Power FM vs 702: Mbeki saves the day

2013-06-23 14:00

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Power FM has its work cut out to match 702, but this week’s headline interview was a good start, writes Charl Blignaut

Former president Thabo Mbeki during an interview with Power FM's Tim Modise at the newly launched talk radio station in Houghton. Picture: Muntu Vilakazi

Still in nappies, the new baby of Gauteng radio, Power FM, this week neatly topped a difficult and often fuzzy launch week with a sizeable marketing coup.

#MbekiPOWER surged on social networks as Tim Modise settled in to interview the former president on Thursday night. The hashtag was still trending the next morning, with even media slut Kenny Kunene battling to dethrone it.

The Thabo Mbeki interview was prescription listening. In part out of nostalgia, in part because his voice is strangely absent from the SABC’s airwaves, everyone tuned in to Power Perspective at 9pm. Many streamed the interview online after the station was hit by weak signal in three chunks of the province. They say they are working around the clock with Icasa and Sentech to get boosters up within a week.

Thrilling his army of fans, Mbeki the quotable Africanist sent Twitter into a Retweet frenzy with lines like: “If we don’t dream about a better Africa, we won’t get there.” But the tone would turn when it came to the thorny issue of antiretroviral denialism.

Modise never tackled this, or other tough questions. He made his stance clear from the introduction: “Thank you for having served your people, your nation, as best as you’ve done. For that we are eternally grateful.”

Instead it took a caller to ask the question, which saw Mbeki revert to his science and malnutrition default setting, without commenting on the hundreds of thousands of people believed to have died while awaiting medication.

He voiced no regrets about his presidency. His veiled criticisms of “tribalism” and the state of the Jacob Zuma government went unexplored by Modise. It was left to the callers.

It’s something that became clear to me after listening to talk radio all week: You’re only as good as your callers and who you choose to interview. Power’s callers have different, more nationally relevant concerns than 702’s.

That doesn’t always mean they make better radio though. How you milk who’s on the line is what makes good radio.

But when an informed, if sycophantic, Modise asked Mbeki if he would endorse Power, a new thought entered my mind.

“There is an important challenge which I think we face as a country, which is the education of our people?.?.?.?It would be good to have people saying, ‘If you want to know the real truth, switch on to Power FM’.”

In the absence of a critical SABC, Power is perfectly poised to fulfil the role of public broadcaster in Gauteng.

It was clear this week that the station is giving plenty of airtime to government and an educational approach to topics.

But in a commercial space, that comes with problems of its own. Government spokespeople abound on Power. The ANC’s spin doctor in chief, Jackson Mthembu, appeared several times on Thursday. “Power to the people!” he enthused in the afternoon.

Later, Chris Vick let him ramble for a good 10 minutes. The ANC likes this new Power – it’s one way of winning back the disaffected middle class youth. Exactly how Power plays political footsie will be interesting. Mbeki is hardly who the ANC would have wished for a headline act, after all.

The problem with government spokespeople is that many of them have mastered the art of talking without breathing. They can be uninterruptible in the hands of less experienced radio hosts. Power could take a leaf from 702’s book in this regard.

Frequently, when switching over to 702, one lands on an advert. There are still precious few of these on Power. I get the feeling they are going to have to work much harder to win them from 702. There won’t be new ad spend in radio because of Power. The cake will just be sliced differently.

I never much liked 702’s John Robbie until I compared him with Lawrence Tlhabane. Why do we keep bringing these legendary broadcasters out of mothballs and giving them breakfast shows? Tlhabane’s sentences inflect downwards as he speaks, as if he’s growing bored with himself.

Over at 702, Robbie chirps and rants, and works an emotional police boss up even further over the murder of a top cop. “This is an insult to the country, isn’t it!?” Top cop goes there. A clip of top cop going there makes the news.

Speaking of news, Power will battle to dent 702, which is constantly breaking new angles on stories, with crisp location sound and dramatic reporting.

Enough has been written about Redi Tlhabi and Eusebius McKaiser.

They both rock the joint with strong views, human flaws and probing minds. If only every slot was as hotly contested as mid-morning.

Everyone has their pet hate on radio. Jenny Crwys-Williams is mine. It’s not personal. I just can’t listen to someone who is outraged by Facebook changing their Scrabble game and who pronounces “Ramphele” so that it rhymes with “Pelé”.

Azania Mosaka is on point. I can’t rationally discuss the art of “detoxing your handbag”, but the lifestyle show isn’t intended for me.

I just know that Mosaka speaks the language of the nation’s more affluent youth and will be a threat to 702’s black listeners.

But apart from a pleasant surprise – an up-tempo and informative Thabiso Tema and Tshidi Madia on Power Drive at 3pm – it is clear the baby has some growing to do. Stephen Grootes and Bruce Whitfield make cracking radio that will be bolstered once Xolani Gwala joins 702 in place of the wordy David O’Sullivan.

Only Masechaba Lekalake on Power offers resistance, coming from a place of love and role modelism that will appeal to plenty of people.

The bottom line is one I never expected to find after a week of listening: Power FM is too laid-back. It lacks the energy of its more experienced rival.

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