What's happened to Radio 702?

David Bullard asks whether the station is still what it claims to be

When I first came to South Africa as an economic mercenary in 1981 there was a little bit of cultural adjustment required. For example, I had always been used to driving on the left but I had never seen an offramp marked SLEGS ONLY. Knowing a little about South Africa's strict apartheid regime I knew that people of a particular colour were not allowed to be in the same area as people of a different colour, particularly after dark.

So to me the SLEGS ONLY sign on the highway offramp was a clear warning that, unless you were a SLEG, you would be taking your life into your hands by exiting the motorway at that point and possibly finding yourself in a SLEGS township. So I just drove on until I discovered Port Elizabeth.

Another confusion was the name above a pub door. In England the name of the licensee appears on a plate above the door to the public bar. This means that if the beer is bad you know exactly who to blame. In South Africa every pub in the 1980's seemed to be owned by a bloke called Reg van Toegang. I assumed Reg to be a very powerful Broederbonder until someone translated for me four years later.

Having settled into my "commune" in Rosebank, I bought a company car and had the radio stolen in the first week. I was slowly getting into the rhythm of South African life but I still hadn't a clue where to tune my radio dial. I started out with the SABC English service and I'm not sure it was even called SAfm in those days.

I remember a nice lady called Bea Read every morning who reassured me that, although I may be living in a pariah state, I shouldn't believe everything I read in the foreign press. How could Bea, with her beautiful enunciation, be the servant of an oppressive regime I wondered? It was obviously the communists who were spreading rumours.

Bea was my anchor in the early days as was the man who came on at seven in the morning for a bit of religious reflection in a spot called "Think on these things". The presenter of this daily reminder that all good South Africans should read the Bible had a strong authoritative voice and a very clipped English accent. The sort of voice you knew you could trust. The sort of voice that suggested that the voice's owner had the ex directory telephone number of God himself. It was comforting stuff in an age when the natives were just beginning to get "cheeky", as the northern suburbs kugels put it in those days.

Then a colleague of mine suggested I try a new station called Radio 702 which was broadcasting on the medium wave band. He raved about the station so I reset my transistor radio at home to 702AM and did the same for my car and tried to avoid driving under bridges during the interesting bits.

Instead of listening to Bea and Think on these things, I listened to a radio maniac called John Berks and his breakfast show with Gary Edwards. If using a cell phone while driving is now considered dangerous that is nothing compared to listening to the John Berks show while driving across the Queen Elizabeth Bridge on the way to work.

The spoof morning exercises were sometimes so hilariously funny that it was difficult to control a car and laugh at the same time. Berks even managed to slip "muff diver" into his broadcast; something the SABC would never have dared to do. I was a convert and my radio dial was permanently set to 702 where it has remained these past 31 years.

I soon realised that the SABC was the government propaganda station and that the cultured voices on the English programme were designed to keep the whiteys calm. I was overseas when the real troubles broke out in the mid eighties and watched TV footage of the Rev Allan Boesak rushing off to remove his BMW to a safe distance when the brick chucking began in Cape Town.

The international media coverage of the South African troubles was so troubling that we phoned a friend to ask if it was safe to come home. She didn't know what we were talking about because the scenes of violence hadn't made it onto South African TV screens or into the newspapers. A state of emergency had been declared and the only information available was what the government deemed appropriate. 

Thirty one years later and I'm still tuned into what is now known as Talk Radio 702 and which now broadcasts on the FM waveband. But I'm getting much the same feeling as I used to do about the SABC back in the eighties and I'm wondering whether the station that bragged that it was "in touch, in tune and independent" really is all it claims to be.

For example, what independent radio station would preface an interview with a government employee with the words "he's a good guy" as John Robbie so often does. That renders any subsequent interview null and void because the impression has already been given that this is going to be a soft interview. John Robbie always used to be a gutsy broadcaster but it's quite clear that something has happened to bring him to heel. It was probably the interview with that appalling, thieving health minister that nearly got him sacked.

Then there's Yusuf Abramjee, the station's head of news and current affairs who is also head of something called The National Press Club which, despite its grandiose title, allegedly has a large component of PR practitioners in its ranks. I say allegedly because Abramjee does not seem particularly keen to answer any questions about this dubious organisation. He is always keen to ask questions but not so keen to answer them it seems.

Abramjee mixes in strange company and clearly hobnobs with ANC bigwigs and isn't afraid to brag about it on air. The 702 studios have also been used on occasions to make announcements on behalf of the ANC. Now this may give 702 the advantage of being near to the breaking news but it doesn't suggest that the station lives up to its "independent" claim.

Jenny Crwys-Williams has now dumbed down her afternoon offering so much that it is known as the Jenny Crass-Williams show in some circles. Perhaps she is the Bea Read of 702...a reassuring English accent that's only there to convince us that all will be well if we leave our headlights on and don't think nasty thoughts about our fellow countrymen. Whatever her raison d'etre her presentation day after day suggests that she is utterly bored with her job after all these years and would love to break free if only she could afford to.

The young eager beavers on the Eyewitness News team are better than anything you will hear on any other radio station but they also know that a politically correct line has to be followed. That means not allowing certain voices on air because 702 now has a banned list, rather as SABC did back in 2006. They are also aware that there aren't too many radio stations looking for eye witness news reporters which tends to keep them loyal, even if earning a fraction of what the star presenters take home irks them. 

While 702 may claim that it welcomes debate the reality is that it stifles any argument that doesn't accord with the station's views. Indeed, a public challenge to the integrity of the head of news earlier this year produced a lawyer's letter threatening court action. Any discussion of the facts was quite out of the question. That hardly enhances the cute and cuddly community radio station image that 702 likes to portray.

Since very few upper income whites bother to tune into the state broadcaster these days it makes sense for the ANC (or certain factions of it) to cultivate a station like 702 for "public relations" purposes. The only mystery is why a radio station that has a proud independent heritage would allow itself to be used in such a way.

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