By Conrad Schwellnus | 17 July 2020: Day 10 of Radio Days Africa 2020 included a treat for all delegates in the form of a room full of South African radio legends discussing their journeys, the truth about the industry, touching on the evolution of radio and giving advice to aspiring broadcasters and radio enthusiasts around the continent. Titled ‘Old Guard Meets The New Guard’, the session featured Radio Awards Hall of Fame inductees Brian Oxley, Peter Wise, Dr. Gabriel Urgoiti and Neil Johnson, each sharing advice for a new generation of broadcasters through questions from host Noni Khumalo (947 & Voice of Wits).

The panel was first asked to introduce themselves, with each member discussing their journey with the radio industry, often including multiple roles at various stations. Dr. Gabriel – who was born in Buenos Aires in Argentina – got involved in community radio back in the 1980’s, with a specialist focus on children’s rights and children’s health leading him to a role at RX Radio today. Peter, who is currently at LM Radio, has a history of roles at Radio Algoa (now Algoa FM), Highveld Stereo (now 947) and the original Classic FM. Brian’s history involves leaving Newcastle in the UK and includes presenting shows on 5FM, SAFM, 702 and LM Radio, all the way to a current role at Magic FM. Neil, who is a well known broadcaster to many South Africans, shared a story about his very first role in the business. As it turned out, he phoned 702 to interview to be a technical operator when he was 18, landing the job in the same week his mother tearfully told him he had failed matric. The rest, as they say, is history. 

‘New Guard’ representative Noni wasted no time in asking the panel about the assumptions that people have about getting into radio. For many, these stem from an aspiration to be famous. So what is the truth about radio, according to the panel? “It’s a very hard, long hours job,” Peter began. “You’ve got to do a lot more than you are contracted for”. Neil echoed these sentiments, discussing the diverse nature of working in any role within broadcasting. “There is a lot more to this than just what you hear on air,” he said. “The on air component is one thing. When it comes down to it, it isn’t even really about you in the first place”. For Dr. Gabriel, radio is fundamentally about passion and storytelling. At its core, it plays an integral developmental role, especially in the community sector. Brian sees past the fluffy allure of the business and warns others against this too. “There are too many flirtations for people to get in,” he said. “It is seen as glamorous. At the end of the day, passion is far more important”.

With decades of collective experience in the industry, what do the Hall of Famers make about the potential evolution of radio moving forward, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic? For Brian, stations have to remember the importance of advertising and treating their clients well now, so they will remember them when things get better. Dr. Gabriel suggested that we are seeing an incredible amount of assumptions on air related to the virus, not dissimilar to what happened with the HIV/AIDS pandemic previously. “We are seeing confusing messages and fake news,” he said. “Presenters should remember that what comes out of your mouth can create confusion and distrust”. Neil answered the question with a collective view of the industry in mind. “COVID-19 has affected all radio broadcasters around the world,” he said, while referencing how radio has always adapted to new challenges across the many decades it has been around. “What’s important to note is that radio is still here, and is still strong”.

So strong that there are still millions of radio stations around the world, with scores of people looking to break into the industry. So what advice does the panel have for enthusiastic young people looking to get their start in the business? Brian referenced the incredible opportunities to receive training in the market. “In the early days, there was nothing to train on,” he shared. “Now, you have all these community stations and varsity stations, which is fantastic. There is a whole training ground there”. He also voiced the importance of getting a foot in the door in any way you can, be that washing dishes or through an internship. For Dr. Gabriel, “the passion for radio and the passion to serve people go very much together”. If you have both, it will be easier to find your place. Peter reiterates that working in radio goes far beyond just being on air. “Forget about that as the only way,” he said. “There are many other ways you can make a meaningful contribution”. Opening your mind to the possibilities, rather than limiting yourself by focusing on one component of broadcasting only, may even lead you on a path that is better suited to you to begin with. 

As multiple panelists over the first two weeks of the conference have suggested, at the end of the day, working in radio in 2020 requires you to wear many hats. Every day in the industry is different, and even if you have a job in the industry already, it’s important not to fall into the trap of just doing what you’re already employed to do for the station. Get involved and learn about all the different aspects of radio, as it will allow you to provide a skill to employers irrespective of which station or company you end up working for. As Peter put so eloquently in closing the session today, “If the day comes that you want to move on, you will at least have the skills to make a valuable contribution elsewhere”. Spoken like a true mentor, and as Noni implied in closing the discussion with these radio legends, today’s conversation was nothing short of an honour and a privilege.