It’s easy to see why 90% didn’t work

Letepe Maisela

In an article published in a daily tabloid in February 2016, piano maestro Don Laka for once let his mouth instead of his fingers do the talking. Boldly, he accused local radio DJs of having been “colonised by America”. This was because our DJs were persistently playing music from the US more than they did local music. In his own words he described Metro FM radio – SABC’s prime commercial radio station whose playlist had a higher quotient of R&B music – as “the single destroyer of the South African music industry and culture”.

According to The Don, local DJs were partners in crime and encouraged this sad state of affairs. The result was that millions in music royalties left our shores for the US, leaving local South African musicians impoverished. This was despite the Independent Communications Authority of SA’s (Icasa’s) policy compelling SABC radio stations to play 60% local music. Lack of implementation and monitoring could be blamed for that quota not being observed but The Don also hinted at some nefarious aims anchored in self-promotion by the same DJs who competed with career musicians in the industry. They churned out with monotonous regularity their own musical productions tagged “house music”. This, according to The Don, had conflict written all over it, but who cared?

On the ropes, to borrow from boxing parlance, the DJs would hear none of this. They came out with vuvuzelas blaring. Laka was simply dismissed as an embittered and frustrated muso, a modern-day dinosaur stuck in a jazz time warp.

Well, support for Laka did come, although from quite an unexpected source. A certain Hlaudi Motsoeneng, perched high up in the offices of the ivory tower that is the SABC and ironically currently fighting for his own career, raised his hand to signify that he cared. I also concurred at the time, though for different reasons. For Hlaudi it was simply “the right thing to do”, quoting from the famous SABC TV licence advertising line. He went about it in a different manner though, conveniently forgetting that South Africa is one of the most democratic countries on the African continent. As chief operating officer at the time, he called the shots, especially in the absence of a CEO at the broadcaster and a presiding lame-duck board long cowed into submission by a minister who worshiped the very ground Hlaudi walked on.

Unintended consequences

Hlaudi, however, forgot that today’s radio and TV audience is more privileged and enjoys the luxury of choosing what to listen to or watch from a broad variety of entertainment content suppliers. Although it sounded ideologically well founded for him to instruct SABC Radio and TV to play 90% local music and content on their platforms, it simply reduced the stations’ offering to similar music with little differentiation. The policy is no different to what happened during apartheid when Radio Bantu was created with the stipulation that it play only “Bantu music”.

Hlaudi’s 90% content policy soon generated unintended consequences which immediately led to the haemorrhaging of both listeners and viewers from the SABC stable. Competitors such as Radio 702 and East Coast Radio and MultiChoice’s DStv could not have dreamt of a better strategy for gaining listeners and viewers. Soon advertising revenue followed the listeners where they had migrated to, leaving the SABC stable dry. The local artists Hlaudi aimed to help now find themselves in a far worse position than they were as revenue has dried up and they cannot be paid. They had applauded his 90% local content policy and carried him on their shoulders like a modern Mosotho Robin Hood.

The reasons the 90% policy flopped are easy to decipher. There are certain terms and factors in the world of marketing and advertising Hlaudi is probably not familiar with. Concepts such as advertising imperatives and factors which influence what is referred to as consumer behaviour. One of the most prominent of those is the right of the consumer to choose. This choice cannot be dictated by ideology unless we live under a dictatorship. Pushing 90% local music and TV content down the throats of South Africans was taking the dictatorial route and it soon bore negative consequences.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally support the playing of local South African music on radio. It remains popular if one simply looks at occasions such as the SA Music Awards and Metro Awards and how live local music is patronised at popular venues. In fact, I believe that the 60% local content rule as regulated by Icasa is enough if it can be correctly implemented and monitored.

But above all I believe that South Africans deserve a radio station dedicated exclusively to airing local South African music and music from the rest of Africa and the diaspora to give both citizens and tourists who might like to listen to local music direct and exclusive access. For a country on the African continent not to have a radio station exclusively dedicated to playing African music is simply a travesty. This I hope to soon correct as part of a legacy project in the immediate future.

Maisela is a management consultant and published author

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