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Like, subscribe and comment: The rise of podcasting in South Africa

Podcasting began in the 2000s, but became an ubiquitous model of digital media in the 2010s, allowing art and politics commentators to dissect matters in depth. 

But it’s in 2021 that the presence of podcasts in South African pop culture has been more distinctly felt. They have become crucial in documenting and dissecting culture and societal issues. One example is how several podcasts helped to peel back the layers of the convoluted story of Rap Lyf Records’ demise. The label — which was home to rappers such as Kwesta, Kid X and the duo TLT, who all defined the mid-2010s — is undergoing a heartbreaking and disgraceful implosion.

It has been one of the most publicised disbandments in South African hip-hop history, with podcasts playing a crucial role in telling the story. At the height of the label’s breakup, two months ago, different members of the label went on different platforms to share their side of the story in detail.

Podcasts bring the tea

Owing to their longform nature, interview- and conversation-based podcasts, which are prevalent in South Africa, are in depth, uncensored, unfiltered and not restricted in length by traditional media time slots.

Neo Makwa, the producer behind the label’s monster hits, such as Kwesta’s Spirit and Vur Vai, sat down with the hosts of The Sobering podcast for a two-and-a-half hour interview in which he shared his experiences while signed to the label — a lot of them unpleasant. 

The Sobering, hosted by three hip-hop and street-culture enthusiasts Kitso Moremi; Kabelo Moremi, aka Lil Frat; and Javas Skolo, is one of the longest-running music and subculture podcasts in South Africa, having started in 2015.

In his interview on The Sobering, Makwa revealed he found out Spirit had generated R8-million for an endorsement deal only  while watching an episode of the podcast in which Nota Baloyi, an executive member of Rap Lyf, was a guest. In the episode, which was released in March, Baloyi shared details of the label’s operations with the hosts of The Sobering; Makwa would later reveal he got to pocket only R250 000 for his production. 

The hosts of the pioneering The Sobering podcast hosts Javas Skolo, Kitso Moremi, and Lil Frat with guest Ginger Trill. (Photo: Sabelo Mkhabela)

Makwa started demanding his money and, after examining some paperwork, he found out he could be owed even more money for his work at Rap Lyf. He would later engage Baloyi on Instagram Live, demanding what’s due to him and, in another IG Live, their interaction became heated as the two exchanged harsh words.

Kwesta, in his interview with Macgyver “MacG” Mukwevho on his infamous 

Podcast and Chill with MacG, said he was only ready to engage in a conversation about the label’s collapse if all members were present.

The Katlehong MC had an album to promote, and not even MacG’s notorious slyness could get him to further fuel the fire and lead to the generation of another swarm of click-bait articles, tweets and Instagram posts.

MacG rolls out the red carpet

Times have changed. Before Podcast and Chill, podcasting was reserved for enthusiasts, like The Sobering, and attracted niche audiences. Having superstars such as Kwesta as guests wasn’t a familiar occurrence. “In general, famous people don’t like doing interviews,” said Lil Frat in a 2018 interview.

But MacG, a seasoned radio presenter (formerly of YFM and Highveld Stereo), rolled out the red carpet for some of Mzansi’s biggest stars and quizzed them about their careers and personal lives as hundreds of thousands of viewers tuned in on YouTube. So far, MacG has hosted many A-grade celebrities, among them Pearl Thusi, Phat Joe, Presley Chweneyagae, Prince Kaybee, Zodwa Wabantu, and Zola 7. He attributes the podcast’s success to these high-profile guests, alongside “consistency, hard work and passion”. 

“Celebrity episodes help bring attention to the podcast,” he says. 

MacG’s questions and takes are instinctive and nothing is out of bounds. For instance, in one episode, the MC and his guest, Zodwa Wabantu, were titillating each other with remote-control vibrators. Ghost Lady, the mysterious co-host of the podcast, asked MacG and Zodwa questions about each other and whoever got a question wrong was treated to a few seconds of vibrations. 

In another episode with a South African pornography actress, she was asked to demonstrate how to perform oral sex on a dildo she had with her during the interview. 

Such unorthodox antics have been one of his podcast’s selling points. In almost every episode, one is almost guaranteed to find comments expressing how MacG’s podcast is different and makes viewers appreciate guests more, as MacG and the crew’s interviews portray them in a different light. 

The three hosts are also commended for their unapologetic and unfiltered opinions and jokes. From extremely personal questions for subjects, to slut-shaming (“The problem is everyone has fucked Boity,” MacG said in one episode), MacG’s podcasts are approached as casual conversations with no regards for political correctness — part of the podcast’s Twitter bio reads: “because sometimes you just want to laugh and have a drink”.

Earlier this year, MacG and co-host Sol Phenduka found themselves and the podcast on the wrong side of trending hashtags for their reductionist descriptions of transgender women. Phenduka mentioned matter of factly that Young Buck, former member of the hip-hop group G-Unit, used to date a transgender woman. “Shemale. But I think that’s a bad term,” he said, “Don’t use that term. A trans person; so a woman with a dick.”

Naturally, companies such as Old Mutual and Studio88, which the podcast had partnerships with, broke ties with MacG after the LGBTQIA+ community, allies and social justice advocates called him and his co-host out for their damaging conversation. Meanwhile, MacG’s YouTube subscribers shot up amid the squabble as Chillers (as listeners of Podcast and Chill With MacG are called) countered “cancel culture”.

MacG’s defenders cried “free speech”, a practice that has become the lowest-hanging fruit for bigots and their supporters online when called out for offensive comments about oppressed groups. Free speech or not, the co-hosts’ comments were irresponsible: members of the LGBTQI+ community are harassed and killed as a result of queerphobia. “[Of] all the insults that we have faced as the transgender community, I personally have never come across such vile and demeaning one,” said trans rights activist Yaya Mavundla in an Instagram post addressing the clip.

In a public apology released on Twitter, Podcast and Chill stated: “Out of this experience, we have been able to learn and educate ourselves about social issues and to know where we must draw the line from what is expressed as a joke and when a ‘joke’ infringes upon someone else’s freedom.” About a month later, in an attempt to educate himself and chillers, MacG added a new show The Queer Way of Life to his podcast network. Hosted by radio personality Bujy Bikwa, the show focuses on LGBTIQ issues and usually features guests who are queer. 

Pioneering: Former MTV VJ Adam Curry (left) is considered by many as the father of podcasting, aka the ‘The Podfather’. Photo: Kim Kulish/Corbis/Getty Images

Want a podcast, start one

Internet culture means anyone with recording equipment, Wi-Fi and unpopular opinions (a pinch of audacity also goes a long way) can start a podcast. There are no editors and producers to pitch to or to regulate content. 

A podcast is essentially an audio blog, born in the 2000s when the digital music revolution occurred with the creation of the iPod in 2001. In 2004, MTV VJ Adam Curry and the software developer Dave Winer distributed their shows Daily Source Code and Morning Coffee Notes through RSS feed. Winer authored a software that could extract audio files from an RSS feed onto an iPod and, for the first time, radio shows could be downloaded and consumed on the go. 

“Podcasting” is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast”. After the word “podcast” was searched for more than 100 000 times on Google in 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary declared “podcast” the Word of the Year. Podcasts have since become ubiquitous and it seems everyone has one, from Barack Obama and Bruce Springteen to, possibly, your neighbour. Although podcasts have mostly been in audio form, recently, the migration to video has proven popular, and is a growing trend. 

With many podcasts, the ethics and rules of journalism aren’t contravened: they are simply never considered. At times it ends in tears. In May, podcast host Rea Gopane was sued for R500 000 by media personality Bonang Matheba. This was after he went on record claiming Queen B had introduced her former boyfriend, the rapper AKA, to cocaine use during an episode of The Rea & Blvck Steph Podcast which Gopane co-hosts. He stated he had obtained that information from a private conversation with street-culture commentator Scoop Makhathini. 

After Gopane had issued a video retraction posted on Twitter, Matheba still demanded her money. There haven’t been any reports of Gopane paying that money and Matheba’s attention to the issue has subsided. 

Commenting on the unfiltered nature of podcasts, music journalist and founder of the music blog Texx and The City, Tecla Ciolfi feels the problem is that there’s no one formally holding podcasts to account. “There’s no Broadcasting Complaints Commission. There’s no board, there’s no union. There’s nothing. So, I think that’s something that’s probably going to have to be looked at in the future,” she says.

 As a new medium and one that doesn’t necessarily require any formal registration and licences, podcasts have been hard to regulate. 

Tecla Ciolfi of Texx and the City says becoming a podcaster will be a viable career option in the future. (Photo: Leigh Groenemeyer)

In her podcast, Ciolfi interviews artists — Nasty C, Yanga Chief, Jeremy Loops, Shekhinah and Ami Faku have all been guests — about their careers and art. She stays away from controversy for controversy’s sake: her focus is always on the subject. 

Profit or clout?

The gag here is that Gopane found himself in a tricky situation most likely for clout alone; generally, podcasts aren’t yet profitable in South Africa. Monetising them is difficult; the hope is they will attract brands and partnerships when their platforms have garnered large numbers. 

“I would like to think that, in the future, it will definitely become a viable career option to be a podcaster in this country and it will be something where you can make a livable wage, but at the moment, no,” says Ciolfi. 

MacG, who reveals that his own podcast is lucrative and is currently his only income stream, admits that monetising it was “a challenge”. MacG leveraged his influence to build what has become the country’s most popular podcast. As DJ Sbu said in a 2020 episode on which he was a guest: “Look at how big your podcast is now and it’s nothing compared to what it will be in 2025; what it will be in 2030. You’re gonna have millions of subscribers, you’re gonna be making hundreds of thousands every month, if not millions every year.” 

Asked about the plausibility of DJ Sbu’s statement, MacG says, “I think it’s right around the corner”, after sharing his plans: “We wanna take over Africa, we want to do an Africa tour and take it all over the content. If we do that, the numbers will also grow accordingly.”

Even though a few podcasts have partnered with big companies (Texx Talks has worked with brands such as Ray-Ban and Puma), currently the money isn’t quite pouring in for South African podcasts. Ciolfi mentions that, at times, companies offer merchandise and products instead of money. “So it’s all about being flexible and being able to work with a big brand, and vice-versa, to make a sponsorship make sense. I’m not just collaborating for the sake of [it],” says Ciolfi.

Podcasting is a growing medium. In the US, ad spending on podcasting was about $500 million in 2019, by some estimates, but that compares to $17-billion or more for radio. A 2018-2019 study by the National Small Business Chamber found the addressable market for podcasting in South Africa to be 16-million people. 

However, traditional radio is still far more popular and, thus, more profitable than podcasting in South Africa. Soaring data costs are slowing down the growth of podcasts in the country and others on the continent. 

Podcasters are still winging it. “We don’t have, like we do in the music industry, a yearly roundup of breakdown and statistics and any kind of demographics,” says Ciolfi. “We don’t have the analytics yet in order to say, ‘Okay, so the most streamed podcast in this country is X and they charge Y, so I’ve got to be charging Z.’ We don’t have those models yet. I can only speak from my experience, but we’re kind of just making it up as we go along.” Podcasts may be the gift that keeps on giving for fans, but they still have a lot of ground to cover. 

MacG has it figured out. He mentions that being dropped by brands amid the transphobic comments wasn’t a setback at all. “Our business model isn’t dependent on sponsors,” he says. “So, with or without sponsors, the business will continue: it’s self-sustainable. When you work with brands, that extra income is gladly appreciated but we don’t need other brands to survive; we have our own brands that we push.” MacG sells his own gin line, Grandeur, and Podcast and Chill T-shirts, which are printed by Phenduka’s company. 

The popularity of podcasts is anomalous as it dispels the collective belief among media experts that long-form content doesn’t work well online. Podcasts are disruptive talk shows and productions that are relatively cheaper to produce and distribute than traditional mediums like radio and TV. The subjects discussed on podcasts are usually what the hosts are obsessed with, which makes for wholesome and informative discussions and interviews. Listeners listen to them at their own pace and fitting of their schedules. Radio could never.

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