When Talk Radio 702 made some big changes to its line-up this year, listeners reacted with shock and voiced their opinions – so much so, that its popular ‘Bandstand’ show was reinstated.
Among other changes, the station scheduled more sport and the shows of Leigh Bennie and veteran presenters Kate Turkington and Barry Ronge were canned.
‘Shock’ may seem a strong word, but, as 5FM programme manager Tim Zunckel says, listeners have a very intimate relationship with radio and getting rid of a presenter can be deeply felt.
“A successful radio personality becomes a friend to the listener. When you take that person off the air or put them in another timeslot, you’ve changed their routine and taken away something they resonate with,” says Zunckel.
Turkington’s ‘Believe it or not’ was the longest-running show in the same timeslot in the country’s history, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that people lamented the departure of a voice they had heard every Sunday night for over 20 years.
Given that listeners can be so invested and that losing listeners is ultimately losing advertising revenue, stations are careful about making such changes. Most often, it’s done to stay relevant to listeners. Pheladi Gwangwa, 702’s station manager, says the station needs to stay “one step ahead of listeners in case they fall a step behind”.
“Our listenership has been growing astronomically for the past decade, but this has only been possible because we consistently refine the sound of the station. If we don’t keep moving forward, we’ll start slipping and the recent line-up changes were another refinement,” says Gwangwa.
A career like Turkington’s is unusually long. Neil Johnson, former Jacaranda FM programme manager (now Kaya FM programme manager), says, “As audience demographic and psychographics change, so must radio stations. There are exceptions, but it is impossible nowadays to think that your top-line presenters will have careers of a decade or more at the same station.”
Most presenters are generally employed on freelance contracts, says Zunckel. Decades ago the SABC used to employ people full-time and ended up with presenters who, for better or for worse, stayed in place for years. A freelance contract may give a presenter’s life a certain precariousness, but many like this system as it gives them the freedom to pursue other projects. Zunckel agrees that presenters have a limited shelf life, particularly at a youth station like 5FM. “Stations should plan strategically for three to five years. Presenters should plan too. You should take into account that if you are at a youth station you will be retired if you are in your 40s,” he says.
So what research do stations use, apart from the South African Audience Research Foundation (Saarf) Radio Audience Measurement Survey (RAMS) figures? These can include consulting with global industry experts, focus groups and Auditorium Music Tests (AMTs), which involves playing music to a carefully selected test audience. For 702, the Solid Gold countdown charts rely on listeners’ votes, so they can get an idea of what’s popular there.
When it comes to the presenters, Jacaranda looks at the presenter’s Facebook and Twitter reach, who he or she reached at their previous stations and any media exposure they may have had to get an idea of their fit and feel for the station. Also, “what point of difference and original content does the presenter bring to a new station”, says Johnson.
Whatever changes come out of the research, they need to be strategic. Zunckel says, “If you look at 5FM, there was a deliberate strategic decision that the station took in the ‘90s to become more youthful, more black. A commercial station has to make money, it has to attract advertisers… but if Pick n Pay wasn’t selling groceries they would change their product. It’s the same thing.”
Johnson notes that this new approach worked out very well for 5FM. “5FM’s audience has almost doubled in that time. (But) incremental or small changes to the line-up can also migrate audiences.”
Giving a presenter’s perspective, Darren ‘Whackhead’ Simpson says that when he replaced Jeremy Mansfield on Highveld’s ‘Breakfast Xpress’ in 2010, he was aware that he had big shoes to fill. “It was not all of a sudden, though. We were having succession meetings with Jeremy back in 2008 where I was informed that I would be the successor, so I had quite a bit of time to prepare myself mentally… Most people thought I was just a prank caller and someone who would throw in funny chirps here and there. What they did not know was that I had 10 years anchoring experience on radio in South Africa, Australia and England.”
Simpson says that changing presenters doesn’t necessarily mean losing listeners. “Listenership will definitely change when a presenter changes… The reality is that people hate change and it’s like a divorce, which I can understand because the medium is so personal. But I do know that the existing audience will grant you a certain grace period in which you have to prove yourself.”
Presenters need to reinvent themselves constantly to keep their careers going, says Zunckel, citing Tony Blewitt as the prime example of someone who has done this. Blewitt was on 5FM and 94.7 Highveld Stereo, before switching to older audiences on Classic FM. He is now presenting on Mix 93.8 FM, one of South Africa’s most successful community stations.
Former 5FM presenter Sasha Martinengo has also reinvented himself after leaving the station a year ago when his contract was not renewed. Martinengo was one of the station’s most popular jocks and had an 18-year career there. Now, however, he is the PR representative for Ferrari and Maserati and has been at digital radio station Ballz since last May, along with fellow radio veterans Darren Scott and Ian F.
Martinengo says he had a wonderful time at 5FM and was sad to leave, but loves the freedom of internet radio. “Digital is completely different. I’m not subjected to playlists, I’m not controlled in how much time I take to chat to people I’m interviewing, or who I want to chat to. We aren’t controlled by Icasa (the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa), so we have complete freedom of speech.”
Martinengo is not certain why he was given the boot, but ultimately, 5FM “probably just wanted younger blood”. “The audience always responded well to me, on air and at nightclubs, but who knows?”
In an industry like radio, it’s not unusual to find egos clashing. How many presenters lose their jobs because of office politics? Zunckel says, “Presenters have strong personalities. It’s what you expect, especially from breakfast and afternoon drive presenters. That’s why they are where they are. But it’s terribly bad management to let them go if they piss you off.”
He would not be drawn on any examples. One such example, however, could be former Highveld presenter Paul Rotherham, who was bemused by his abrupt dismissal from the station in 2011. He said at the time that he believed it was due to his questioning decisions regarding the line-up and programming on the ‘Breakfast Xpress’, which he was co-hosting. He is now at Jacaranda FM.
The station is the brand, not the presenter, says Martinengo. He thinks Ballz has attracted 5FM listeners, but says the attraction of the presenter’s brand should not be overestimated.
“The power of the station is always bigger than the power of the individual. Unfortunately, there are presenters who believe they are the brand. But I always want to tell them, in a month people will have forgotten about you!”
Johnson thinks this is changing, however. “It is coming to the point now where presenters are brands in their own right and stations need to acknowledge this,” he says. “It even influences the way you manage and interact with ‘the brand’.”
It seems that the idea is the same across all stations – stay fresh. Simpson describes how he does this. “The key ingredient, I believe, which has ultimately been the success of the show, is its honesty and vulnerability. The days of talking down to a listener or trying to pull the wool over their eyes is long gone. Music radio in South Africa is ultimately an entertainment platform whereas talk radio in South Africa is largely an informative, hard news platform, if you try be one on the other you will fail. In saying that I can, and believe sometimes I need to get serious, but not for too long, nor too deep and just be very honest in delivering it. Listeners have no time for grandstanders anymore!”
This story was first published in a special radio supplement accompanying The Media magazine.