Joanne Joseph vs the ridiculous: An interview with one of broadcast's strongest voices

Johannesburg - Brian is a graduate who stands begging on street corners because he can’t find a job after a year of tireless searching.

Joanne Joseph is a hard-nosed broadcast journalist who heard about his plight and gave a damn.

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’ve sneaked into the Radio 702 Primedia studios in Sandton, Joburg, to watch Joseph work. She greets me and says there’s a cool story up next, then goes back on air. She gets Brian on the line and tells him the good news, that she’s lined up a job interview for him ...

Doing uplifting deeds is just part of her routine. Joseph’s profile is that of a tough and direct interviewer.

This became particularly evident during her grilling of the likes of US race advocate Rachel Dolezal about her epic act of blackface or when speaking to the North West premier’s spokesperson, Lesiba Moses Kgwele, about the looting of the province’s coffers.

At the time, Joseph was an anchor at 24-hour TV news channel eNCA.

Those interviews, like many others, quickly set her apart from the crowd. She insists on answers from evasive spin doctors and other agents of ridiculousness.

The tough interviews are still a thing, but now Joseph has also lit a torch to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable on her drive time slot on Radio 702 as the host of Afternoon Drive with Joanne Joseph.

Joseph remembers her interview with Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) deputy president Floyd Shivambu in June as one of the more difficult ones. Shivambu had accused Treasury deputy director-general Ismail Momoniat of undermining Africans in his department, and implied that Momoniat was not black enough.

As always, Joseph doesn’t mince her words when she tells me about it: “It [the EFF] has a political agenda and it knows it has a support base that hasn’t had a lot of access to education and so are easy to manipulate. The EFF can put out simplistic statements because it underestimates the intelligence of that support base.

The petite Joseph, dressed in jeans and sneakers and no visible make-up, has spent more than two decades in the industry.

At Radio 702, she took over the reins from Stephen Grootes in May after the station made all sorts of changes following the announcement that beloved breakfast show host Xolani Gwala was battling cancer.

“The opportunity came up and there’s a lot of flux in the industry at the moment, so I thought now’s a good time for change,” she says when we sit chatting in the studio after her show.

Today’s Afternoon Drive is as punchy as always, but with a weekend mood – plenty of Friday the 13th banter in between the recently released Nelson Mandela bank notes, Kevin Anderson’s Wimbledon campaign and the launch of the Meerkat telescope.

Joseph’s broadcast has quickly become the only show you should be listening to on weekdays between 3pm and 6pm if you’re looking for news and analysis. It masterfully transitions from hard facts to casual chats between Durban-born Joseph, traffic reporter Tshego Modisane and the station’s listeners.

In the show’s latest format, Modisane has become a crucial sounding board. Joseph says his presence, beyond which route to avoid during peak traffic, brings a very important element to the show.

“He’s a people’s man, very much in touch with the issues on the ground – and that is the link that he brings into the show,” she enthuses.

“Sometimes we may be talking, but we may not be able to connect with certain communities because we’re having a conversation at a level that doesn’t really involve their daily experience. Tshego taps into the daily experience.”

Off air, Modisane and Joseph share the same level of camaraderie – which explains how the two are able to have discussions about everything and anything so easily.

Not everyone loves relentless interviewer Joseph, according to those in the know. She has become unpopular with many politicians and has even had the piqued among them call her employers to complain about her line of questioning. This, of course, has not deterred her.

“I am unpopular with certain interviewees who are trying to hide the truth with spinning. But I’m also unpopular with certain listeners who feel like it’s okay to put some people under the microscope and not others.”

The show, she says, is an equal opportunity space where the grilling won’t be altered to suit anyone.

“Quite often, I’ve got the EFF on my back, then I’ve got AfriForum on my back and sometimes the DA – all are offended by this approach ... especially from a woman because they expect us to be demure, and they want us to be sweet and likeable.”

She is sweet and likeable when I meet her, but not when she’s on air. You automatically tread lightly around her if you’ve seen and heard her in action.

“I’m not here to make friends – we’re in the business of news and information. We serve our listeners first and foremost, and if they are able to glean information and use it in the way they live their lives and the choices that they make, we’ve done our jobs.”

I ask Joseph whether she has been brought into line by her bosses.

“When I was at the SABC, it was very difficult,” she replies.

“It’s not what it is with Phathiswa [Magopeni, the group executive of news current affairs] at the helm today – it’s a very different place.

“I was there at a time when politicians could still pick up the phone and say let’s do an interview this way. And that made it a really tough environment to work in.”

She left the SABC in 2009.

“On this show, we are biased to the plight of people in trouble, like the poor; biased towards the disadvantaged and women who are disempowered; we are biased towards children who have rights but whose rights are not respected; we are biased towards anyone who is in a situation of disempowerment – black South Africans who have not been able to enjoy the fruits of freedom. We are biased towards the underdog,” she says.

No newcomer to the medium, she says talk radio is very intimate compared with television.

“People are talking to you about their real lives, their difficulties and even things that make them happy – it puts you in direct contact with their lives, and people’s lives are precious.”

Like Brian’s.

Joseph says she proceeds through her three-hour show fully conscious of the relationship between her and her listeners.

“You’ve got to be prepared to give a little bit of yourself ... We’ll do what we can to help people who are in trouble. It’s a growth experience and a learning curve for me.”

(Photos: Supplied by City Press)

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