From the stages of festivals across the country, attended and supported by a rising class of thousands of integrated South Africans and local music aficionados, the verdict is unanimous: South African music rocks! Whether it is kwaito, pop, afro-funk, jazz, metal, hip hop, rock or some music that defies categorization because it is a new hybrid borne of the multifarious stimuli floating around in the South African cultural melting pot, matters not. South Africa is a deeply musical culture, but you wouldn't guess it from listening to commercial radio.

The SABC controls two of the largest commercial radio stations, with the widest national footprints in the country, Metro FM and 5FM. Both stations were created back in the apartheid heyday and carry forward a legacy of racial market segmentation that still largely defines their audiences today. Both stations are youth orientated and both rely heavily on, and take their cues from international content, coming mainly from the US and the UK.

Metro FM is the largest national commercial radio station in South Africa with a 5.9 million seven day listenership (Rams 2003a), but 5FM, with almost the same national footprint reaches only a 1.229 million seven day listenership (Rams 2003a) across the entire country. YFM does about 500 000 more than that broadcasting to Gauteng alone.

While Metro FM has grown from strength to strength, with the tide of black empowerment since 1994, pumping out standard international R&B and hip hop in an urban contemporary format to a willing audience and augmenting that with more than their required 25% quota of kwaito and Msanzi house programming - that was largely broken and tested on YFM. It's transformation in the new South Africa has been relatively easy. 10 years after apartheid and the advertising industry are slowly starting to shake the ludicrous perception that Metro's mass urban market has no money to spend.

'Metro is an extremely profitable radio station.' Says SABC's head of commercial radio Randall Abrahams. 'Metro's LSMs are almost as good as Highveld's in Gauteng. What we have to do with that is turn it into a really successful station from an income point of view, and that's what we're working on.'

5FM, on the other hand, are in a radically different space. A bit like a retrenched 50 year old, white postal worker. The station has had difficulty re-inventing itself for the new South Africa. Struggling to shrug off the perception that it is a 'white' radio station they have slowly been broadening their playlist. In April last year, a succession of poor Rams results led to a long overdue repositioning. 5FM realigned itself as a Contemporary Hit Music radio station playing a wide range of genres from hip hop, rock, nu metal, R&B and lots of pop.

'Where we'll be in five years time is the first truly representative urban youth radio station in South Africa.' Explains 5FM's programme manager Nick Grubb. 'That's where we're moving to. In our last Rams diary, we've seen within the 20-25 market that we grew a black audience by 33% and females by 25%. Showing significant movement to where we want to go.'

Despite the spin, however, one thing is clear; transformation of youth radio at the SABC is an agonisingly long and slow process. Radical change towards representation on 5FM would mean losing the profitable market that it has already established. 5FM's 'white market' perception is further entrenched by a startling lack of representation in its daily drive time DJs.

'Yes of course 5FM needs to transform and we are aggressively recruiting and training new black talent.' Explains Grubb. 'That is a given. I think that it's fairly easy to look at the colour of the DJs and draw conclusions from that. We do need to grow talent but we're not in the business of putting people in who are not experienced or good enough. At the end of the day 5FM should be putting on the most engaging presenters for our audience. Hopefully in five years time the colour of the people on air will be irrelevant.'

'5FM has had the stigma in the past of being a white male station. What we have turned it into is a Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) station and if you look at our playlist and you look at KissFM in Los Angeles, you'll see that they've also got Nickelback and Puff Daddy on their Top 40. And that's what we are trying to entrench at 5FM. We play contemporary international hit music - and that applies to local as well.'

But what does it mean for South African music, to be basing our radio station's format on British and American radio standards of formatting? Is a 25% quota enough to ensure the development of original South African music? The South African Music Quota Coalition don't think so. They recently, claimed 5FM was flaunting their quotas and not supporting local music. The coalition also charged that 5FM was actively placing it's local music quota out of reach, running it between midnight and six in the morning.

Nick Grubb, had this to say:

'It's a load of tosh! ICASA fines radio stations up to R250 000 a week for not living up to the quota. It's a statutory requirement of a radio station and our licence agreement.

'Any music that we play after 11 o' clock at night and before 5 o' clock in the morning is not counted towards our quota. It's specifically excluded. And this applies to all stations. All of the local music content has to be 25% of the content that you play between 5 in the morning and 11 at night.'

So the late night SA content myth has been soundly debunked, but the real question remains. Is a 25% local music quota on commercial radio enough to support and build a viable local music industry?

'I think you have to ask the question that is rarely asked.' Says Randall Abrahams, 'and that is how much music is supplied? Is 25% of what 5FM receive local music? The answer is “no”.'

There is no question that South African radio stations are being inundated with international content, that is the way and shape of the global political economy. Cultural globalism is highly prevalent and dependably bankable. Surely that is why the quotas exist, to safeguard local content and culture and keep it relevant. SABC commercial radio seems to argue that the local industry is not producing enough quality content to be competitive beyond a 25% quota, despite the fact that they are dictated by parliamentary decree to:

'Reflect South African attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity. Displays South African talent in education and entertainment programmes and advance the national and public interest.'

'Yes we obviously do, but the fact is you can't just do that without considering audience needs.' Explains Abrahams. 'Any South African song is seen alongside any other song. The decision is made by the punter based on whether or not they like the song.'

At the end of the day, the research conducted by the radio stations indicates that their audiences are more receptive to international music, than the stuff we're growing at home. So SABC radio is stuck between the hard rocks of the parliamentary charter and basic capitalist and commercial interests.

'The stations have a format, that just doesn't mean we can play anything we want to. We will lose listeners.' Says Abrahams.

As in any capitalist society, the mass market inevitably chooses what works for them. So it's a chicken and egg debate, research serves only to assert what happened, not what is possible. How do you implement something that is within the public interest without losing audiences and create a viable, expressive local culture?

'Well that's exactly it.' Answers Abrahams. 'That's the issue that you're dealing with. But we have commercial imperatives, that's our job.'

YFM is an interesting example in this debate because they have succeeded in making a loaded local music format (50% as dictated by ICASA), highly commercially successful, capturing a 1.76 million seven day listenership (Rams 2003a). In many ways the YFM example shatters the misconception that local music is not popular with South African audiences. In fact it seems more popular than international content. Although the station has struggled to trade on the power of its huge audience, because of the dogma held that black markets have no buying power.

'The gap between our audience growth and advertising spend is decreasing.' Says Kim Thipe, Y Marketing Director. 'YFM is slowly becoming a must have media brand on the schedule, however, it has been a long road.'

Despite this well-known example, Randall Abrahams argues against an increase in the local music quotas: 'But where are they going to find this music if it doesn't exist? I've been in radio now for 12 years and I can tell you that the percentages of local music received by the stations is extremely low. It's not just in one particular format.'

But Yfm's 50% local quota and continued success serves to refute the claim that there is not enough local music to sustain more than a 25% quota on commercial radio.

'The 50% music quota has helped Yfm be a catalyst and driver of the South African music industry.' Says Thipe. 'We would like to see our competitors in commercial radio coming up to the bar and give similar airtime support to South African music.'

Nick Grubb describes YFM's supremacy over 5FM magnanimously:

'It's an emergence of a really exciting urban culture in South Africa. Our audience demographics are different and they [YFM] are still a niche radio station in terms of their format - and to be honest they're fantastic. If there was a rock YFM I'd be sitting pretty. Because they would unearth these music genres and we can take the best of that and make it mainstream radio.'

However the YFM example serves to illustrate that local music formatting can be radically successful in the South African youth market, while the international formatting of 5FM seems to have alienated the station from the same kind of market share, despite its national footprint. Many would argue that 5FM is the niche station and YFM represents the mainstream.

And while South African commercial youth radio continues to feed us 75% globalised pop crap that has no relevance or bearing on our experience, and no real resonance with the audience, contemporary adult stations like Highveld, East Coast and KFM are soaking up the residue of disaffected youth listeners.

KFM has seen a rise in over a hundred thousand listeners from the 16-24 age group in the last Rams diary (Rams 2003a). A jump that confuses the hell out of both the dedicated youth radio stations and KFM.

'We're not too sure we want to make too much of a fuss about it, because our actual market is from 25-49.' Says Felicia Roman sheepishly. 'Are these younger listeners coming to us because they're just not getting anything from the competitors or because of our programming? By the same token we do not want to start creating the impression that we have moved younger.'

5FM maintains that it is committed to supporting South African music, without adjusting their formatting criteria. The case of local band Tumi and the Volume's seminal track '1976' is an example of how strict adherence to format negates a great amount of quality local content.

'Because the one chorus was a hook we listed it, but it's like a six minute song and the hook comes in towards the end.' Explains Nick Grubb. 'When you're sitting live and watching that, it is mind boggling, but it's not structured in a conventional radio hit single way. I can't be apologetic about that. The fact is that we represent a certain format and style of music. The guys must create radio singles.'  

The truth is this, much of South Africa's original contemporary music production, necessarily, will not fit the format of a Contemporary Hit Music radio station, because the format is defined according to conventional American and British hit singles. Tumi and the Volume's '1976', is a track with remarkable cultural relevance, infusing hip hop with jazz and funk with sparkling rhyming prose about the 1976 riots. It is important South African cultural production with a pop sensibility - that has fallen between the cracks of definition and off the airwaves, to be replaced by Britney, Justin and Ludakris - simply because they fit the format.

The message commercial radio is sending our musicians is fit into the format or fuck off! We're not cultivating a culture of individuality, relevance and originality. Rather we are rewarding mimicry, capitulation and mediocrity.


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