2011 MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever
“If I were to sum up 702 Talk Radio in one word, it would be ‘involvement’.” So says Issie Kirsh, whose efforts in developing South Africa’s first talk radio station helped earn him the MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever Award.
When Kirsh talks of involvement, his meaning encompasses every definition of the word. After all, Radio 702 was started as a station that involved all South African races, evolved to become the station that was involved as key political and social events unfolded, and is now known to be heavily involved in all South African communities. The story of 702 Talk Radio – which went on to become the story of Primedia – has its roots in the establishment of Radio Swazi, a station Kirsh founded in 1974 with his brother Natie.
Kirsh had always been drawn to radio by the very factors which give the medium its strength: its immediacy and intensely personal nature. “It’s the only medium you can listen to with your eyes closed,” Kirsh comments. “Plus, because it’s not pre-recorded, it’s got the excitement that comes with being live.”
Kirsh’s early enthusiasm did not translate into immediate success, however, and Radio Swazi was forced to close, largely because of its inability to provide a clear signal. Still, the brothers continued their broadcasting with programmes targeting the Indian and urban black communities, winning a significant number of listeners along the way.
The experience garnered in these endeavours served them in good stead when the South African government announced that the newly created homelands, including Bophuthatswana, would be awarded their own independent radio stations. “Looking at Bophuthatswana on the map, it was like a jigsaw puzzle with little contiguity. However, I realised that it would be possible to establish a viable AM signal from Ga-Rankuwa, located as it was within close proximity to both Pretoria and Johannesburg,” Kirsh recalls.
And so the Bophuthatswana Commercial Radio Company (Pty) Ltd was born. At the time, the station’s closest competitor was Radio 5, but Kirsh knew he had an upper hand: “We were committed and passionate, and we knew what we were doing and why.” This points to one of the earliest lessons he learnt: “Every station needs a distinctive DNA. Without it, there’s no way you can succeed.”
Kirsh admits there were one or two glitches along the way to developing that DNA. “In the beginning, we tried to be everything to everyone. We were broadcasting the latest hits to an audience of blacks, whites, Indians and coloured. We soon learnt that this wouldn’t work. Different races have different tastes. Lifestyle is the common denominator: adherents to a certain lifestyle are certain to enjoy similar things.”
With this in mind, 702 became ‘the rainbow station’, with announcers reflecting the diversity of its audience, and many of the industry’s legends, including the likes of Paddy O’Byrne, Cocky Two Bull and John Berks.
The station was an immediate success, reporting profits within just two years and reaching an audience of 500 000 within five years. In fact, it was a little too successful, and in an effort to raise the stakes, the SABC moved its rival, Radio 5, to FM. Realising that any music format would be unable to stand up to the richer sound quality offered by FM Stereo, Kirsh took the necessary steps to gradually evolve Radio 702 into a talk format station, the first of its kind in South Africa.
As it turned out, with South Africa undergoing its own major changes during the mid-1980s, this couldn’t have happened at a better time. “We prided ourselves on being in touch, in tune and independent, and slowly started to grow our audiences as listeners turned to us as a credible news source.” At the same time, Radio 702 started to entrench itself as a community support, first by establishing a talk helpline and then, in conjunction with the Johannesburg department of health, opening a walk-in crisis centre in Hillbrow.
And of course, wherever a newsworthy event was taking place, the station was there. Deborah Patta became known for her reports on former president Nelson Mandela after his release, while politicians, from FW de Klerk to Walter Sisulu willingly accepted to be in the 702 hot seat.
This spirit of community involvement continues still with initiatives such as Lead SA and CrimeLine – initiatives which had their genesis within Primedia Broadcasting, Kirsh observes.
“I’m terribly proud of what 702 Talk Radio has achieved, but it wasn’t all because of me. We’ve had some incredible people on board – Rina Broomberg, John Berks and Stan Katz were instrumental in creating the talk radio format, and Terry Volkwyn – who was the architect of Lead SA – continues to drive the company with her keen understanding of what radio is all about.
“I’d like to say that our combined efforts are helping to leave a legacy,” he concludes.