Kanthan Pillay
Kanthan Pillay

Y the future …

My speech at the inauguration of the new Yfm building in Hyde Park on Friday, 19 February 2010

Friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

I was in Parliament last week sitting in the National Assembly for the State of the Nation address. Our president arrived, the national anthem began to play, and I stood up and instinctively almost raised my fist in the air. Even now, standing outside here in front of a mic, my instinct is to do just that and shout “amandla!” because that was the only reason we had for getting behind a mic in 1980 when as an 18 year old BSc student, I was expelled from the University of Durban-Westville.

I’m telling you this because we sometimes forget how dramatically our world changed in a very short space of time because just 17 years after, a group of upstart youngsters found themselves behind mics at a studio in Bertrams. For them, “the struggle” was something their parents had talked about to them. What they had going for them was a combination of township street smarts and Model C education joined together by passion for music. And it was not their parents’s’ music either — it was loud and in your face and when Yfm took to the airwaves and aggressively and unashamedly played kwaito, the rumbles from the townships grew into a storm that swept through Gauteng. Yfm hit 600 000 listeners with a few months and the magic million mark in less than a year. The station moved out of Bertrams into The Zone in Rosebank where it became a focal point for clubs which sprang up all around. Within a few years, Yfm was the biggest radio station in Johannesburg, peaking at around 1,9-million listeners by 2003.

And then something changed. The audience numbers began to shrink dramatically. The station somehow had lost the edge. By the time I moved into the hot seat at Y in April 2007, the audience numbers were down to around 1,1-million. How do we fix this?

For many of us in the media business, we trust our instincts, but start with the numbers. And we in South Africa are fortunate that our numbers are very accurate indeed thanks to very expensive research conducted on an ongoing basis including the all media and products survey (AMPS). And those numbers told us that there was a dramatic shift taking place in the wealth demographics of our country.

To summarise this very quickly, the rich were getting richer, but the poor were getting richer too. And the place where the poor were getting richer fastest was right here in Gauteng. Yfm’s audience was moving out of the townships into the suburbs. And the kids in the suburbs had no connection with the townships other than occasional weekend visits to uncles or grandparents.

So that was the starting point for a drastic shift in our thinking: what if we assumed that black kids in South Africa are actually no different in their thinking to any aspirational kids anywhere in the world? In other words, let’s talk to them not on the basis of where they are, but rather where they want to be. We summed this up in three words — “Youth With Money”.

We took a lot of flack around this from our friends in the tabloid media. They said we were abandoning our roots, that we were becoming coconuts, and lots worse. I’m pleased to say that they were proved to be wrong. Our audience numbers have climbed by more than a half million over the past two and a bit years, and our average household income has almost doubled from just over R6 000 in 2006 to more than R11 000 at end 2009.

More importantly for us, advertisers have seen the shift and have seized the moment. We are now seeing brands on Y like BMW, J√§germeister, and Dial Direct who are seeing real measureable returns. J√§germeister’s head of marketing for Europe and Africa told us the Yfm activation was the best he had seen in the world. Dial Direct tell us that the number of conversions of callers to customers is higher on Y than any other station.

And that’s why we are here today. The Zone was a great place and we did exciting things in that space, but we simply outgrew them. This new space will allow us to do greater things with greater efficiencies. Most importantly for us, it allows the commercial and creative teams to work together as a unit for the first time.

Today would not have been possible if not for the efforts of the Yfm staff led by our amazing management team, and I would like to introduce them to you.

Our finance manager, Alima Leetcher. Alima became a grandmother during the move process but still managed to stay on top of things ensuring that we did not run over budget.

Winston Goldin, our sales manager. Winston kept the revenue flowing even when the phones and email were out of action, and signed up a further R2,4-million commitment just yesterday.

Zukile Majova, our news editor. Many of you will know Zukile from his frequent political commentary in the Sowetan. Zukile has turned our current affairs show into a political powerhouse which has seen us hosting the likes of President Jacob Zuma, Premiers Nomvula Mokonyane and Paul Mashatile, DA leader Helen Zille, Cope leaders Mvume Dandala and Mbazhima Shilowa, your friend and mine, Julius Malema, and a host of ministers and deputy ministers.

Tumelo Diaho-Monaheng, our programming manager. Tumelo was hired as our research executive and was shell-shocked when we asked him to take over programming, but has risen brilliantly to the challenge. Our new lineup in April is entirely his work.

Shane Hermanus, our head of human resources. Shane manages to keep us out of the CCMA with some sound advice.

Stephan Potgieter, our strategy and development manager is not here with us today. Stephan is our company secretary, handles our regulatory and compliance issues, our digital presence, and teaches in the Y Academy. The reason why he is not with us is because he is at the moment riding a bicycle from here to Sun City as part of a corporate challenge to raise funds to buy wheelchairs for the kids at the Hope school in Westcliff.

Tamaria Motsepe, our head of marketing. Tamaria is responsible for this event today but is also responsible for the look and feel of what you will see inside. She has worked miracles even though I have mercilessly slashed expenditure to remain within budget.

And the man who more than anyone else made this move happen is Mike Penny, our technical manager. Mike was given impossible deadlines to work with as the studio infrastructure and transmitters needed to be made operational in about six weeks before the December 16 shutdown of the construction industry.

None of us would be able to do what we do if we did not get support from our board of directors and group executives. Many of you here know Khalik Sherrif who is our group chief commercial officer. Bronwyn Keene-Young is etv’s chief operating officer but also serves on Yfm’s board, and always finds time to give me assistance when I call for help. Willem Nel is our group CFO whose advice has been invaluable to me on many an occasion, even though he almost gave me a heart attack two days ago by telling me that Marcel was heading off to China that evening for two weeks.

Which brings us to Marcel … Marcel does not like talking about himself and prefers to give credit to those around him, but I have him at my mercy today and intend taking full advantage. I’m not going to tell you of his achievements in the business world, but I am going to mention a few personal things.

I first met Marcel Golding in 1999 at etv’s offices which were at the time in Sandton. We were both in our thirties then — Marcel is a year older than me — and he invited me to join his team, and he used a phrase which I have often repeated to many people; he said he wanted to build intellectual capital.

Over the years, I have learned much from Marcel. He once told me “I would rather have 90% enthusiasm and 10% talent than the other way around”. He is also a firm believer in the idea that everyone should learn to make coffee — in other words, that no job is too low for anybody. I remember when all of us were physically lugging boxes and furniture around the etv studio in Cape Town in preparation for the 2002 World Cup broadcasts, and Marcel brought his 14-year-old nephew in to help us. “He must learn about the dignity of labour”, Marcel said.

And over the years, Marcel has walked the talk. He surrounds himself with bright talented people and empowers them to do their jobs. This has allowed him and Johnny to build HCI into the powerhouse it is today.

In the financial scheme of things, Yfm is today a speck against our multibillion-rand siblings such as etv or Tsogo Sun or Johnnic or HCI Khusela Coal. But it all started here, because Yfm would not have come about if Marcel had not had the foresight to invest in a youth radio station when no one believed it would work. More than any other person, he is the reason why Yfm exists today.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s with great pleasure that I call upon the chairman of our board, Marcel Golding, to officially open our new home.