M-Net boss Yolisa Phahle: 'There are no short cuts'

2014-04-17 14:00

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M-Net has a new boss. Moyagabo Maake meets Yolisa Phahle to find out how she broke through the glass ceiling

At the beginning of this month, Yolisa Phahle took over as the new CEO at M-Net South Africa, proudly becoming the first black woman to hold this position.

Not everyone is envying her. Digital TV is upon us and the landscape is changing at breakneck speed. She will have to contend with increasing competition as new entrants, including OpenView HD and Freevision, threaten to upend the TV industry.

Phahle’s ahead of the curve, though.

“Every new platform increases the competition for audiences,” says the impeccably-groomed, soft-spoken, beautifully-braided woman sitting across from me. “But the real threat for broadcasting is going to come from international online players who come into the country with no licences and no regulations.”

So how will she fight the new battles? Something that could give M-Net the edge, perhaps, are homegrown stories.

“I think that there’s an opportunity to focus on local content,” she says. “Local content performs extremely well on M-Net.”

She adds that KykNET, a wholly Afrikaans offering, is one of the company’s best-performing premium channels.

We’re chatting in M-Net’s open-plan workplace. There are no airs and graces about Phahle. She’s a worker and her office is pretty much as regular as the next person’s.

It’s here at M-Net that she’s risen up the ranks through hard work and proving herself. Her previous job was as the director of local interest channels for the broadcasting company. Under her watch, the country saw the launch of the Mzansi Magic, Mzansi Music, Mzansi Wethu and Mzansi Bioskop channels.

This has incubated shows such as Isibaya and Zabalaza, which Phahle says are incredibly successful.

“The viewership numbers for Mzansi are massive and continue to grow,” she says, adding that the Big Brother Mzansi reality show had garnered more than 10?million votes.

M-Net had also spent a lot of time getting feedback, through social networks, from viewers on the Mzansi channels, and it became clear that people wanted more of the same.

Born in London to South African exiles, Phahle earned her broadcasting chops over 16 years, beginning with what she half-jokingly calls her first proper job – studio manager at the BBC World Service.

She attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she majored in classical

piano and violin; but found herself working in popular music – sharing stages with the likes of Duran Duran and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Yes, the CEO started out as a muso.

After climbing through the ranks at the UK broadcasting group, she returned to South Africa with children “who were quite young then”.

She shopped her CV and job applications followed. She eventually ended up at Channel O on a six-month contract.

She revived the pan-African music channel’s fortunes, turning it into Africa’s most popular. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It is a very exciting time in terms of transformation for the media. There are more opportunities for young black people than previously, but we need to keep working to improve things.”

Tips for anyone who wants to emulate her rise to the top?

“There are no short cuts. Hard work, excellent team-mates, passion for what you do, and the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.”

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