Ndlovu is associate professor at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town and the author of #FeesMustFall and Youth Mobilisation in South Africa: Reform or Revolution?

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