Barney Simon not only championed alternative rock and pop on SA's 5fm Radio (then Radio Five) in his late night show, he also played songs that weren't on the Top 40 playlists, and opposed the conservative prevailing culture in South Africa.
When 5fm went American and Urban and ended Barney Simon's contract, he didn't retire or start a pub band. Instead, he toured South Africa, taking on many more live gigs. He also started DJing on Tuks FM. We spoke to Barney about life since escaping the halls of the SABC, SA rock music, his heroes and his hopes for the future.
Jean Barker for MWEB: It seems like every time a DJ leaves 5fm there's a big shout about it. Chris Prior, Alex Jay, now you (these are the departures I remember well). Why all the controversy?
BS: The reason I think is because we as DJs become part of their daily lives and routine. Nobody likes change. The DJs the listeners usually complain about to management when they leave are the ones that play their own music, don't stick to boring playlists and are personalities in their own right.
MWEB: 5fm has gone very urban-oriented. Is this an indication that rock - and particularly alternative rock - isn't really commercially viable in Africa anymore? (Unless you're Steve Hofmeyr)
BS: There is a huge untapped rock/alternative market in South Africa. Just look at how many people attended the R.E.M., Live, Skunk Anansie, Roger Waters, U2, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Placebo, the Offspring and Smashing Pumpkins concerts in South Africa. More people than the Black Eyed Peas, 50c and Ludacris drew. Everybody is trying to tap in on the American urban market but one thing they forget is that if it becomes unpopular they are going to sit with a huge problem. Stations are losing their South African identity.
MWEB: Tell me about the scene you've joined now: Live DJing at album launches, Tuks Radio and so on.
BS: I am still involved with the same projects I have been involved with all my life. Nothing has changed since I left 5FM. More doors actually opened for me because I am not seen as being part of the urban movement at SABC anymore. I still host festivals, do club gigs and support SA musicians. I am busier than ever before!
MWEB: How potentially big - or limited - is your audience? I know "college rock" is huge in the USA, but surely here it is unlikely to be college "rock".
BS: I believe you should fish where the fish are. That is exactly what I am doing at Tuks FM. People who listen to rock music tuned off 5FM when they went urban and forgot that I had a show on the station because they never switched back. At least I know everybody who listens to Tuks FM loves rock and alternative music. Nobody else is catering for the rock/alternative market in South Africa. We are!
MWEB: What's the best experience you've had since you left 5fm?
BS: I don't have to attend boring meetings at SABC!
MWEB: Who do you reckon are the most exciting new SA rock and alternative bands of the last few years?
BS: Seether, Sugardrive, the Narrow, Wickhead, 16Stitch, Boo! Cutting Jade, Valiant Swart, Koos Kombuis, Wonderboom, and the Springbok Nude Girls to mention a few.
MWEB: And bands that wouldn't be called "rock?" I've heard Mandoza played straight after Zep by a DJ at Mercury Live, Cape Town. It worked! The dancefloor went mad. The beats matched. Why don't more SA DJs do this kind of thing?
BS: I usually do that at the commercial clubs and in small towns. Ask the people at Tempo's on a Sunday night in Jhb. Played Slipknot followed by Mandoza followed by Dozi's 'Ryperd'. I only play alternative rock at alternative clubs.
MWEB: On the SA rock scene, who of the old toppies would you single out as SA's rock heroes? And what made them special?
BS: No Friends Of Harry, Dog Detachment, Tribe After Tribe, Lithium, Squeal, Psycho Reptiles, Johnny Clegg, Springbok Nude Girls. Originality, dedication and passion about their music made them special. Also people like Benjy Mudie, Trevor Rabin, Mutt Lange, Peter Feldman, Dagga Dirk, Pedro Carlo, Kim Saville and Therese Owen (not such old toppies).
MWEB: I remember quite a few bands I only heard of because of your show on 5fm (then Radio Five). Do you get people coming up to you and telling you stories about how they discovered music through you?
BS: I get people coming up to me all the time. Makes me feel good that I influenced, changed and touched their lives in a special way. They changed my life as well. It would help if they'd stop calling me Barney the dinosaur!
MWEB: How do you see the role of the Internet in promoting and supporting music?
BS: The Internet is the best thing that could have happened for music. No more begging radio stations to play your songs and sticking up posters at 4am. It is a great global marketing tool. The hard working bands on the Internet will get more exposure than the lazy bands that don't bother to update their websites and gig guides. Streaming Audio on the Internet has played a major role in exposing radio stations and bands to a huge worldwide audience.
MWEB: Steve Hofmeyr is the most downloaded artist on MWEB. He's also the biggest selling artist in SA. Are free downloads any more dangerous to sales than say... radio?
BS: I think free downloads for unknown, garage and indie bands are great to get their songs heard by millions of people all over the world. The more established signed bands need to make money to pay back the record company for the recording of their CD. It is a business. Podcasting and satellite radio is slowly killing commercial radio stations. It is already happening in USA. I wonder how many people listen to the commercial free DMX channel on DStv? Would be an interesting survey.
MWEB: How have public attitudes to you changed over the course of your career?
BS: People are people, nothing's changed. They have feelings, dreams and needs. We are living in the new South Africa. There are opportunities and challenges everyday. Adapt or die!
MWEB: Looking back on your career, what, if anything, would you do differently?
MWEB: What are your plans for the next few years?
BS: I love radio and will always in some way be involved. My plans are to stay on air as long as possible, promote SA bands abroad, present/produce my own alternative rock TV show, to bring international bands to perform in South Africa and to never lose my hair!