Recently I overheard the editor of a national youth magazine claim that their title 'owned youth culture in South Africa'. While I simultaneously choked and blew a mixture of canapé and beer out my nose, this kind of smarmy, self-congratulatory, hubris-engorged fiction can be found printed in bold on the rate cards of most of the major youth media players from publishing to radio and broadcast television. But who can claim to own 'youth culture', a shape-shifting, misnomer of a term that is as fickle and anti consumerist as the self-conscious, disgruntled, hormonal young minds who define and create it. Alas the radio stations, TV channels and youth market programming that claim so boldly to define the culture are mistaken about their role in the process.

'Culture has its own life, it's like the rain, it falls when it falls.' Says YFM station manager Greg Maloka. 'The fact that you've figured some things out doesn't mean that you own it. People say that because we are in the advertising and marketing game and you sound better when you say you've got your finger on the pulse... but you can't own it.'

And he should know, since its inception in 1997 YFM has been at the forefront of exposing and to some extent (mainly by default of being the first station to do so) defining the first post-apartheid, urban, South African youth culture.

'I think YFM gave it a platform more than anything. It would not be true if I said that we developed the trends. YFM first looked at what was happening in youth culture and how it was projected. We have an interesting historical and political background. What we really did as a media outlet was to hold a mirror up to that culture and beam it to the powers that be.'

But is the ad spend attracted reflective of YFM's influence?

'Not at all.' Shouts Maloka. 'For the first three to four years we spent all our energy selling the young black person, not the radio station. We had to educate people about the demographic. That meant that we spent all of the time trying to get the industry to look at the market with a different eye. And we were growing much faster than the industry was getting educated. So the industry is still playing catch up. And there are still huge disparities looking at it from a race perspective. If you look at Metro and YFM put together, we make what Highveld makes. And put together we have over 8 million people listening.'

Alas, YFM has shed around 300 000 listeners in the second half of 2004 and are now holding steady around 1 500 000 (Rams 2004/4). However they still have a bigger total 7 day listenership than the national footprint of youth market rival 5FM. 5FM, however have been on the ascendancy for five consecutive Rams diaries currently reaching 1 414 000 (Rams 2004/4). Proof that their image overhaul and repositioning are paying off.

'The growth in female audience hasn't been as quick as we would have liked,' Says 5FM Station Manager, John Langford, 'but we're growing our black audience much quicker than we expected. Overall we didn't think we would have grown as much as we have. So we're going to speed up some of the changes, based on that.'

Commenting on 5FM's role in culture creation Langford comments: 'We're always debating how much we need to reflect local youth culture and how much we need to create and incubate it. But we can't get away from the fact that we're a mainstream station with a big audience. We have to be all things to all people, which means we're not on the fringes of youth culture where it is germinating and developing.'

Candidly Langford admits, 'we know that a lot of what's happening in South African youth culture is developing on YFM, so we watch that closely. But we have to make sure that what we're amplifying is relevant to a mainstream radio audience.'

'We definitely work with YFM in a synergistic way. They've got a certain amount of youthful arrogance, which we share with them. And if you look at the radio market, I think we need more competitors. Much of the South African music industry looks to us to break music for them, but we can't do that because of our business imperatives.'

Maloka sees things differently. 'We look at 5FM as our competitor. A lot of people say Metro is, but it isn't. 5FM have the advantage of being national. They then look at our successes in GP and use them in other regions. It seems like an SABC strategy. The mentality is that we're big, and we don't need to develop anything, we can get whatever is out there from all the other players. So Y just becomes their backroom creative department. The biggest worry for me is that outside of GP, people start to look at those brands as being fresh. But then again, our position has always been that of being real. Be real and true to what you do, and people who understand will follow you. Anybody can play any song.'

'Look, we're running a business.' Says Langford. 'My executives at the SABC expect me to deliver this kind of profit and I can only do it delivering this kind of audience. I can't take too many risks. That's why YFM are such a great adversary, because they're willing to take those risks.'

Although 5FM may not be at the bleeding edge of developing South African youth culture, the outlet takes its 25% local music quota seriously and is, in Langford's words, 'exceptionally profitable'.

Commenting on the slow pick up of ad spend at stations with major youth culture influence, such as YFM, Langford lets rip. 'I think it's beyond lazy marketing, I think it's racism in the industry. It's ironic, coming from 5FM's perspective. But if we look at Metro, I believe Metro should be earning far more revenue than it is, based on their massive listenership. I've sat with the guys from Y fighting for the fact that the youth market has a massive amount of disposable income, but all the money is going to Highveld.'

Youth culture on TV is a different beast. MTV, the global youth pop uber-brand recently conducted some audience research in Johannesburg. What they found out was not surprising. The MTV audience is affluent, their parents being DSTV subscribers. The majority demographic are white and fall into the same LSM 8-10 segment that make Big Brother and Idols go kaching!

However how Oracle Airtime Sales get to such ludicrous statements, as published on, that 'MTV is the favourite music channel amongst the youth, with a total of 79% share'. This gumpf occludes far more than it exposes when you consider that less that less than 500 000 kids can afford to subscribe to DSTV, and the majority demographic is white and upper class. Obviously they are referring to the 1000 odd youths who answered their questionnaire.

However, DSTV with its affluence-tilted audience represents the sure fire payload for marketers and advertisers alike, and so we saw in August last year the launch of GO, M-net's version of KTV for young adults, eyeing research that suggested that teens between the ages of 13 and 19 had close to 6 billion Rands in disposable income. Alas programming on both MTV and GO are the standard global pop schlock of imported sitcoms, music videos, concept and variety shows that do little to grow or showcase South African youth culture. This works well with the top-end of the SA youth market, who are already training an eye on London, Sydney or California. GO does have a few locally produced programmes such as the magazine show 'Vicious Delicious'. Alas it is taken out by far slicker productions on SABC1 like 'Street Journal', 'Take 5' and 'Zola Seven' all of which are 100% locally relevant and also reach a far wider and more inclusive South African audience. Surprise surprise then that they have much larger audiences and influence than ad spend.

Research is a key component in any media outlet, especially when dealing with the youth demographic. But how do you research a subject such as South African youth culture, that is notoriously hard to pin down, underfunded, peripheral and continuously morphing and re-defining itself. Moreover, it's all happening for the first time, so there is nothing to measure it against.

Lance Stehr, executive producer of the radically popular SA youth TV show Zola Seven and head honcho at Ghetto Ruff records, is uniquely placed to comment on the rise of South African youth culture. Since his record label has been the kingmaker of kwaito since it began.

'Research! What fucking shit is that? Those people should be fired. It's all about gut feel. If you don't feel it yourself, it's never going to work.'

'Before it starts with TV, it starts with music.' Says Stehr. 'Trends are created by musicians. Then the producer makes a move on it. Zola is the biggest youth icon in South Africa at the moment. He was created by music and now he's on TV making people's dreams come true.'

And it would seem that is what the youth of South Africa really want to see, in Stehr's words, 'the real people who make it happen'.

Further to the periphery, attempting to create a viable alternative South African youth culture media outlet is Laugh It Off's Justin Nurse. His anti-consumerist satire, t-shirts and publications - as well as his well publicised spat with SAB has turned him into the enfant terrible of SA youth culture. Although small fry in comparison to the big franchises on the SABC and DSTV airwaves, LIO's finger in the eye of the establishment is exactly what South Africa's complacent media environment needs. It may not be the best business plan, but it certainly opens up debate about the role of popular culture platforms in the corporate age, beyond creating suitable spaces to sell more advertising.

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