How 702 Got Its Groove Back

THE DIGITAL CLOCK GLARES DOWN IN RED NEON from its position above the Talk Radio 702 news desk. It’s 9.28 on a Thursday morning in early April and Johannesburg news editor Katy Katopodis, long unruly black hair, brown eyes, corduroy jeans and an olive-coloured sweater, is sitting cross-legged on a low slung office chair in the middle of the station’s Sandton news room. She leans in to consult her troops – all young women reporters, the men happen to be out in the field today – who swarm around in a semi circle for the morning meeting.

She offers up a couple of quick tips. When filing your story, you need indicate “the when” of the piece in the appropriate place so the listener is able to understand clearly the timeline of the story. Also, you know that bit that ran on cervical cancer in the morning news slot? Good story. Next time keep the genital warts out of it.

“That’s just far too graphic for the morning,” Katopodis explains. “It’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re eating breakfast.”

And the loyal listeners of 702land would very likely agree. More than 250 000 of them are tuning in, in and around Gauteng every each week just to hear John Robbie’s morning show. They listen intently while eating their breakfast, driving to work, getting their first cup of coffee, jumping out of the shower. The station tells them what to wear (weather report), where to drive (traffic report), how to plan their day around load shedding (power update) and what they are up against today, regularly breaking local stories live on air and offering up international news reports. It’s a lot to digest when you first wake up. Katopodis is right. Genital warts can probably wait until the afternoon slot.

Her cell phone rings. It’s Sheldon Morais. He’s on the border, trying to get into Zimbabwe and having problems getting a car. Katopodis tells him to keep trying, to keep in touch and puts down the phone. She turns back to her group. Sheldon will file something on Zim. Zimbabwe is, after all, the story of the day, the week, the month, the year, and it’s going to break any moment. For now, one of the reporters will work on a piece about high profile Zimbabweans who may return if Mugabe is out, another will find out why Helen Zille cancelled the meeting on the Scorpions and someone else will do a piece on Eskom’s poor communication skills. There has to be a follow up on Mandoza’s accident, and maybe another story on the police awareness campaign on smash and grabs. And the Village People are coming to South Africa. It’s all about the mix – you get your good with all that bad. Warts and all.

Friday it will all be different. That’s when Talk Radio 702 will become the lead story of every news report in the country. Katopodis knows what’s coming. She might not know the result, but she knows exactly where in the news line up her Human Rights Commission complaint against the Black Journalists Forum will put her and the station.

“There is a point as an editor that you are uncomfortable because you are the story,” says the 33-year old Katopodis, who filed the complaint after the BJF held a blacks-only news briefing with ANC president Jacob Zuma in February, refusing 702 reporter Stephen Grootes entry to the event. “Journalists should report the news, and we became the news. But it had a direct impact on our newsroom and we had to do something about it.”

So she did and we all know what happened next. On Friday April 4, the HRC ruled in favour of Katopodis, saying that the policy of the BJF of restricting its membership on the basis of race would not pass constitutional muster. And she, Grootes and the station’s Group Head of News and Talk Programming Yusuf Abramjee and talk show host Kieno Kammies – who lodged a simultaneous complaint against columnist Jon Qwelane for referring to Abramjee and Kammies as ‘coconuts’ after they walked out of the meeting in protest – became the news.
This sort of advocacy journalism is becoming an increasingly familiar position to the station of late. In March, talk show host Redi Direko led a rally through town protesting the attack of a woman – allegedly for wearing a mini skirt – at the Noord Street taxi rank, making headlines across the country. Their campaign in February to help out the police by donating GPS systems resulted in 730 of the units being handed over to SAPS. Meanwhile, the station’s Crime Line initiative which encourages listeners to sms tips offs about crime has, according to Abramjee, led to more than 400 arrests since it launched in June last year.

“We just want to bring positive change,” says station manager Pheladi Gwangwa. “Is that advocacy journalism? Maybe. Is it the right thing to do in South Africa right now? Definitely.”

In our post-Polokwane world, with the power crisis in full force and a racial boil ready to burst yet again, 702 has become the platform echoing the pains of a nation trying to find itself. The thousands of daily emails, smses and calls bombard the station each day as Gautengers screech their middle class angst – the bulk of their 421 000 weekly listeners are LSM 7 to 10 – over the station’s airwaves.

“We are in time of crisis,” says talk show host David O’Sullivan, who does a sober delivery of the station’s afternoon drive time. “In times of massive uncertainty people turn to 702. They use the radio station as an outlet for their anger, their confusion. And sometimes they are just looking for someone to pat them on the back and say, ‘it’s going to be alright.”

But perhaps the most intriguing part of the 702 history is their chameleon-like ability to transform to the needs of the people, milk the anxiety and angst out of them on air and do good all at the same time. Oh, and market the hell out of themselves in the process.

Stan Katz still looks so good after all of these years. Chiseled jaw, bright white teeth, a Caribbean tan, in great shape, not quite preserved but transformed into another version of himself. Older, wiser but still, well, Stan Katz, the legendary broadcaster. The man who brought Hollywood to South Africa, packaged and repackaged 702 and in the process created a huge chunk of radio history in South Africa, for the station and for himself. After all, this is the man who comes with his very own tagline: “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t happening.”

Katz started out at Issie and Natie Kirsh’s Swazi Music Radio as a junior administrative assistant in 1973, not long after the station launched. He left a couple of years, managing a rock and roll band, getting into copywriting with J Walter Thompson and eventually going to Los Angeles to work for Wolfman Jack’s syndication company Audio Stimulation. He returned to South Africa in 1980.That was the year the first incarnation of 702 – Channel 702 The Rainbow of Sound – hit the airwaves.

When the opportunity for commercial broadcasting licenses came about in the former homelands, the Kirshs got themselves one in Bophuthatswana, a loop hole in the apartheid plan which allowed them to have their very own commercial station and deliver it with a better signal to Joburg and surrounds than SMR ever had allowed – the reason that station ultimately went off air in 1978. The programming came out of their Atkinson House studios in downtown Joburg and was delivered on the South African Post’s landline, then beamed out the signal on a huge 100 km medium wave transmitter on top of a hill in Bophuthatswana.

The rainbow idea – with one white DJ, one coloured, one Indian and one black – didn’t work for long. “It was a station designed by committee,” says Katz. “You can’t be all things to all people.” That idea slowly died and the station transformed into a top forty station which appealed to a mostly white audience. Katz rocked 702land on Sunday nights, following Casey Kasem’s American Forty. His day job was at Grey Phillips. When Katz got the afternoon drive in 1982, he left Grey Phillips, and started his own own ad agency. By then John Berks – who had also worked at SMR – was on air in the morning with DJs Cocky Two-Bull, Frank Sanders and Rob Wheatley. The station was rocking the region big time. By 1985, Issie Kirsh hired Katz as marketing and sales director. He gave Katz just enough string – and Katz soared.

“I terrorized them right from the start,” he tells me wistfully over a bottle of water at the Seattle Coffee Company in Hyde Park. “I’d make reps write tests about radio every week. It was Radio 101 boot camp.” And Ghengis Katz was born.

In 1987, he was appointed general manager of 702, under station manager Rina Broomberg. “We played hard and we partied non-stop,” he says. One of his first items of business was to get the 702 limo into place. Katz had two white 7 series BMWs with blue velour interior joined. He fully equipped his new ride with a telephone, a fridge, cut glass 702 engraved decanters, champagne flutes and blacked out windows. Then there was the 702 helicopter – used for traffic, for ambulance, for functions, for advertisers to take a ride over to the Bop house where there was a swimming pool and a braai. “Everything had to be larger than life,” he says. “We had to. We were smaller than everyone else.”

And all was rocking until Radio 5 switched from AM to FM in 1986, and 702’s crackling signal could no longer compete with the government’s delivery of top forty. “I knew we were going to have to go talk,” says Katz. The station started slow, with more and more news, easing into the format with John Berks dabbling in talk in the morning and introducing shows like sex talk and in the evening, with community shows tackling issues medical issues.

In 1988, to a crowd of 600 people in the Sandton Sun ballroom, his white teeth sticking to his lips, a hideous grin on his face, Katz announced the change of format from top forty to talk and, along with it, proclaimed a whole new demographic.

“At that time, the market was white, 16 to 34,” he says. “I was saying the new demographic was 25 to 49. That’s not a demographic, that’s a fucking family reunion. But I was saying the 702 audience had grown up, that the guys who were climbing the Stairway to Heaven were now climbing the corporate ladder.”

The timing for the change couldn’t have been better.

“We were opportunistic,” says Katz. “Apartheid was unsustainable. We were prodemocracy and anti-racisim and we were on this side of a ground swell. We opened up the lines and people were saying whatever was on their minds. There were black aspirations and white fears. I think the government was listening to find out what was happening. If you were listening to SABC, you would think you were in two different countries.”

In those days, CNN and BBC came in to do stories about this talk station defying the apartheid government, putting banned voices on air and getting the country to talk. And despite the uproar they were creating, the government didn’t shut them down. Technically, 702 was broadcasting out of an independent country.

The 702 news cars would drive into Soweto to fists shooting in the air and shouts of “Viva 702”, but meanwhile, back in Sandton, the DJs were driving around in the sweetest limo in town. “Our market was the yuppies,” says Katz. “We had to make it cool for them. We were telling the story of the underprivileged, we were talking to the guys in exile. What were we going to do? Dress is sack cloth and ashes?”

The station went big on outdoor adverting to get their market nailed.

“There wasn’t a bus shelter in town that we weren’t on,” says Katz. The “Prevent Truth Decay,” “For People over 5”, “Mental Floss” and “Relief from the Dry Highveld” messages were everywhere. And when SAfm relaunched in the early nineties with the tag line “People are finding themselves in a new place,” 702 hit back. Katz had a billboard hooked onto a trailer and which was driven around the SABC parking lot. The message: “Thanks for sending listeners to a new place.”

It was a hands-off approach to editorial – something the station has prided themselves on ever since. “We never interfered with editorial prerogatives,” he says. “It was important not to compromise our credibility. Our morality, our integrity, it was premium.”

And the formula was working. In 1985, when Katz took up the head sales position, revenue was at R13 million. By 1994, they were landing R70 million in sales a year.

Then something happened. Democracy, for 702, came with a whole new set of problems. For one, 702 no longer had a cause. Talk show host Jenny Crwys-Williams, who joined the station in 1992, remembers a trip in the 702 limo at the time to Sandton City, where they were doing a live broadcast. After the show, on the way back to the station, the limo broke down. “It was the end of an era,” Crwys-Williams says. The 702 limo never rode again. Katz left, burned out, in 1997.

Terry Volkwyn, CEO of Primedia Broadcasting, which has been the station’s parent company since 1994, does not, in pedestrian parlance, fuck around. She doesn’t really fit the profile of a corporate beast – today she’s wearing a thick ring of silver trinkets around her wrist, a long black dress and black boots – but she’s the one credited with putting the broadcast division on top of the radio pile.

In her third floor office, which overlooks the burgeoning development of Sandton, the walls are covered in images of Volkwyn’s “formula for success”. There’s the 14 top line principles to have, including the Red Bull can strapped with Energizer batteries that reminds the team to keep energetic, the sexy blonde on a orange-striped zebra telling them to stand out and the woman screaming through a bull born saying they should speak up. Then there are the things not to have. A fat lady lying on the beach next to a cocktail = complacent. A ceramic middle finger = disrespect. A can of Ego = well, you get it. So far, so good.

Her formula has worked. The four stations that she now oversees – Talk Radio 702, 94.7 Highveld Stereo, 567 CapeTalk and 94.5 Kfm – currently take home a huge chunk of the nation’s radio advertising spend.

So if Volkwyn acts like this is her station, it’s because, well, it pretty much is. Issie Kirsh – a non-executive board member of Primedia –  and son William, who is CEO of the currently privately-owned group which owns Ster-Kinekor, the Kaiser Chiefs, and a slew of advertising ventures including Primedia Outdoor – have allowed Volkwyn loose reigns to run the broadcasting business, much like they did under Katz. Volkwyn started off as a direct sales representative for 702 more than 21 years ago, under the Katz reign. She remembers “crying for a year” after he appointed her head of sales for the station. It’s a position she held until Highveld came along.

After democracy, the SABC started selling off stations and Primedia made a bid for the Afrikaans and English channel in 1996. They got it. Jeremy Mansfield was taken off 702 and put onto Highveld. Volkwyn was sent in as managing director. She built the new station into a money-making monster, increasing sales 40 percent year on year. Meanwhile, 702 crashed.

With weak leadership and no direction, the station went through half a dozen managers in just a few years. Crwys-Williams recalls a period of several months that there wasn’t even a manager in place. Morale and listenership plummeted, and sales went along with it. By 2002, that R70 million in revenue the station was bringing in back in back in 1994, had dropped to a paltry R38 million.  That’s when the board of Primedia came to Volkwyn and asked her to right the mess.

“The last thing I wanted were all those problems,” she says. But she finally agreed. Her mandate: fix 702 and start up 567 CapeTalk, which Primedia purchased as a greenfields license in 1996. When her appointment was announced to the staff of both stations, the Highveld staff roared in approval. The 702 team gasped. The days of Ghengis Katz were long gone. Now was the time of Terry the Terrorist. She went to work.

“Blood was flowing out of the door, and down the stairwells,” she says, recalling that it took three years to right the mess. “The staff was wounded. They were miserable. They spent hours and hours in my office just talking.”

Volkwyn lobbied the board for money to pour back into the defeated newsroom. She painted the grubby 702 walls in bright colours and bought new furniture. “We were given our own desks,” Crwys-Williams says. “Given our desks. Can you believe it?”

A lot of people lost their jobs. The station started to focus on local news, brought in call screeners and changed their jingles. But what marked the real turning point was righting of the program line up. Garreth Cliff – the current Radio 5 jock who was on the 702 morning slot in an effort to bring in a younger audience – was excused. John Robbie was put onto the breakfast show. Tim Modise was on after Robbie to flesh out the big stories, Jenny Crwys-Williams came on in the afternoon for the light stuff and David O’Sullivan was put on afternoon drive. And it pretty much stayed that way until today. The only major change in line-up came when Modise went to the 2010 Local Organising Committee in January 2007. Redi Direko replaced him. It was a move which has kick-started the station with lively morning debate driven by the 29-year old, vibrant, likeable rising broadcast star with serious street cred who is able to switch from abortion to bra sizes and back without missing a beat.

Volkwyn says it took about three years to get 702 back on track. But it wasn’t until 2007 that the station started to hit the weekly listenership numbers that it was getting back in 2000. Today, sales have never looked brighter.

According to Toni Bowker, sales manager for Primedia Broadcasting, 702 will hit a record R123 million in June. It’s a substantial portion of the Primedia Broadcasting stable which brings in R740 million annually for the company – Highveld still commanding the lion’s share of the broadcasting division. The four stations make up just nine percent of the total audience share in South Africa, yet command 27 percent of total radio ad spend, appealing to the coveted LSM 6 to 10 market.

Bowker says her competitive advantage is the “relationship between sales and programming.” Now, a lot of editorial-type folk would wince at that – and rightfully so. What about the editorial line that advertising should never cross? Not so much. “We will sit with Jeremy [Mansfield] or John [Robbie] with clients, and meet with them and brainstorm ideas,” says Bowker.

They sell clients just about everything here, including their recently launched Prime Talent brand which pushes on air personalities as product spokespeople, masters of ceremonies, voice over artists and conference facilitators. In addition to standard advertising, sales people also sell “live reads” –in which the presenters read ads in what the sales team call “perceived endorsements” during their shows. Bowker says the presenters will push back to keep the “I” out of the read; pure product endorsement where talent backs the product comes at a higher, to be negotiated price, via the new Prime Talent division.

But just because they are selling they everything possibly can, Bowker maintains that that they do it with the complete independence of the editorial decision-making process. The presenters’ choices of who they interview and how, and the Eyewitness News team coverage, are never interfered with. This, despite the fact that talk show hosts tell you to visit Swaziland hotels or a certain men’s wear shop without a breath between interviews that are, many times, breaking news stories.

It all comes back to what they are selling here at 702, and it’s exactly what they have been offering up for years: listeners to advertisers. And to do it they endear themselves into the hearts of the community.

“We have a culture at 702, that where there is any wrong doing from any quarter, it’s our duty to expose it and challenge it and take it to the next level,” says Abramjee, who oversees news and talk programming for the four stations. “It is your democratic right to complain about crime but we wanted to take it further. You can have a million man march and it won’t make a difference – other than getting someone to write a memorandum that’s going to get tossed in a bin.”

Because the truth is, 702 requests don’t get tossed in bins. And that’s because they follow up and follow through for their listeners and for it are paid back for it in station loyalty. It’s all part of that localization strategy.  Ninety percent of 702 news is going to be what affects people directly – potholes, power cuts, refuse not being picked up – says Abramjee. “While Iraq is important, for a guy driving on the streets of Joburg sitting in traffic for two hours…what is more important in that motorist’s life? He’s more interested in how he’s going to get to that meeting.”

And who could argue with doing good? Who could complain about a station that allows people to talk, makes real change and serves up bold, independent news all day every day?

But not everyone likes what they have to say. A blog which ran on Thought Leader by regular blogger Jarred Cinman in November had dozens of people chiming in. “Has 702 made us more stupid?” he asked. Cinman reminisced about the good old days of 702 and called the current incarnation of the station “a meeting place of the bored, the boring and the bleating.”

“702 is nothing more (or less) than the official voice of the have somes,” Cinman wrote. “Small-time business execs with hands-free kits and an opinion on economics and politics, ageing housewives and bored grannies ready to offer baking tips; and sports fans of all ilks ready to take on the role of armchair team coach at any opportunity.” The blogosphere applauded. “702 is pointless, fluffy mush” wrote one respondent. It reflects the “very worst of white Seffican male humour” wrote another.

Surely, John Robbie’s rugby dad approach is served up to appeal to the Dockers crowd and Jenny Crwys-Williams brings in the throngs of afternoon tea and crumpet ladies. They are, after all, going for the everyman – albeit the everyman of the higher income bracket, 56 percent of who happen to be white, 56 percent happen to be male and more than half are over 35 – not trying to solidly hit the minute niche market of intellectuals and academics. But while they may play host to middle class angst, their news teams and their presenters are also breaking news stories each every day and sometimes kicking off ferocious debate. And they have become an unstoppable force in the process.

So say they are softball sissies if you like. The truth is that 702 has been taken to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa on everything from their perceived favorable reporting on gays to the playing of a racially derogatory song on air.

In 2003, John Robbie was accused of a racist remark amounting to hate speech in an interview with politician Gaye Derby-Lewis. According to the BCCSA, when Derby-Lewis “described that three black people had hugged her…Robbie asked “whether she had checked if she still had her wallet after the hugs.” The complaint was not upheld. On another website, Robbie was called an “idiot”, a “crazy pinko commie” and a “left-wing nutjob”. All of which illustrates a point: you can’t please all the people all of the time and Robbie – and all the other presenters who put themselves and their views on air every day – not only have to be quick on their feet, they have the skins of a rhinoceros. The smses, calls and emails thrown at them every day many times embody the frustration and vehemence of a nation.

Robbie is up for the task. The Irish-born former rugby player joined the station in 1986 as a part-time sports reporter. He moved onto the 10 to midnight shift in January of 1990 – a slot that many DJs will tell you that gets you the most heated, nasty, drunken phone calls even at the best of times. “The only thing they said was that I wasn’t allowed to talk about was sport,” says Robbie. “I had no training at all, and I was thrown onto radio at the most sensitive time in the history of the country. We made it up as we went along.”

Whatever he was saying back then worked – and is still working for 702 listeners today. “It was so new then, to hear people talking about everything,” Robbie says. “In those days, the situation was heading toward democracy and anyone with half a brain could see the opportunity. The subject was the same everyday. Now it’s different. We’ve got a democratically elected government. There’s a lot of baggage there. Back then, there was a clear sense of right and wrong.”

Robbie, Crwys-Williams, Direko and O’Sullivan – in fact, the whole 702 team – are helping us navigate through a nation that’s rewriting the rules in a social experiment that the world is watching with crossed fingers. And if you don’t like what they have to say about it, well then, more fodder for the station. “In this business, if you don’t have opinions, you’re dead in your job,” Robbie says. So don’t expect them to shut up any time soon.

It’s what 702 has done best, mirrored a big part of the South African experience. It rock and rolled its way through the early eighties as a rebel outpost in Bophuthatswana, through the burning townships and a country screaming their way into democracy. Then there was the loss of direction which hit them smack in their bleeding hearts, leaving the station and their listeners without a cause. But the little station that could seems to have found its voice again and it’s resounding loud and clear.

“Business schools in South Africa shouldn’t be studying Ford,” says Crwys-Williams. “They should study what happened here at 702. The rise of the brand, the entrenching of the brand and its fall. And, now, how we have taken a fallen brand back to rise like a phoenix.”

May 2008, Maverick