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Culture, Music

Radio Gaga

by Dave Durbach / 20.07.2010

If the medium is the message, then that medium has long been mediocre. The last time I cared about listening regularly to the radio was long, long ago. Anyone with a half-decent music collection would be crazy to sit through the collective hours of advertising jingles, inane banter and (more than anything) else, the American and American-inspired drivel that oozes over the airwaves.

There’ve been some exceptions over the years, usually on local community stations. But by and large, unless one found oneself road-tripping with one’s System of a Down-loving friends, there’s been very little reason to resort to radio. When I did, I’d find myself listening to Lotus or talk radio instead. As for the big guns – 5fm, Metro, Kfm, Heart 104.9 in the Cape, Jacaranda and Highveld in Gauteng – SA’s major urban English and Afrikaans stations follow the American formula to a tee, with little concern for local talent. If they can string two listenable songs together in succession, it’s a rare and special occasion.

For years, people have been talking about the need to install more comprehensive quotas to help cultivate a greater demand and appreciation of local music, following the Australian example that helped build a thriving local industry there. The call grew louder after uMsholozi took office. But not much ever happened, and local radio stations remained decidedly unlocal in their content, right down to the American accents on ads. Those local bands lucky enough to one or two songs playlisted would invariably be only the most Americanised of rocks acts – Parlotones, Dirty Skirts, Prime Circle, etc. and pop-idol R&B drivel.

The World Cup has helped to rectify the situation, if only for the time being. Since the beginning of May, and for the duration of the World Cup, the SABC Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) division’s 15 radio stations have been broadcasting 100% local music – 85% from Mzansi and 15% from the rest of the continent. Others have followed suit, including those not affiliated to the SABC.

“As the SABC, we have taken this decision to play only African music during this period, in order to further promote our home-grown music and music from our African counterparts.” said SABC’s Group Chief Executive Officer Solly Mokoetle in an official statement. “We must remember that during this time, we will be having a variety of foreign guests on our soil in the build-up and indeed during the course of the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, and it is important that they are exposed to our culture musically and otherwise.”

It seems ironic the radio stations have finally decided to play more local music for the reason of their being more foreigners around (“as soon as they gone, we’ll go straight back to the American shit you’re used to” Mokoetle seems to be implying), but perhaps long-term changes might be effected.

Mokoetle says the policy was adopted in order to celebrate Africa’s diverse musical culture: “By having the split in the music of mostly South African and African continental music, the Public Broadcaster wants to show that this event is not only for South Africans, but it is for all Africans to enjoy and celebrate”.

The SABC’s three Commercial radio stations (5fm, Metro and Good Hope FM) will continue playing a predominantly international playlist, although they too are upping their local content. “We have decided to increase the frequency and quantity of local music on air over this period and to involve the local music industry” says Vukile Zondi, programming manager at 5fm. BUT “To go the 100% local route would not have been consistent with the tastes of our target market.”

KFM has also adapted its programming to concentrate more on the “the football vibe”, says their programming manager Ian Bredenkamp. “We’ve produced fun, tongue-in-cheek football production and we’re making sure we playlist the fun, football-themed SA music.”

Apparently this means that any local artists who want to get played on Kfm will have to write a soccer song. Those who don’t could find it even harder to get airplay. “We’ve found that a well-researched, appealing mix of pop music is what’s enjoyed most by listeners. So during the build-up to the World Cup, as well as during the month-long event, we will continue showcasing local tracks, many of which have a football or World Cup theme. Most of these songs would have found it difficult under normal circumstances to get airplay on a Top40 station, but are now getting great exposure!” Bredenkamp cites as an example Darren Whackhead Simpson playing a football-themed song by an unsigned local muso every Monday morning on Kfm and Highveld Stereo. “These artists are getting their tracks played across two major radio platforms on primetime Breakfast shows.” Good work Whackhead – one new song played once a week!

“We believe in the power of SA music, and will continue to use our platform to promote it wherever possible,” says Bredenkamp. Just where it’s possible is of course the station’s prerogative. “Playing unfamiliar, untested songs will always run the risk of not appealing to the majority of a radio station’s core audience…We won’t be able to increase it to 100% local content, but will keep with our current trend of playing a minimum of 30%.”

At KFM’s sister station Highveld, music compiler Zane Derbyshire says much the same thing. While calling the SABC’s decision “a great initiative” and looking forward to “spicing the playlist with ‘local football flavoured’ tracks,” Derbyshire believes that increasing local content won’t please Highveld’s clearly very discerning audience. “We do a lot of testing and research on our music and while we are very supportive of SA music, we cannot change the sound of our station, and compromise international tracks for local tracks just for the sake of doing it. We are obliged to the play the music that our listeners want to hear.”

The idea that replacing international with local is somehow a “compromise” done “just for the sake of doing it” speaks volumes of the station’s real views on local music. Do commercial radio stations play what their listeners want to hear, as they claim, or do those listeners want to hear whatever their favourite station plays? Like Leon Schuster, house music, powdered milk and Montecasino, major radio stations are responsible for the dumbing down of our nation’s public, and continue to alienate rather than inform audiences. It’s time for them to catch a wake up: playing local music is not a compromise, and it ought to be for the sake of nation-building and international cultural awareness, among other things – not window-dressing.

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