I guess the last remaining Gauteng FM radio signal licence could have been allocated by ICASA’s Paris Mashile to some black consortium in order to be politically correct. But that would have been a pity. I first wrote on the topic on Moneyweb on 1st November 2005 (http://www.moneyweb.co.za/economy/soapbox/512075.htm) suggesting that 702 qualified on a ‘grandfather clause’ basis for the signal. This in the face of a Mother Teresa-like plea against the notion, ‘in the public interest’, by Kagiso Broadcasting’s Omar Essak (pictured).
In a Mail & Guardian online response to my article, Essak dredged up the following scintillating riposte: “I read recently on the 'Exclusive Books’ website that you were inspired to write by reading Enid Blyton. Perhaps it’s best that you stick to fairy tales….as a pedestrian wordsmith, I beg your indulgence while I clumsily make the case for a more critical look at the possible motives involved in this case.” Perhaps if Essak had commenced his reading career with Enid Blyton, he wouldn’t today need to crave indulgences for his self-proclaimed literary ineptitude? He’d also have correctly read that my imagination was sparked and I was motivated to read by Blyton’s writing. I wasn’t inspired by her to write.
Let’s say ICASA followed Essak’s notion to empower a ‘greenfields’ operation. Radio is not simply a matter of sitting behind a microphone and nattering on, or spinning a few CDs. In today’s heavily competed environment it requires significant marketing nous. You need only to look at the early travails of P4 and other ‘empowerment’ managed stations to confirm that. Forget the conventional wisdom that Medium Wave (AM) is used for talk radio ‘throughout the world.’ Certain close-quarters urban environments make it absolutely non-viable. And the 702 output has reached that stage. It’s become impossible to hold on to what masquerades as a ‘signal’ even when going under motorway bridges.
I disagree that Mashile or ICASA have made an inappropriate decision. I can’t accept that the job of a regulator is simply to ‘level the playing fields’ as Alec Hogg, CEO of Moneyweb, suggests. Any bureaucrat or ‘cop’ could do that. The role must surely also be (in my view) to make intelligent judgement calls about the business sector or environment over which it has oversight. Such a mandate might well include throwing a sustainability or viability lifeline to a Gauteng institution – which is what 702 has become. A better choice I’m persuaded than potentially whittling away the value of that signal allocation in the hands of engénues or incompetents.
I continue to marvel at our national predilection for levelling accusations of bias, bribery or collusion as soon as things don’t fit with our concept. You can’t even write about something without someone alleging a vested interest – as some asinine idiot is already almost certain to have concluded in regard to this article.
Talk radio is not everyone's forte - and one assumes the licence conditions would not permit a 'conversion' to music other than as a percentage of the programming. But it will mean a dramatically improved listening experience and when music is played, it will at least be recognisable.
Regardless of your like or dislike of Primedia or its executives, and I carry no brief for them, an FM signal will ensure continuity for 702 and continued pleasure for its listeners. It provides a valuable forum for public debate – even if the IQ ratings of the debate are sometimes a tad suspect! ;-) Now let someone go look at digital broadcasting as the next evolutionary step in democratising the airwaves of Gauteng and South Africa. Maybe Omar Essak’s up to the task?