The news that Jenny Crwys Williams is (almost) retiring from 702 signals the end of an era for the talk radio station. Cryws Williams is an on-air legend, a woman who is equally at ease discussing the minutiae of politics, as she is style, lifestyle and books.
But if anyone thinks Crwys Williams is heading off quietly to enjoy the “luxury of reading a book at leisure”, think again. She will continue her books show on 702 and there’s more, but she’s not ready for a big reveal just yet. “I’ll be working with 702 on various things we are working through right now. It’s a bit early to say what they’ll be, but let’s just say I’m genuinely excited about them and the change in my life. I don’t want to fill in space at this time – I want to MAKE a bit of space,” Crwys Williams told The Media Online.
Crwys Williams leaves 702 in December and in mid-January, Sam Cowen, currently working with Darren Simpson and the Breakfast Xpress team on sister station, 947, will take over the afternoon slot. “This is a fantastic opportunity, it really is a dream come true and yet I’m also terrified! It feels like I’m finally getting the keys to drive new car, after being a passenger for many years,” she says.
Cowen started her broadcasting career at 702. “I was 20 years old when I started with 702 so there has been a whole lot of life experience between then and now,” she says. “Professionally, I have been privileged to work with some of the biggest personalities in the South African radio industry and have learnt a lot from them, and learnt a lot about my own style from working with them. It does feel like I’m closing a circle, coming back to the place where it all started for me.”
Crwys Williams’ tenure on 702 coincided with seminal events in South African and world history. She calls herself a “bit player in some of the great events that have rolled past in our country’s history”. She’s interviewed world leaders, from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu to Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton. Yet these occasions didn’t all go off swimmingly…
“I wince when I recall chatting to Nelson Mandela when he was in South America and wishing him a happy birthday and asking him if he was enjoying the rugby – it was football. He sounded very confused and fortunately couldn’t see me blushing,” she says, recalling some major on-air bloopses.
Another one: “Chatting to a listener who was very indignant when she realised I thought she was a man (she was talking about her partner in her diplomatic career and I said something like: ‘Oh, how very progressive of the diplomatic corps to treat your partner as if you were married’… there are too many to really mention!”
Bill Clinton, she says, was an awesome interview, a career highlight. “He has the ability to totally concentrate on you for the duration you have,” she says.
Of course, she’s been in the driving seat during some major world tragedies too. “Being on air with Jeremy Maggs for eight consecutive hours on the day Princess Diana died. Exhausting and exhilarating, and I suppose you would say the same of 911. I was on air when the second plane went in and was able to describe the towers’ collapse to a stunned audience,” she remembers.
But of them all, South Africa’s transition to democracy is a highlight in a career filled with them. “I do think being on air for the 1994 election, for that extraordinary day Nelson Mandela took his oath of office at the Union Buildings and seeing power change for a brave new world – well, that was tear jerking for me from start to finish,” she says.
Crwys Williams says talk radio faces the usual challenges… “being relevant, being involved in the community, and that mix of information, news and entertainment”.
“It’s a difficult mix to get right, but when you do, it is brilliant. For talk show hosts who have been on air for longer than a decade, it’s keeping fresh that is the main challenge. Fortunately for anyone working in the medium, there is so much happening in South Africa you barely have time to turn round, so there is no shortage of subjects, be they sacred or profane,” she says.
The Cowen-drive show “will remain a mid-afternoon talk show with a focus on lifestyle and community issues but there will be changes to the tone and feel as Sam brings her personality to the show”, Primedia says.
Cowen has a challenge ahead of her in conquering the airwaves as Crwys Williams has done over her long career as a journalist. She’s already planning her show, but is not ready to share her plans just yet. “You’ll have to tune in in January,” she says. “I’m interested to know what Gauteng wants to talk about. Good talk radio requires a lot more listening than talking so I’d like to hear what the audience wants to discuss. One thing that I am sure about is that I want to have fun on air.”
One thing she’s not afraid of is running out of words. “That is every talk show host’s nightmare! However, if you ask my husband or any of my colleagues they will tell you that it is largely an unfounded fear in my case,” she says.
Both 702 and 947, Primedia stations, are looking pretty healthy in terms of the latest RAMS; 947 has 1 351 000 and 702, 876 000 listeners. Announcing the change in line-up was done to prepare listeners. Cowen won’t be replaced on 947 as Breakfast Xpress team in place “is well positioned to take the show to new heights”.
Primedia says Crwys Williams will “continue to contribute to 702 through her book show as well as special projects that will benefit from her expertise and flair”.
With the benefit of hindsight, and a long and distinguished career in media, what would Crwys Williams tell her younger self? “Sweetie, you will never have so much fun in your life again! It’s an amazing ride, but make sure you are firmly in the saddle, because it moves so fast you sometimes have to hang on to the mane.” In other words, radio is an exhilarating experience. I would not change anything about my radio career. I’ve been singularly lucky, but I’ve also worked VERY hard, as have all my colleagues.”