Some say Given Mkhari is way ahead of the pack in radio and others just want him to disappear because he is cramping their style. Word in the radio industry is that Mkhari is the man to watch. Peta Krost Maunder finds out why.
Talk has increased since Mkhari’s company, MSG Afrika Investments Holdings, won the Gauteng commercial radio license bid to launch POWER 98.9FM. His other station, Capricorn FM which is the first commercial radio station in Limpopo, has long since made its mark, making it clear that Mkhari understands radio.
“I guess only time will tell. We believe we understand this medium and respect the business of radio. It is a sound and compelling platform and investment,” Mkhari says. “In light of the developmental nature of South Africa, this is the best medium to facilitate discussion on taking the country forward. We are bullish about this medium.”
The velvet-voiced radio-man has over the years shown he understands what listeners want as a talk show host on Kaya FM and then Metro FM. His popularity grew to such an extent that he had a listenership on Metro of over one million. When he left in 2005, then president Thabo Mbeki, called in to praise him for his sterling work.
His belief in the longevity of this media is well reasoned: “People have so many alternatives in how they consume media. But radio gives an opportunity for people to voice their opinions. Radio is a point of convergence. There is an immediacy of voice, a place to test your view and influence,” he says.
“No other medium gives you the immediacy, the voice and the real emotion that goes with the message. Facebook and twitter, you can read but not capture the emotion, visuals need cameras and edits. The technology may evolve but radio is here to stay and is a sound investment.”
Mkhari is unperturbed by the stiff competition in the industry. “There isn’t a post-1994 radio station clearly tailor-made for urban blacks to air their views and build their economies. POWER FM is the first black owned, black-targeted station in Gauteng. I am surprised it hasn’t been done before…”
He believes that Radio 702 is Gauteng’s radio of choice and the majority of their listeners are black. So, for him it is obvious that there is a need for particular station targeting blacks only. “Through POWER FM, we will grow a bigger and broader talk base that will benefit both 702 and us.”
Unlike 702, POWER will not invest in news. “We will be less current affairs and more issue driven,” he explains. His intention is to draw out the activism in the black population, as he believes that South African blacks are intrinsically civic activists who have become passive since the ANC came into power.
“But there is a lot that needs work in this country and it is up to us to get people moving,” he says. “The curve ball is much like men read women’s magazines because they are curious about how women think, white people will listen to and participate in POWER for the same reason.”
As for the status of radio today, he maintains that “traditionally white stations have had the luxury of being niched and therefore can sell an advertiser a targeted audience who has been with it for a long time”. He says the black stations are too broad for this. While he says that Kaya and 702 will be his biggest competitors, he believes his new station will also attract emerging young talent listening to YFM and 5FM but wanting to engage in talk.
“South Africa has one of the highest churn rates in the world because it is not a homogenous country with a lot of niche radio,” he says. “Competition is good for the industry. I am totally pro competition – it challenges us and forces us all to up our game. It is always beneficial to listeners and advertisers.”
He believes his real competition is not radio stations but other media. “I have massive respect for Kagiso and Primedia for what they have done in professionalising this media beyond pure entertainment.”
In terms of the competition for the last remaining FM spot on the frequency band, he said he was virtually holding his breath for two and a half years while ICASA (the communications and broadcasting regulator) decided which of the 41 applicants were going to be allowed to launch their radio stations.
“It was long, unfair and cost people a helluva lot of money, time and effort. If we hadn’t got it, I wouldn’t have been happy because we put everything into getting this,” says Mkhari. “It is not healthy to have such a long turnaround process in decision making. It isn’t fair to practitioners and applicants. Whether you win or lose, you plan your life around this. So, to wait such a long time, it is totally unfair.” He puts this long process down to ICASA having too little resources to monitor and regulate a multi-billion rand industry.
“Winning was very affirming. We haven’t had time to celebrate,” he says. “We found out on a Thursday and started working the beginning of the next week.”
This is the third time Mkhari and MSG have been involved in a bid for a license from Icasa. In 2007, he won the license to launch Capricorn FM and for Telkom Media which was to be a pay-television company to rival DStv. He was a 5% shareholder of this broadcaster that never went on air.
“I feel very sad looking back at Telkom Media and its potential,” he says. “It was very unfortunate and sad for South Africa from a diversity point of view. We can’t be a full democracy if we don’t have choice.” He believes “giants compete with giants” and the only company that could have competed with DStv was Telkom Media. “But, you have to dust yourself off and work on other things,” he says.
But this media man is not putting television behind him. “I will go back into television, in one way or another. Just give me some time to find the gap.”
Branching into other media is not new for Mkhari. He is a director and chairman of The Jupiter Drawing Room, chairman of The Communications Firm, a marketing agency, and non-executive director of Continental Outdoor Media, one of the top outdoor media companies in South Africa. Until 2009, he was the director of the International Marketing Council of South Africa (appointed by the president). He is also a part owner of Curious Pictures, a respected film and television production house.
Most of this is under the auspices of MSG Afrika. “MSG Africa is an ongoing project and we are patient operators who have been in this game for over 10 years. We are in no hurry and will build as long as we can,” he explains. “Each day, our team wakes up to see how we can grow this baby. We learn from those who have been here before and we have relationships with every media operator in this country. They are not enemies but we work with and respect them.”
Mkhari says he is “surrounded by the best team. My job is to dream and my team’s is to make those dreams come to life. I know my weaknesses and I surround myself with people with other strengths to augment mine”.
But no doubt his first love is radio. “I grew up in a small village in Tzaneen where the only media I was exposed to was radio,” he says. “I had a curious mind and so listening to radio took me out of that village – it was that intangible connection that this medium provides.” He then went on to study education because he realised that most of his radio role models had that background and the rest is history.
From on-air to owning the airwaves was a big move but one that he had set his sights on early in his career. “I thoroughly enjoyed being on air but I had other ambitions. So ending my on-air career was difficult on an emotional level; it was something I had to do to fulfill my bigger goals.”
So, is Mkhari the man to watch? I would say so, especially as we watch his dreams being realised.
This story was first published a radio supplement, inserted into the April issue of The Media magazine.