Independent media platform thrives as a forum for democratic society

CAPETOWN — Coming soon after the advent of democracy in South Africa, Cape Town’s CapeTalk radio recently celebrated 20 years on-air.

Offering the opportunity for public dialog and discussion that was once unimaginable, it has become an essential media outlet for many. While traditional news media struggle, CapeTalk has carved out a niche of dedicated listeners both on-air and through innovative approaches online. Like “unscripted” reality TV, talk radio looks spontaneous but creating quality programming requires meticulous planning and preparation.

“It’s incredibly challenging to do talk radio well,” said Tessa van Staden, program director. “It requires discipline in picking topics and properly prepping interviewers.”

Van Staden arrived at CapeTalk back in 2008 after a career as a journalist. Since, she has helped advance what has become an institution. The sister station to Primedia’s 702, a talk powerhouse in Johannesburg, CapeTalk doesn’t boast the numbers of its older, bigger sibling with an audience of about 100,000, just a quarter of the listenership of 702. But what they lack for quantity they make up for in quality. These are mostly “silver surfers,” an upscale demographic in their late 40s and early 50s with the disposable income that advertisers covet. As important is their civic engagement.

“We punch well above our weight. These are the decision-makers in Cape Town,” said van Staden.

STARTING FROM SCRATCH

Being the only talk format in the market has obvious advantages and unexpected disadvantages. On the positive side, the audience TSL is incredibly high. Listeners tune in and stay put, hour after hour.

Only 10 percent are channel-hoppers. On the downside, most all of the on-air talent and support staff are typically homegrown since there’s nowhere else to learn the requisite skills.

The CapeTalk presenters come from varied backgrounds. Journalistic experience is common, but it is an eclectic mix ranging from philosophers to those with a theater background. Afternoon drive host John Maytham, an actor turned host, has been on since CapeTalk launched.

In the morning, Eusebius McKaiser, a nationally known political commentator, is simulcast from the 702 studios. In the afternoons, Pippa Hudson leverages her news experience to focus on topics of interest to consumers.

“The biggest job for presenters is to explain complex issues simply, to unpack these in five minute interviews. We encourage dynamic, robust discussion with callers often getting into disputes with hosts. I know, because they call me to complain!” van Staden said.

Though pleased with a stable, popular on-air lineup, van Staden is constantly on the lookout for new talent, especially women and those from the rising generation of “Born Free,” those too young to have experienced life under Apartheid.

NEW TALENT

Thus far, attracting younger presenters — and listeners — has proven elusive. Still, van Staden is hopeful that the Born Free will develop a taste for talk radio given their engagement elsewhere.

“The younger listeners and students are not apathetic. They want to have their say. We’ve tried putting student contributors on air. But it’s always about us chasing them rather than them seeking us out,” said van Staden.

The place that young aspirants often enter into CapeTalk is as show producers. Getting good producers is a major task, both in terms of training and retention.

“There’s no pool of talented producers to draw from. Grooming them is a challenge because they see this as a stepping stone [to other radio jobs]. The typical producer is also 30 years younger than the host,” van Staden said.

Controversy is typically the lifeblood of talk radio, driving listenership. Political controversy has been especially pointed. But hammering this popular drum has its hazards. It is crucial to remain responsive to the audience.

[Related: Q&A: Omar Essack, CEO Primedia Group, South Africa]

“We have to keep things varied or suffer listener fatigue. We co-create shows with callers. Despite what we may have planned, if there’s something our callers find interesting, we turn with it,” said van Staden.

Recently, the entirety of Cape Town — along with the international media — has been looking at the city’s water crisis. It may be the first city of its class to run dry as the result of climate change-driven drought.

WATER CRISIS

But CapeTalk has been not just reporting on this. Long before it reached the crisis stage, it has been engaged in an outreach effort working with prominent businesses to cut down on water usage in schools. The Smart Water Meter challenge has helped 358 schools save over 18 million liters of water through the contributions from 93 companies to acquire the necessary technology.

Through this, CapeTalk has established its standing as a solid citizen with both listeners and those that only know the station by reputation. Earning such goodwill in the community provides the authority to do what talk radio does best — to inform the public and to get them talking intelligently about the issues that matter most.

“Knowledge is power, and better informed neighbors make better citizens. We like to think that our work is to help make people more thoughtful and less judgmental. We are a platform for people from widely different backgrounds to share and to be heard — from people in shacks to CEOs,” van Staden said.

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Making the Migration to Radio Online

When do you really see how much your audience relies on your online presence? When the transmitter goes down, as it did when a technical issue silenced CapeTalk’s AM broadcast for some 10 days last August. Of course, it couldn’t have happened at a worst time.

“We were in the middle of a crucial national story, a motion of no confidence in Pres. Jacob Zuma [Who has since resigned – ed..]. Suddenly, key transmitter capacitors gave up, we were off the air and had to scramble to find replacements. Our online streams shot up — a significant uptick,” said Collin Cullis, product owner: Talks at Primedia Broadcasting.

How significant? The typical weekly CUME on the CapeTalk stream is about 17,000. At peak, it jumped to nearly twice that — 29,800. Total listening hours, too, increased from an average of 50,000 hours per week to more than 70,000.

When the on-air signal returned, the streams returned to their normal levels. Still, this unexpected experiment yielded valuable insights, a guide for how to prepare for the inevitable migration of audiences online.

Cullis is responsible both for CapeTalk as well as 702’s online presence in Johannesburg. Content plus a good delivery platform is the ticket for success. The Primedia smartphone app branded to each station is an interface for a wide variety of content available from numerous Primedia properties.

This includes Eye Witness News, a popular information source in South Africa with a newsroom that rivals that of the top newspapers. There is considerable synergy between the news operation and content created on air.

“Our on-air interviews with newsmakers often become news stories. Repurposing the content as an EWN piece or as on-demand audio adds value to the app,” Cullis said.

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