I still remember the day my passion for radio was ignited. It was one fateful morning in the small, rural town of Thaba Nchu in the Free State, when I switched on our hi fi system, which was tuned to 5FM’s frequency, to discover radio like never before. The legendary Mark Gillman together with his team of Kevin Fine and Catherine Grenfell won me over that day and I fell in love with their morning show and eventually radio. Kabelo Mekoa remembers how he fell in love, and wonders if there are enough opportunities for African language presenters.
The kind of content that breakfast show did blew me away. I wanted to get into radio but opportunities at the time were limited despite the fact that I was still in primary school.
Many years later I find myself producing shows for a commercial radio station but I also find myself in a different ‘era’ of radio with the boom of community radio. There are hundreds of community radio stations in South Africa which also translates to hundreds of community radio broadcasters hoping to someday broadcast for big media houses. Young people who dream of being on radio today have far more opportunities to be on air and hone their skills because of these community radio stations.
However the opportunity to broadcast at a community radio station is, in my view, a double edged sword. There are some privileged individuals who broadcast at ‘successful’ community radio stations and earn an income but for many the journey of community radio is riddled with a once found love which eventually turns into deep disappointment and frustration. The reality though for many community radio presenters is sad. Community radio stations generally don’t make enough money to pay their presenters stipends for their service and it leaves the volunteering presenter in a tight spot. The so called ‘Radio Bug’ does exist and I’ve seen it with my own eyes at the community radio stations where I worked. The sacrifices community radio presenters make to fulfil their commitment to the radio station in the hope that someday they will get their break at the public broadcaster or commercial broadcaster.
One of my colleagues at a previous community radio station where I worked would do his midnight to 3am show and would sleep in front of the mixing desk whilst I continued with the 3am to 6am show. As soon as the sun came up he would walk many kilometres to get home, hungry with no money. The experiences I have are endless but not all is doom and gloom with many who have been able to get into community or campus radio, later making it big in the industry.
There is a growing frustration among African language community radio presenters that they do not have enough career opportunities versus their English language counterparts. One such presenter, Trevor Boqo, from Mogale FM based in the West Rand in Gauteng, raised this issue several times on social media.
I spent weeks thinking about this and this is my take on the matter. The truth is, for every indigenous language in the country the public broadcaster has only allocated one radio station. This means opportunities for African language broadcasters at a public broadcaster level are limited. New commercial stations like Vuma FM, North West FM and hopefully the ones to come in the Free State and Eastern Cape are embracing African languages in their language quota and may be the alternative to the public broadcaster.
The latter means there are more opportunities now for passionate and talented African language presenters than ever before. But the fact remains that there are far more opportunities for English language broadcasters in South Africa. Even when one ‘makes it’ at a commercial radio station your stay there is based on a range of factors. But one thing is for sure, the days of having permanent presenters doing the same show for over 20 years are gone. Thus those who follow some of their favourite presenters will see that they move around different radio stations as their career progresses. For any new talent out there my advice is to consider broadcasting in English. Kaya FM, ECR, KFM, 947, Metro FM, Radio 2000, SAfm, 702, OFM, Algoa FM, YFM, just to name a few, broadcast predominantly in English – don’t limit yourself by just broadcasting in your African language.
I am a proud African and I believe in the preservation of our languages. We need talented African language presenters to keep flying the flag high. But at the same time it’s important for an aspirant broadcaster to understand it is in their best interest to open up more opportunities for themselves by also broadcasting in English, especially with the growth of urbanisation.
Community radio indirectly perpetuates poverty simply because of a community radio model in SA that is failing hundreds of passionate media practitioners. Mark Gillman is not on South African radio anymore but his show changed my life forever and my passion for radio grows every day. I don’t know what brought you into radio but in whatever you do keep your options open.
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