2017 Liberty Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever

John Robbie

When John Robbie hung up his headphones and signed off for the last time at Talk Radio 702 in December 2016, it signaled the end of a legendary career spanning some 30 years within the station. His career path included hosting “Talk at Ten”, which then went on to become “Talk at Nine”, mid-morning, afternoon drive, co-hosting Breakfast with Dan Moyane for a few years, then mid-morning again and then back onto Breakfast which he hosted from October 2002 to December 2016.

John came to South Africa on a rugby tour with the British Lions in 1980 and returned with Ireland in 1981 which led to his being dismissed from his job at the Guiness brewery in Dublin. Following this tour, he and his wife Jennie, decided to stay on in South Africa, with John playing rugby for what was then called Transvaal. John never played for the Springboks – although he sat on the bench for the ‘boks four times. It speaks volumes for his strong principles that he never wears a Springbok rugby jersey as he feels that as a former rugby player who never played for the Springboks, he is not entitled to wear one.

John then took up a job in Johannesburg as a pump salesperson, selling large pumps to the mines and heavy industry, whilst continuing his rugby career. In 1987, he was one of five SA rugby players of the year. He also won the SA Superstars competition in 1988.  During this time, he became a 702 listener, listening to John Berks in the morning and Chris Gibbons’ midday report. He became a regular caller to Berks’ show and Berks suggested to management that they get John Robbie to read the sport on the Breakfast show.

702 then gave John a weekly sports show on a Saturday afternoon and his big break came when he stood in for David Blood on Talk at Ten, in the week that FW de Klerk made his famous 2nd February 1990 opening of Parliament speech unbanning political organisations and announcing his intention to release political prisoners. This led to John being permanently appointed as the host of the show and set up John’s radio future.

A competitive sportsman by nature, John brought his competitive streak to radio and pioneered the type of talk that is synonymous with 702. His forthright manner attracted calls from a very broad range of people, all from vastly different backgrounds engaging with one another via the medium of radio. John was instrumental in promoting dialogue and opening debates on many difficult issues – at a time that the country was emerging from its apartheid past. He held those in power to account and his forthright manner meant that he was always trying to find out “why the lying bastards are lying”.

This approach won John a lot of respect, but from his own perspective, he sought solutions and pioneered solution-driven radio. He was not content with only providing criticism and condemnation; he had this drive to move the country forward, of making things better and of making SA a better place to live. Out of every situation, every tragedy and every drama, John would ask the question “What can we learn from this?” and then attempt to infuse this into the discourse, so that society would keep moving forward. This spirit, drive and energy, this will to make a difference, was one of the key drivers of Lead SA.

John’s professionalism is legend in the industry. He was always fully-engaged in his work, arriving at the studio promptly at 03:00 every day in order to prepare for his show. His approach to his show was single-minded and he not only extracted the best work from the team working on his show, he set an example, and a benchmark for all his colleagues and for his successors in the industry. John has won many awards for his work, twice winning the SA Breweries Sports Journalist of the Year for Radio and Television.

John Robbie’s radio career has enriched the radio industry and, in fact, the entire country and it is only fitting that he is acknowledged by the industry through being honoured as the Liberty Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever in 2017.

2014 MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever

John Berks

King of broadcasting, father of commercial talk radio, pioneer of prank calls, the first shock-jock – he has had plenty of names over the years but to those in the industry and his legion of loyal fans, he’s just Berksie, and the recipient of this year’s MTN Lifetime Achievement Award.
When the definitive history of radio in South Africa is eventually written, he’ll be one of the main faces on the cover. A man who in his decades behind the microphone – always with his headphones at full volume much to the annoyance of his sound engineer – understood and practised the two core principles of broadcasting:

that the craft is always about a one-on-one relationship with your listener, and that on any given show day you bring your authentic self to the programme whatever mood you might be in. And of course the show always goes on no matter how you feel. Illness, or a rough night before, is never an excuse.

John Berks was born in Krugersdorp on 24 September 1941 and grew up in Klerksdorp. He worked in a soap factory and at the Germiston Advocate newspaper prior to passing an audition with LM Radio’s Gerry Wilmot having been turned down the previous year by another radio management legend Rob Vickers. John moved back to Joburg as programme manager in 1969. He left LM in 1970 and worked variously for Swazi Music Radio, Springbok Radio, Capital Radio 604 Transkei and Radio 5 as it was then. His most significant move, though, was to Radio 702 in October 1981 where he quickly became the most popular voice on the air. He left 702 in the early 90s but went back to join Gary Edwards who had been the station’s programme manager to co-present the John and Gary talk show. This show became the pulse of Johannesburg for many years and heralded in a new era of radio during the transition to democracy where South Africans finally started opening up and talking to each other.

Berks had a unique ability to draw the very best out of callers, seizing on a phrase or a comment and milking it for all it was worth. The secret he always told younger broadcasters was to listen carefully. He was also not afraid to ask the simplest of questions, the ones we all wanted to but felt stupid doing. He combined that ‘everyman persona’ with the inherent understanding that radio at its essence, whether the format was music or talk, is a medium of entertainment and that his greatest daily accomplishment would be to have people say, ‘Did you hear what Berksie said this morning?’.

John finally retired from 702 in the late 90s. He lives in Johannesburg and part of the year in Cape Town and commutes regularly to the United States where he has family. To a person, everyone we spoke to about John recognised his massive talent, his love for radio, his keen and wicked sense of humour, his delight in impersonation; his appalling golf swing; his love of the standards, and his perpetual willingness to listen to up-and-coming young broadcasters and offer them nothing but praise and encouragement. Berksie, the radio industry salutes a giant – we love you, man.

2013 MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever

Koos Radebe

Koos Radebe’s talent and passion for soccer was the kindling that ignited his career in the broadcasting arena. A keen striker and midfielder in his high school and tertiary years, Koos embarked on a career as a broadcaster and commentator for the then Radio Zulu (now Ukhozi FM). In the early days of his career, he would often have to commentate from a seat in the stands with the rank-and-file spectators, a position that was fraught with difficulty as he had many interruptions from spectators. His focus on telling the story and his commitment to excellence saw him gain recognition and he was appointed by SABC TV to cover a broad range of sports. In 1986, in a measure by the SABC to counter the growth of Radio Bophuthatswana (better known as Radio Bop), the SABC took the decision to launch Radio Metro and Koos Radebe was appointed as the Programme Manager. Initially, Radio Metro was part of the SABC’s PBS portfolio and broadcast on some AM and then some FM transmitters.

Koos, who is affectionately known as the godfather of Metro FM (as Radio Metro later became), had a huge task on his hands. He had 4 months in which to get a complement of staff together and to get the station on-air. The big challenge was to find presenters who would be able to present in English. In the early days of Metro, Koos did everything for the station, from recruitment, to training, to marketing to programming. On 1 September 1986 Radio Metro was launched with an Adult Contemporary R&B format, targeting a predominantly black audience in the 16 to 34 age demographic.
Metro was an instant hit with the audience and Koos led the station from the front, implementing many innovations. In 1989, Metro and the then Radio 5 combined to hold a joint birthday concert at Ellis Park and this event attracted 85 000 fans.

In the restructuring of the SABC Radio portfolio in 1991, Metro was grouped with Radio 5, Radio Highveld and Radio 2000 as the SABC Commercial Radio Division under the leadership of MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever for 2012, Pietie Lotriet. This was a better business and philosophic alignment for Koos Radebe and the Metro team, as the stations all approached their business in a similar fashion.

Within this new environment, Metro (and Radebe) flourished and one of the highlights of those times was the visit by Nelson Mandela (even before he became President) to the Metro studios. Metro was one of the hottest radio stations in the country with a huge influence over a hugely influential audience. Koos Radebe’s little station rapidly came of age and many leading media figures owe their stature to the mentorship and guidance of Koos Radebe.

When Pietie Lotriet retired from the SABC in 1994, Koos Radebe was appointed as General Manager – Commercial Radio Services at the SABC. In 1996, Koos took over the SABC National PBS Radio portfolio and in 1999, he was appointed as the first Director of the SABC’s TopSport department – which encompassed both Radio and Television Sport. In 2008, he was inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame for his contribution to sport in South Africa.

Subsequent to his retirement from the Broadcasting Industry, Koos joined Tracker Network as CSI Director and he retired from Tracker in 2012. He presently runs his own business, communications and marketing consultancy, which has a special focus on CSI, Enterprise Development, Corporate Events, Media Relations and Broadcast Development.

Koos Radebe’s career paved the way for many to follow and he achieved substantial success – sometimes against overwhelming odds. He is a humble and modest man, who takes great pride in the success of those whom he has helped along the way.

2012 MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever

Pietie Lotriet

There are a lot of people in the South African radio industry today who owe a great deal to a man they have never met and who many don’t even know of. Pietie Lotriet officially retired from the SABC in 1994, although he stayed on at the corporation for some time after that in a consulting role before going on to the Independent Broadcast Authority (the predecessor to ICASA) as a councillor.

Although he started his broadcast career at Radio Good Hope in the mid 1960’s, it was really as a manager in the last part of his career within the SABC that Pietie made a huge impact on the radio industry – and it is his achievements at this time and the changes that he brought to the SABC’s operating philosophy and style that are the reason for his being presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In December 1979 and June 1980, the respective launches of Capital Radio and Radio 702 (now Talk Radio 702) introduced the first “local” competition threat to the SABC, which at that stage was the only game in town. Signal distribution issues, mountainous terrain and geographical separation from Gauteng diminished the threat of Capital Radio – which at a later stage concentrated its efforts on Durban, however 702’s format and their independent spirit, saw this station making inroads into the audience numbers of the SABC’s young contemporary station, Radio 5 (now 5FM) a situation that was unacceptable to the SABC.

Perplexed, the SABC top management tasked Pietie Lotriet with establishing and implementing a strategy to regain market position and listenership. Although he was responsible for Radio 5, Radio Highveld and Radio Orion at the time, Pietie concentrated his efforts on Radio 5 as this was the station most significantly impacted by 702. Pietie identified the shortcomings of Radio 5 and saw that the only way to beat 702 was through improving the product. One of the failings of the station was that it lacked strong personalities as all the best talent had left for 702 and Capital.

SABC management at the time was averse to creating personalities, but Pietie convinced them of his strategy. He approached some of the biggest names in radio at the time and contracted some leading names to the station. He managed to sell the SABC on the concept of contracting talent as SABC policies were inflexible and he would not have been able to pay the rates required to attract the talent within these policies.

Legend has it that he approached someone who was entrenched at another station, an exceptionally well-known personality and someone with whom he had previously worked. When management of the individual’s station got to hear about the meeting, they immediately re-negotiated the individual’s contract at a far more favourable rate and with several “sweeteners” thrown in.

Pietie built Radio 5 up through contracting strong personalities, people like, Martin Bailie, Alex Jay, Chris Prior, Kevin Savage, Martin Locke, Tony Sanderson and David Blood to name but a few. He empowered his on-air talent and encouraged controversy as it was necessary for the station to establish something of a rebellious personality and to get into trouble that was entirely uncharacteristic of any SABC entity. In essence, he wanted the station to sound and look independent and he successfully achieved this.

His management style was exceptional. Pietie believes in facilitating performance. He frequently interceded with top management of the SABC when they attempted to interfere with the on-air talent and with the running of the station. He instilled the philosophy that the relationship with the listener was sacrosanct and he allowed no compromise here, standing up to SABC top management at times when they attempted to interfere with stations and staff. He was immensely popular with his team and he earned the respect and loyalty of his staff, many of whom still maintain contact with him and all of whom still hold him in high regard.

Many innovations were introduced on Pietie’s watch. He built media personalities through actively seeking television opportunities for his team. He introduced television and cinema advertising for his stations, and he managed to get the stations to box clever in their use of marketing resources in such a manner that the stations made their appeal larger than that of their independent competitors – normally on far smaller budgets. He oversaw promotions and events which had high degrees of audience participation and contact.

On the technology front, he was also responsible for leading technical innovations such as the introduction of FM Stereo, and the introduction of computerised digital audio workstations – the core of some of the smallest radio stations today. Many of the innovations that he implemented were world firsts, but he had the confidence in his people and the inherent instinct for making the right decisions.

Within two years of his taking charge of the management of Radio 5, the station turned around and started to achieve significant audience- and revenue- growth. Lotriet’s passion for radio, his intricate understanding of station personality and branding was recognised by the SABC in 1991 when he was appointed General Manager of Commercial Radio Services and placed in charge of Radio 5, Radio Metro, Radio Highveld and Radio Orion. The acumen, skills, expertise and infectious passion that he brought to this portfolio coupled with his excellent managerial ability saw all these stations grow and prosper.

His portfolio of stations at the SABC constituted a significant contribution to the Corporation’s profitability at that time.

On his retirement from the SABC’s employ after 29 years’ service, he started a consultancy and was contracted to the SABC’s radio division to assist the newly-appointed Chief Executive of radio with the process of transformation of the radio portfolio. He then joined the IBA as a councillor and brought a wealth of knowledge, understanding, empathy and ultimately love for the radio industry to the IBA. He played a vital role in the initial freeing up of the airwaves and the sale of the SABC Regional radio services to independent commercial entities. He left the IBA in 1998 to join AME as Divisional Director: Radio managing a broad portfolio of stations. He subsequently consulted to various community stations.

Today, Pietie is retired and lives in Somerset West, just outside of Cape Town. He still maintains currency with the radio industry consulting to certain stations on an ad-hoc basis.The legacy that he has left within the radio industry in South Africa is immense and honouring him with the MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever Award is the very least that one can do to pay homage to the impact his career had on the entire industry.

2011 MTN Radio Awards Lifetime Achiever

Issie Kirsh

“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.