With a rich radio legacy behind him, Bob Mabena might have been forgiven for being big-headed and a braggart, but he wasn’t at all.
Although he cut his teeth as a nightclub deejay in his township of Atteridgeville, Tshwane, his real ambition was always the bigger platform of radio.
After leaving high school, he packed a suitcase with clothing and dreams, and set out to try his luck at Radio Bop in what was then Bophuthatswana.
At that time, the station – which fashioned itself as having a mind of its own – served as an incubator for many youngsters keen on a career in radio.
In March 1989, Mabena – aged only 19, but already full of confidence – joined the Radio Bop team. From his very first show, his baritone voice was a joy to listen to. His mind was quick and he was knowledgeable.
After that début, the face of black radio was forever changed. A star was born. He would thereafter be affectionately known as “The Jammer”.
I was born and raised in Ga-Rankuwa, Gauteng. For youngsters of my generation, Radio Bop was a church and Mabena was one of the star deacons.
He epitomised cool. Like many others over the years, I followed his career closely.
Years later, we became friends. In a recent engagement, Bob confessed to being puzzled about the gamble Radio Bop had taken by picking him – he had no formal radio training – for a prime slot that was listened to by thousands.
Back then, the radio jocks at Bop added such youthful funk and energy to their shows that the SABC couldn’t help but take notice of them. In one of my conversations with Bob about the battle of the airwaves between Radio Metro and Radio Bop, he quipped that, “comparing green apples with green apples, it was a draw”.
However, he was quick to add that the late Ian Sigola’s slot on weekends gave Radio Bop’s management and jocks sleepless nights.
Though Bop was where it all started, it was at Radio Metro – which he joined in January 1992 – that Bob’s star truly began to ascend, catapulting him to national stardom and, in the process, endearing him to millions of fans.
His talent and intelligence stood him in good stead among the cream of the urban black commercial radio crop, including Tim Modise, Tebogo Matima, Lawrence Dube (now Tlhabane) and Shado Twala. Bob had big shoes to fill and a bigger audience to impress.
He stamped his authority on the station during his afternoon drive-time show, The Joyride, which he took over from Modise, a radio personality whose style had appealed to a more mature audience.
In front of the camera
With his fame growing, Bob moved on to conquer the world of TV by hosting the hugely popular Studio Mix alongside Melanie Bala.
His drive, looks and affable personality fuelled his success in a notoriously fickle industry that can be ruthless in the way it treats its stars.
A fan of rap, a music genre that was still fairly new to most South Africans, he released a CD with Doctor Khumalo, bringing him closer to millions of radio fans.
South Africa was undergoing political transformation and Bob located himself at the centre of it. In 1996, the broadcast media landscape was experiencing seismic changes, with the national regulator opening up the airwaves.
Breaking new ground
The SABC had to sell off some of its regional stations – including Highveld Stereo (now 94.7) – to private owners, thus relaxing its stranglehold on media ownership.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Bob joined Highveld, unfazed by the fact that the station predominantly catered for a white adult audience. There, he hosted a mid-morning show called Shooting the Breeze.
But entertaining audiences on Highveld was very different from working at Radio Metro, as he would soon find out.
He faced racism from some listeners, who objected to having a black voice on “their” station. He also felt alienated from a large number of his black fans, who viewed his move to Highveld as “selling out”.
Nevertheless, he continued to navigate the turbulent Highveld waters amid the sharks that were circling him.
His tenure at Highveld, where he also dabbled as a programme manager, was an eye-opener for him and armed him with skills for his next assignment at Kaya FM.
Kaya needed leadership and someone with a deep understanding of both the Gauteng market and the need to lure advertising to the fledgling station. Bob was equal to the task, despite the challenges of getting a new station to break even financially.
His broadcast escapade then took him to Primedia, where he served as an executive, and to the SABC to head up its commercial radio division in charge of three radio stations. He also did stints in directing at Makana Media’s Gagasi FM and Heart FM in 2009.
Bob was much more than a radio jock – he was also a well-rounded radio executive and strategist whom media owners could trust with their stations and rely on to make money for them.
Unsurprisingly, when Given Mkhari needed someone to steer Power FM, the natural choice was Bob.
His partnership with Faith Mangope on Power Breakfast worked tremendously well. I admit to having initial reservations about the show, but I was certainly proved wrong.
One of his last interviews was with the man who gave him his first radio job, Thapelo Thipe. They reflected on the life and times of another Radio Bop legend, Edgar Dikgole. I count myself fortunate for having caught that final show last Friday morning, after having spoken to Bob two days earlier. The last song he played was Almaz by Randy Crawford.
Then my idol signed off for good.
Albi Modise is a public servant and a friend of Bob Mabena