Newsmaker: Given Mkhari

2013-04-14 14:00

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In an exclusive interview, Given Mkhari tells us about the nation’s first black talk radio station

There’s a story I had never heard about Given Mkhari. It’s about the time he staged a sit-in at a Limpopo government department.

It reveals how, at the age of just 39, he has become one of Africa’s most exciting media moguls.

Mkhari had just matriculated from high school in rural Burghersdorp, near Tzaneen, and had applied for a bursary.

But when the list was announced, his name was not on it.

“I refused to believe it. My results were good. So I borrowed money and took a taxi to Giyani, which was then the capital of the Gazankulu homeland,” he says.

“I didn’t have return fare. When I got there I befriended the security guard and at some stage I said I needed the toilet. He allowed me into the building and never saw me again.”

When the department of education’s bursary office confirmed his name was not on the list, Mkhari told an official he would not leave the building until they could sort it out.

“Eventually we found out that they had spelt my name ‘Mukhari’ and I actually was on the list. And that’s how I got to the University of Limpopo.”

And how he came to launch Turf Radio, the first campus station licensed in South Africa.

We’re sitting on the balcony of the Bryanston offices of his company, MSG Afrika, shivering because we’re both smokers – which we agree is “not ayoba”. He’d sat here working until 1.30am.

“I didn’t grow up with television. I bonded with radio at a very young age – I’m that guy who used to call in. I noticed most of the broadcasters used to come from the teaching profession. As it is, my role models were teachers.”

But at university he soon realised he could not become a teacher, as he had wished.

His parents had died and he had five siblings, a grandmother and an uncle to support.

Instead, he and his lifetime business partner Simphiwe Mdlalose launched Turf Radio.

After graduating, he won a bursary to Bard University in the US, where he was mentored by the late professor and writer Chinua Achebe.

He later worked at Kaya FM, holding down six jobs and sleeping three hours a night.

He launched his own company while also working as a talk-show host on Metro FM, where his show had a million listeners.

In 2007, he, Mdlalose and new partner Andile Khumalo created Capricorn FM, Limpopo’s first commercial radio station.

They invested R15 million and it broke even within 14 months.

Or, as the charismatic brother in a G-Star jacket and expensive shoes puts it: “It started washing its face by month 14.”

Radio is no longer MSG Afrika’s core business.

The investment company – now in 14 countries – owns the biggest outdoor advertising concern in Africa.

Their ad agency, MetropolitanRepublic, is booming.

But it’s radio that puts the twinkle in Mkhari’s eye.

And it is his newest licence – for Gauteng talk station Power FM – that we keep returning to.

This time, MSG is spending R82 million of its own money on a state-of-the-art radio station in Houghton, north of Joburg.

They’ve invested heavily in news, research and production teams – and top broadcasters.

“We’re almost done. We’re about to launch,” he adds.

For the past eight months, Mkhari has been working as a teacher at last – helping prepare the Power FM hosts.

The line-up cannot yet be revealed, although there has been media speculation about former Talk@Nine show – on Talk Radio 702 – host Eusebius McKaiser and Lupi Ngcayisa (formerly with Metro FM).

The English-language station will welcome vernacular expression and will offer music, though up to 70% of its content will be talk.

Power – the last FM frequency available in Gauteng – will challenge both Kaya FM and Talk Radio 702.

“You are certainly not getting a black 702,” he says when I ask the obvious question.

“Urban South Africans – the majority of whom are black – have certain experiences that are particular to them. They will not have that conversation on 702 because you will need to orientate the host about their background.”

And that includes white listeners, he insists.

“It’s a South African station. People who care about this place, who want to see it work.”

Power will be the first post- 1994 FM commercial station in Gauteng or, as he puts it, “Power is born-free”. Mkhari talks about a listener who is political, frank and able to have fun.

He explains that Power FM will be progressive and unapologetic about holding leaders accountable – be they in government, civil society, the workplace or the home.

Mkhari came up with the name.

It isn’t just a fist in the air, it’s more complex than that.

“There’s a big power shift in the minds of more and more South Africans. Power dynamics are getting redefined across the sphere of public and private life. We are questioning how much of our power we have given away,” he says.

And for Mkhari, it’s time to reclaim it.

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