I first heard about the passing of Nelson Mandela a few hours after President Jacob Zuma announced the news at the Union Buildings. Like many South Africans it felt so surreal but as time went on the fact that he was gone drilled down deeper and deeper in my mind.
Commercial radio stations have been preparing for years, planning their programming in the event of the passing of Nelson Mandela. They planned how from how it would affect programming. They created Nelson Mandela-specific station imaging, voice clips and much more. It seemed, however, that although they were prepared, they, like veryone else, couldn’t have anticipated the public mood change during the period of Mandela’s passing and the mourning period that followed.
The first radio stations I tuned in to soon after hearing the news were 5FM, Metro FM and SAFM as I was in Bloemfontein at the time. 5FM had Gareth Cliff on from midnight followed in the early morning by DJ Fresh.
A good breakfast show builds listenership and usually listeners from the breakfast show trickle down to brunch show and following programmes. Thus one could say a breakfast presenter leads line up and in many ways sets the tone of the radio station for the day.
Cliff leads 5FM’s programming and his voice is to the listeners of 5FM synonymous to someone they trust to keep them informed on current affairs. Hearing him handle the breaking news on 5FM brought great comfort and it indirectly said to the listener that everything would be okay. The appointment of Cliff also took into account the fact that many South Africans were awake at the time, and wanting to find out more information about Mandela. It follows, then, you would want your best presenter to be leading the pack at that time.
I loved how they just opened up the lines to allow listeners to express how they felt and at a time when many were probably alone in their bed or home with family, speaking on radio was an opportunity to express themselves and to clarify what was happening in terms of the news around his death. I found this approach to be far more engaging and personal then immediately playing archived Nelson Mandela clips at a time when people want to express their feelings in relation to the passing of the world icon .
South Africa’s largest commercial radio station Metro FM had a similar strategy with Metro FM talk presenter Sakina Kamwendo together with Khopedi wa Namane on air soon after the news was announced by the president. SAfm’s approach was more informative but also engaging to an extent with Tshepiso Makwetla on air sometime after the news was shared with the nation. Besides this, most radio stations either maintained their usual programming format, mixed their format with voice clips or completely changed their format to accommodate struggle songs and historic audio material.
Twenty-four hours after hearing the news, most radio stations had already playlisted prepared Nelson Mandela station imaging. The only main challenge for most of the commercial radio stations was how to honour our hero on air without adversely compromising their programming format.
5FM was a great example of programming format dilemma. With a generally vibrant and youthful sound, portraying a sombre atmosphere to their audience was a challenge in my opinion and this could also apply to other hot contemporary and contemporary radio stations. There was a repeat of certain type of songs limited to their playlist that could accommodate the mood of the nation at the time. It was a bit of a challenge content wise as well. For example stations would have callers crying on air and speaking about how they felt. To follow this with a live pop song wasn’t appropriate.
As the days went on it became easier for most commercial radio stations to slowly return to their usual programming format but they continued to have a high rotation of Nelson Mandela station imaging. The national conversation gradually shifted to comparison between leaders like Nelson Mandela and our current leadership – a healthy conversation at a time when South Africans are thinking about whom are they going to vote for in the next general elections.
Could it be that be that because the kind of music one could generally expect to remember the great icon lean more towards struggle songs music which tells the story of Nelson Mandela. Urban commercial radio stations in my opinion were in a better position to playlist more relevant music in memory of the former states man. Don’t get me wrong: there wasn’t necessarily a right music genre honour him as much depends on the target audience of the radio so it boiled down to music with the right type of feel that represented the story of his life.
In terms of music Metro FM during the mourning period playlisted music which was greatly nostalgic and true to the story of utata. Most of the music played during the mourning period was urban gospel music mixed with old and new school R&B/Soul and some signature South African music. Two songs in particular that stuck in my head which played was Brenda Fassie with My Black President and Vicky Sampson with My African Dream. It took me back to when I was a child in 1994 wearing a white t shirt with two blue and white doves printed on it, celebrating the birth of freedom, democracy and remembering the many amazing dreams we as South Africans had for our new nation.
Nelson Mandela reminds us that we owe our freedom today to the many sung and unsung heroes whose selfless acts of courage and sacrifice gave us the opportunity to determine our own destiny. Mandela remains a powerful symbol for thousands of South Africans black and white who fought for a better South Africa for all.
During the leadership of former President Nelson Mandela the broadcasting spectrum in South Africa opened the airwaves to allow privately owned radio stations to air – an opportunity which was never there pre-1994. “Jabulani” time is what the period was well known for when the sale of former SABC radio stations which are now successful private commercial radio stations like Highveld Stereo and OFM and a few others. With new provinces born from our democracy, new regional commercial radio stations were born too. Stations like KayaFM, YFM and later Capricorn FM and recently Power FM – thanks to Nelson Mandela .
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IMAGE: Wikimedia Creative Commons