From the antics of Peru and Bala to the smooth voice of Kenny Maistry over the airwaves, radio in South Africa turns 100

A station that caused a splendid stir in the 1970s was Radio Truro (named after the ship that carried indentured workers from India in 1860). Just like Capital and 702, the station could not have transmitters on South African soil

Jugadheesan Devar

Published Dec 20, 2023

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On Monday, radio in South Africa turned 100. It certainly is cause for much celebration.

The first broadcast, on December 18, 1923, was heard in Johannesburg. Stations were established in Cape Town and Durban the following year. Nobody, during the humble times for radio, ever imagined the power and beauty it would command over the next century.

Dubbed the “wireless”, the government of the day, through various agencies, took charge of all three stations. After a few years, entrepreneur IW Schlesinger purchased them and ran the services into the 1930s until his application for renewal was refused.

The Broadcasting Act, which gave rise to the SABC, came into being in 1936. The initial language of broadcast was English (several programmes were imported from overseas) and by virtue of extensive lobbying, Afrikaans was introduced.

It did not take long for those ruling South Africa to realise radio’s appeal and phenomenal reach. As a sinister move, the medium began to be used for political influence. Stations in black languages were introduced, and though they provided entertainment for their audiences, indoctrination by means of carefully curated content was the name of the game.

By the latter part of the 1940s when the system of apartheid was gaining momentum, radio was heavily state-controlled. The authorities manipulated airtime to give meaning and purpose to all the horrid pieces of legislation that enforced segregation and discrimination. The disingenuity of the government was at its dizzy height.

Accordingly, the SABC was referred to as “His Master’s Voice”.

The first commercial station under the aegis of the corporation was Springbok Radio, which aired a variety of shows that included Squad Cars, Test the Team, The Creaking Door, The Men from the Ministry and the Top 20 countdown hosted by David Gresham, affectionately called “Gruesome Gresh”.

A game-changer for radio in this neck of the woods was the introduction of Capital Radio (Transkei) in 1979 and Radio 702 (Bophuthatswana) a year later. Both stations provided a welcome relief in its coverage of news and current affairs, music, sport and entertainment.

The coverage of the alarming level of apartheid atrocities was not shunned but shared courageously by journalists at Capital such as Manu Padayachee, Zahed Cachalia and Cassandra Moodley. An individual whose name is synonymous with early “Indian radio” in the country is Jugadheesan Devar. He is fondly remembered for hosting a weekend show on the English Service (now SAfm) of the SABC.

Each week, the community looked forward to his offerings of entertainment, so much so that the volume of radio systems in Indian homes were at its peak – perhaps a signal of pride and pleasure. Ruthnam Pillay is another broadcaster who kept the ears of listeners peeled.

A station that caused a splendid stir in the 1970s was Radio Truro (named after the ship that carried indentured workers from India in 1860). Just like Capital and 702, the station could not have transmitters on South African soil.

The Kirsh brothers set up Truro in Swaziland. Shows on the station were recorded in Durban and then transported to the neighbouring country to be aired.

Personalities like Safee Siddiqi, TP Naidoo, Sonnybhai Boodhram, Kumari Ambigay, Zuby Mohammed, Jaymathie Makanjee, Julie Ally, Goolam Majam, Ketan Lakhani, Zakia Ahmed, Logan Govender and Mo Surtee enchanted listeners in all parts of the country though reception on the shortwave band was not at its best.

A show titled Kaleidoscope was broadcast in the early 1980s on a Sunday evening on Radio Port Natal. It was hosted by Farida Ismail and RB Ram. The SABC later sold the station, presently known as East Coast Radio (ECR).

Radio Lotus (now Lotus FM) became a reality in 1983, with Fakir Hassen at the helm. Charismatic presenters such as BK Chinnah and Docky Docrat were drawcards for the station. Devi Sankaree Govender’s talk shows on Lotus became the “talk of the town”. In a sense, she was reinvigorating the airwaves with her unique style.

Vikash Mathura and Ray Maharaj reignited entertainment radio with their Weekend Lift-Off show. Calling themselves Peru and Bala, the laughter they generated was the right tonic for the hordes of listeners not just nationally but internationally too. Khalik Sherrif enjoyed a stint as station manager, while Carlito Shekh went on to head Radio 2000 after serving in management at Lotus.

Khalik Sherrif

A former Durbanite has revolutionised the radio industry in Johannesburg. Lloyd Madurai’s Hot 102.7FM notches up award after award for its innovative programming and music. Another radio man, who hails from Durban, is Naveen Singh. He is in management at Smile FM in Cape Town.

Alan Khan, Kenny Maistry and Ravi Naidoo cut their teeth at Capital Radio and went on to become household names. Alan has since worked at ECR, Jacaranda FM and Lotus FM whereas Kenny broke barriers when he was snapped up by Metro FM. He plies his trade at 702. The station was once headed by Yusuf Abramjee. Ravi was the head honcho at 947. After being on campus radio, Audwax (Durban-Westville) and Dome (Natal), I had the privilege of being on Capital Radio hosting Capital Beat and working closely with “The Wiz” Oscar Renzi.

Kenny Maistry

After the SABC became a democratic organisation, Govin Reddy was made group executive: radio. Nadia Bulbulia has played a prominent role as a councillor at the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (Icasa) and is the executive director at the National Association of Broadcasters. The radio industry is blessed to have persons of the calibre of Joanne Joseph, Sureshnie Rieder, Uveka Rangappa and my one-time “radio wife”, Zai Khan.

Zai Khan

Cricket commentators Aslam Khota, Hussein Manack and Kass Naidoo as well as Cape Town-based football stalwart Mo Allie have added their expertise and experience to the radio business.

Since the release from prison of our beloved Nelson Mandela, “freedom of the airwaves” has become par for the course, so much so that close to 300 community radio stations have been licensed by Icasa.

There are 19 public service stations and 21 commercial services serving more than half the population in South Africa on a daily basis. Radio Hindvani, Radio Al Ansaar, Southside FM, East Wave Radio, Voice of the Cape and Radio 786 are community stations dotted throughout the country catering for the “Indian ear”. Unfortunately, Radio Phoenix had a short lifespan.

In celebrating the marvellous milestone, a book, My Radio Memory, is being published. It comprises 100 stories from listeners across South Africa. The legacy publication is peppered with other interesting material like contributions on stations that were on air, but are no more. They include Radio Truro (as Safee would say “keep smiling”), Radio Phoenix (effectively yours), Springbok Radio (for brighter broadcasting) and Capital Radio (all the hits and more on 604) – the contributions come from people who were directly involved with the respective station.

A snapshot of radio facts through the decades, “This Day in History” (December 18), songs about radio, punchlines from memorable advertisements, smart quotations, and entities and individuals, who are 100, make up the collector’s item.

Seasoned broadcaster David Gresham of LM Radio, Springbok Radio and Radio 5 (5FM) fame has written the Foreword for the book which can be ordered by emailing [email protected]

A rather interesting development to coincide with the centennial celebrations is the recording of a song about radio. Award-winning musician Neill Solomon (his father Alec was once the rector of the ML Sultan Technikon) is driving the initiative. A community outreach programme incorporating the “Quest for Literacy” project is also on the cards.

The plethora of fine attributes of radio makes it colossally captivating and perennially popular. The marvellous medium will, arguably, continue to charm, caress, comfort and care for the listener through the next century.

Advocate Robin Sewlal

Advocate Robin Sewlal is the chairperson of Radiocracy that comprises, radio, democracy and development – www.radiocracy.co.za He serves as an adviser, consultant, editor, strategist and trainer for various entities.

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