Dissident DJ Gareth Cliff has never been one to shy away from generating controversial headlines.
So when the former 5FM breakfast show host announced that he would be leaving the station and taking most of his team with him, many South Africans puzzled over what his next venture would be. And, what’s more, where would his departure leave the station that Cliff called home for 10 years?
“We had hoped that he would commit for the next year as we believed the show we offered would have added value to the overall line-up and listening experience,” says 5FM station manager Tim Zunckel.
But this wasn’t the case. After a number of conversations that were “relatively positive”, says Zunckel, the station was told that it would have to find an alternative presenter for one of the country’s most popular morning slots and that they only had seven shows left to do so.
Adjunct professor and director of the Wits Radio Academy, Franz Kruger, says he generally doesn’t think there is a very good succession planning system for on-air talent.
“The dynamics around presenters are complex because it is their voice that creates the direct connection to the audience and this represents the personality of the station as a whole,” he says.
While replacing one major talent with another can never be a seamless transition, Zunckel says 5FM always has a contingency plan in place should someone like Cliff leave the station.
“Succession planning always has varied angles as the industry is dynamic and a station’s needs can change in short periods of time. From a 5FM perspective, we always look at creating multiple options for a number of situations,” he says. “One must build a line-up with different personalities who have a variety of strong points and growth areas. This way, you can create possibilities which make building a line-up easier.”
SAfm was faced with a similar situation when presenter Tim Modise left the station unexpectedly in 2010. Station manager Dennis O’Donnell says that in these instances, the station is usually not informed in advance because of the public opinion that is created around the announcement. This, he says, makes it difficult to do comprehensive succession planning.
“A big problem when looking for a drive-time presenter is that the person has to be a big name, someone who is already well-established and has some kind of public profile,” says O’Donnell,
He keeps an eye on the talent at other stations and says SAfm has a list of several people who could be approached should the station lose any of its prime-time presenters.
“We always have some kind of an idea of who is in the industry and how they could potentially fit in at the station,” he says.
Talk Radio 702 station manager Pheladi Gwangwa says that effective succession planning relies on two things. “Firstly, you can’t tell the person that you are grooming them for a position because that raises expectations, which could lead to impatience,” she explains. “Secondly, you can’t make a big announcement of it because you don’t want your competitors to know what you are planning.”
Broadcasting veteran Chris Gibbons, who hosted 702’s The Midday Report, left the station in 2012, making way for reporter Stephen Grootes to take over the well-liked current affairs show.
“The key with succession planning is that the candidate who steps in must be as good, if not better, than the person being replaced. Stephen had a big following as 702’s senior political reporter and listeners were familiar with him,” says Gwangwa.
As a station that has a commercial imperative, Gwangwa says clients who are aligned to a particular show are part of the succession conversation should there be the need to consider a replacement. But, she says, clients trust that the station will make decisions that are right for them too.
“We have never allowed a commercial imperative to dictate what we must do because that would impinge on our integrity,” explains Gwangwa.
Kruger says that presenters in prime slots defend their turf strongly and everyone else is constantly eyeing those slots.
“The traditional pipeline for talent is that presenters get tried out in graveyard shifts. If they are judged to work well there, they get a more prominent slot with a bigger audience,” he says.
But is the industry doing enough to prime the next generation of John Robbies and Tim Modises?
“It’s better than it used to be because the number of radio stations has increased, so the pool of talent has expanded,” says O’Donnell.
Gwangwa says that recruiting novice presenters isn’t difficult but that it’s important to realise that it takes time for radio personalities to learn the ropes and become household names.
“If someone is catapulted into a position without training, it could be disastrous. They need time to develop not only their technical know-how but also their maturity and wisdom, which are equally as important,” she says.
Zunckel agrees, saying that good talent is developed over time so that a person can find their groove, confidence and natural ability. But he believes that there is “most definitely” a problem in developing the right people to be at the helm of a drive-time show.
“Very often talent is recruited too soon from community and campus radio stations as they show potential. They then basically never reach optimal levels of performance as the commercial environment doesn’t offer the luxury of trying new things that will fail or allowing a personality to grow through trial and error. You then have a bunch of potential that fails and never moves into prime time,” says Zunckel.
Commercial radio must foster meaningful relationships with community and campus stations and “stop treating them like a one-night stand”, says Zunckel.
“I have had several conversations with roleplayers in the commercial part of our business who bitch and moan about the talent crunch. The politics of radio groups prevents any meaningful collaborations in the training sector and the SABC, where many talented professionals trained, no longer offers training that fills that gap. Everyone looks to the community and campus sector as a solution but they arrive empty-handed,” he adds.
“Even as someone who is passionate about the sector, I often feel after doing training and spending time at station level that my contribution is lip-service.”
This story was first published in the July 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Gareth Cliff / Cliff Central
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