Iconic station took talk radio to a new level in Mzansi

The likes of the late Vuyo Mbuli took the radio station to lofty heights, and the writer is interested to find out how, after 40 years, the station plans to increase its vast listenership while remaining a force to be reckoned with in this digital age.
The likes of the late Vuyo Mbuli took the radio station to lofty heights, and the writer is interested to find out how, after 40 years, the station plans to increase its vast listenership while remaining a force to be reckoned with in this digital age.
Image: File

At midday on the June 28 1980, South Africa welcomed a new radio station that would champion the rainbow of sounds and later place itself at the centre of political debates in this country.

The first voice on the station was that of Paddy O'Bryne. The day marked the arrival of Channel 702 - the station that was to evolve from music to a talk format.

Channel 702, later renamed 702, set up its studio and transmitter atop a mountain in GaRankuwa, north of Pretoria. The choice of this township that was part of Pretoria was informed by its location in the "independent homeland" of Bophuthatswana, which allowed the station some degree of "freedom".

One of the brains behind 702, Issie Kirsch, had identified an opportunity that would capture and captivate audiences across the colour line. Noble as the dream was, for a number of years the station remained predominantly white, until fairly recently.

The selection of Bophuthatswana was to circumvent censorship by the South African government.

Channel 702 would recruit some enduring radio personalities over the years, like Cocky "Two-Bull" Tlhotlhalemaje, Jerry Cohen, Paul Stephens, Alex Jay, Stan Katz, Martin Bailey, Neil Johnson and John Berks, to name a few who presented music that appealed to a rainbow of listeners.

When Radio 5 (later 5fm) switched from AM to FM, copying 702's format, jocks like Alex Jay, Bailey and Johnson were poached to join the station. The fierce competition unleashed by Radio 5, coupled with a lack of a strong signal, forced 702 to consider the talk format. Years later, the station would make the switch to FM.

Despite being born out of an apartheid loophole, the station went on to give the Nats sleepless nights. When John Robbie took over Talk at Ten on the station in January 1990, FW de Klerk was about to initiate political reforms.

It was a very volatile period in South African politics with the country on a knife edge and threats of civil war from right-wing elements. There was a lot to discuss and 702 presented itself as the platform for such debates with left- and right-wing political leaders.

Whenever violence broke out in Katlehong, Thokoza or train violence in the Reef, 702 would be the source of credible news.

The news team became a crucial part of the story of the birth of new South Africa, staffed by luminaries like Brett Hilton-Barber, David O'Sullivan, Judith Dubin, Dan Moyane, Deborah Patta, Chris Gibbons, Alyce Chavunduka, Vuyo Mbuli, Chris Gibbons, and Thabang Mamonyane.

The mid- to late-90s also marked the arrival of versatile hosts like Zandile Nzalo and Shado Twala. The station started positioning itself to thwart any possible threat posed by stations like Kaya FM and the repositioning of SAfm.

Veteran journalist Jon Qwelane was brought in to beef up night-time radio. Over the past 10 years the station has evolved from a predominantly white station with black hosts and listeners to a totally South African radio station that understands the demographics of its country.

The recent repositioning of the station also saw young but talented Clement Manyathela taking over the mid-morning show from the dynamic Eusebius McKaiser.

With 40 years on-air and a weekly listenership of about 404,000 it would be interesting to see how the station plans to increase its listenership while remaining a force to be reckoned with in this digital age.

*Modise is a public servant in love with radio. This column is written in his personal capacity

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