Tim Modise: The man behind the mic

2013-08-09 11:00

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Radio veteran Tim Modise opens up about parenthood, radio moves and Madiba.

If Tim Modise were a woman, he’d care very little about handbags, lipstick and heels.

Instead, the radio and TV personality, who turns 62 next month, would be more serious. ‘I think I would be a tough activist, not the handbag-shopping kind of lady,’ he says over a mid-morning cappucino.

However, this serious-minded professional is no stranger to showing his softer side when it counts. Tim is a dad of three – and has been both mom and dad to his two youngest children, Khama, 13, and Oratile, 19, after their mother, Keagile, died in a car crash in 2001.

‘Obviously it was a shock,’ he says. ‘But I was given a lot of support. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu called me the next day; he prayed with me. He said: “Don’t blame, don’t feel bitterness – death is very much part of life.” I started reading. That’s how I came upon the Dalai Lama – it made me understand there is absolutely no permanence in our lives, even though we live them as if there were.’

Over time, Tim adapted to being a parent on his own, and applied a clear philosophy to raising his children.

‘I think the mothering side of me listens and the fatherly side of me gives instructions,’ he says of his parenting skills. ‘But listening is what has helped me give the right instructions.’

Tim says he has taught his children to think freely and have frank conversations with him.

‘I emphasise that every individual must be given a chance to realise their potential; they must be single-minded about theirs and allow it and encourage it in others. And generosity is important. I’ve said they must always regard their lifestyle as something to appreciate, and be mindful of the suffering of others.’

The teaching of lessons, he acknowledges, has gone both ways: ‘Fatherhood has made me appreciate the responsibility and the contribution that parents can make not only to their own children but to broader society – if you can help others achieve goals, it helps you find meaning.

Women's day this Friday is a salute to the 20 000 women who marched on the Union Buildings in 1956 in defiance of having to carry passbooks.

Tim says it’s also an acknowledgement of women’s spirit, compassion and resourcefulness. In South Africa, it’s so often women who head up communities and homes, or as Tim puts it, ‘Men talk and women do’.

And when it comes to naming the most influential woman in his life, the gruff-voiced presenter doesn’t hesitate. It’s his mom, Emma Modise, who lives in Ga-Rankuwa, north of Pretoria and who helped him dream big when he was a schoolboy – and when things were far from easy.

‘My mom is the one person who has been there for me throughout all the ups and downs of my life, with her clarity of thought and her tough but soft approach to taking an interest in the development of others,’ he says.

‘She taught me that your dreams are more powerful than the conditions in which you may find yourself. Now that I think about it, I don’t know why I don’t say that more as a personal mantra.’

Dreams matter and it’s why Tim always knew he wasn’t going to be ‘some regular guy’. ‘I knew I was going to do things differently and make my work about the life I wanted to live.’

After moving to Johannesburg, his break came in 1980 when he landed a job as programme assistant at Radio 702. He went on to Radio Bop two years later, playing R&B on his own show. But it was his time at Metro FM and the important years of 1988 and 1989 that put his career on an upward trajectory.

‘Metro was a defining time for me because I wasn’t just playing music, I was also introducing talk,’ he says. ‘You must remember that at the time we were not allowed to discuss politics on radio. We camouflaged issues as community issues, but we were actually talking about what was important to people.’

Tim then branched out into a TV career anchoring shows. He also went into government, took up a top-level communications job for the Fifa local organising committee for the 2010 Fifa World Cup and set up an IT company in Midrand.

But it’s still his hard-hitting interviews on radio and TV for which he’s most well-known – and none more so than his interviews with Nelson Mandela. Tim describes Madiba as ‘a man made of the pure essence of love and conviction’ and also a man with whom he enjoys a very special bond.

‘I remember he called me up for one of his birthday celebrations and asked if I would MC the party. Of course I said yes immediately.’ Madiba’s response? ‘He asked how much I would charge.’ Tim says the elder statesman never had a sense of entitlement or expectation, even as he stood as a king among men.

Emotion catches up to him as he speaks about the former president. He pauses for his thoughts to catch up to his lips; it’s his measured, careful way. But he doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind either. ‘Watching the spectacle that Madiba’s family has created is like watching a slow-motion tragicomedy; it’s very sad.’

The award-winning broadcaster is respected as a serious anchor – and someone who is happy to engage the nation on difficult topics. And at the moment, the big conversation Tim wants to have with people is economics.

‘We talk about opportunity for people but we don’t talk about how to understand economics, we don’t integrate economic understanding into our everyday conversation. For example, we have separate business pages in newspapers; we have separate business slots when they should be an integrated part of our conversations. For me, being in the media is about elevating people’s consciousness. I won’t lower the tone of my show and economics is what we need to understand better if we’re going to make use of the full potential of this country.’

Tim doesn’t care that he sounds like an evangelist. He just has a message he wants to get across. And as long as there’s a microphone switched on somewhere, he’s going to get behind it.

• Having joined new Jozi radio station PowerFM as host of the 9pm to midnight show, Tim has now moved into the popular breakfast slot on weekdays 6-9am.

From the floor

Fellow media personalities Jeremy Maggs and Debora Patta turn the tables on interviewer Tim.

Jeremy: Is social media something you’ve embraced as part of the talk radio format?

Tim: Yes. With tweet-obsessed radio, it’s all about filtering and selecting the choicest tweets, not the brainless drivel of 140 characters that pollute the Twittersphere.

Debora: How do you deal with radio whiners, and with what South Africans still don’t talk about?

Tim: I see herding callers on talk radio as part of cultivating the listenership I want to grow. I want to take them on a journey of participating in the conversations I want South Africans to have.

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