I know why former president Thabo Mbeki was evasive when asked to endorse Power FM recently.
The Renaissance man was, rightly, concerned about the role of black radio (sic) in not only speaking truth to power but disseminating enlightening information and knowledge that builds self-confidence and a spirit of self-determination among the previously disadvantaged.
When asked by what City Press called a sycophantic Tim Modise, all Mbeki said was: “There is an important challenge which I think we face as a country, which is the education of our people. It would be good to have people saying, ‘If you want to know the real truth, switch on to Power
Over the decades so-called black radio has managed, despite its superficial content, to draw a huge following. In fact, it has always preoccupied itself with LSM rating to attract advertisers and not to speak the truth.
Critical listening reveals that it has mostly peddled flimsy opinion of media-created individuals who have neither original thought nor deep understanding and knowledge of history. Its hosts are largely pedestrian individuals — there are a few exceptions — who have drawn a following simply because their jobs are an automatic escalator to a public profile. Where everyone is blind, the short-sighted are kings.
Some of us have listened to this Bantu radio, as it was called, long before the advent of Metro FM in the mid-1980s. The advent of this latter station was regarded as a novelty in the information-starved black community. In fact, few people recognised Metro FM as a reinvention of LM Radio, Radio Bop or Swazi Radio that had DJs and other broadcasters who spoke like they were British or American.
Metro FM was, essentially, an apartheid creation to counter the influence of American-aping black radio that was coming from outside the borders of South Africa, including then Laurenco Marques, Swaziland and Bophuthatswana. Rightly or wrongly, both LM Radio, Swazi Radio and Radio Bop were arguably mistaken as revolutionary for merely playing the banned music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Not that these stations had any links with the revolution but for blacks who were starved of any political information, they were the closest thing to articulating the aspirations of the then banned liberation movement.
With hindsight, these channels conducted the first baptism for naïve youth to become mimics and imitators of American culture through twang-accents, style, fashion, music and the worship of the god of money.
For decades, black radio was characterised by dumbing down content that crippled black thought, self-knowledge and articulation of authentic pan-African history and views. Its themes were always pedestrian stuff about soccer, crime, unfaithful women, tribal or American music and Jim-comes-to-Joburg stories.
Not even with the ANC take-over in the early 1990s did black listeners get anything fresh, original or different. The SABC flagship, SAfm is battling to reinvent itself. Even independents like Kaya FM or YFM, for instance, can easily pass for American stations in terms of their local music ratio, languages, accent, content and lifestyle orientation.
Much as blacks control the biggest broadcasting channel in the world, that is the SABC, nothing substantive has come out to feed the mind, soul and heart of African people.
Again, what we have are articulate black broadcasters who speak English well but nothing much beyond that.
The thing is, black radio anchors speak very good English but they are neither rooted in African history and heritage nor intuitively connected to Africa’s new destiny. And this is what makes Mbeki reluctant to endorse the newcomer, Power FM.
We increasingly find young and old men and women with superficial opinions on motivational pop-psychology, politics, culture, history, languages, Christianity, soccer and economics. They are mostly pseudo-professionals whose standard of success is, largely, impressing white audiences. In short, so-called black radio — even in indigenous languages — is preoccupied with modern colonial perspectives and it is, unfortunately, a launching pad for blacks who want to pursue global ambition either in the US or Britain or to just make plenty money. Alas that the mental attitude of these broadcasters is wired towards the America Dream and the money and not Africa or its mental liberation.
It is time that listeners expressed their disappointment and anger at the content of black radio to get it to provide information and knowledge that will not only stimulate critical thinking but provide its audiences with nourishing content to be able to take their lives to greater heights. For instance, when it comes to national days like Youth Day, the treatment is always predictable and monotonous.
What has become obvious is that there is absolutely nothing black about so-called black radio as it uses the same formula that is pursued by commercial channels, for example. What they are after is proving that they have big audiences so that advertisers can buy airtime that interrupts the flow of news, information and knowledge. Obviously, the profit motif is more important than nourishing the hearts, soul and mind of the audience.
It is this image that has made some people raise serious questions about the value of black talent and what it brings to the table. How is it different from so-called commercial white radio? A number of supposedly black DJs and show hosts have prime slots in formerly white stations like 5FM, 702, for instance, but this has not brought about any radical change in terms of the information and insight into the transitional society we live in. Talkshow hosts are not asking the right questions about where the country is going.
It was Malcolm X who said “chickens cannot produce duck eggs” because they do not have that in their DNA. Thus black radio will only be black when it is delivered by revolutionary chickens. The question is: where will these come from? Black radio professionals are products of the same system that emphasises sizes and formula instead of content and spontaneity.
The crisis is deepened by the fact that today DJs and talkshow hosts, even at a youth station like YFM, think they are more important than creative writers, thought leaders, scientific innovators and genuine entrepreneurs in today’s society. In fact, a career in radio has become a major attraction to the youth not only because of the easy fame and recognition but the shortest route to getting-rich-quick schemes.
Black broadcasting in general, needs to find its soul and purpose if it expects to be endorsed by men like Mbeki. It is no wonder that a rare bright and articulate host like Azania Mosaka will publicly admit that she has outgrown the second largest but frivolous black radio station in the country, Metro FM. As much as Ukhozi FM and Metro FM are the biggest hitters in terms of audiences with almost 15 million listeners between them, there is not much insightful, critical and alternative way of thinking or looking at South Africa, the continent and the rest of the world.
With the advent of Power FM, it is time for black broadcasters to re-examine their meaning and relevance. It will never be enough to just deliver the black market to exploitative white business.