A controversy about ownership, format and licensing changes at Classic FM spilled over into Radio Days Africa 2021 when a question on the issue was asked at a conference session.

“The CEO’s Session” on July 13 saw a listener ask for the views of Primedia and Kagiso Media to the take-over of Classic FM by the community station Hot.  Kagiso Media chief executive of radio Nick Grubb and Primedia chair and group chief business officer Geraint Crys-Williams were on the panel. The session was moderated by journalist Claire Mawisa and the third panellist was Kelly Ramputswa-Tlale, the CEO of Botswana’s Yarona FM. The podcast recording of the session can be accessed here.

Hot bought Classic and secured Icasa approval to change the format of the station, relaunching in July 2021 as Hot 102.7. This has given Hot a much wider reach in the sought after and contested Johannesburg radio landscape, who it is now serving with “old skool and R&B” music. The new Hot broadcasts classical music in the evenings, on audiostream and satellite.  Its old frequency now carries a new community station, Star FM.

Competitors Kagiso Media and Primedia have both lodged objections to the move with the regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa), as reported by Times Live two days prior to the RDA session.

In response to the audience question, Grubb conceded that Classic FM was struggling in its old form.  “It hasn’t been able to [be profitable] because it hasn’t been able to draw the kind of listenership that would make it a viable option, so it was necessary [for it to] reformat”.

“We’re still waiting on an ICASA position in terms of what the licensing amendment process was”, he said.  In his view “it seems that the resulting format that was licensed…is not the template against which they are currently broadcasting, including the name change”.

He added that Kagiso Media’s complaint was about the process followed to grant the amendment, and “to make sure that the license conditions that we all adhere to as commercial broadcasters are adhered to by all the operators in the marketplace”. He said it was unclear whether the fault lies with the operators, or if it is an ICASA issue.

Crwys-Williams said that “it comes back to the question around the regulation of the industry as a whole”.

“From a Primedia perspective, what we want to see is an environment in which everybody complies with the same set of laws,” he added. “For investors and shareholders making an investment into radio in this country, if we want this industry to remain viable — if we want to continue to employ people, and to provide platforms for everybody to express their opinions and so on— it’s got to be sustainable”.

For that to happen, it’s his opinion that there “must be a level playing field”, where all parties abide by the same set of laws, and comply with their license conditions. “To the extent that any operator doesn’t do that, I think that they should be taken to task”, he concluded.

Hot 102.7 weren’t present in the live session, and issued a response afterwards.  Managing Director Lloyd Madurai said that classical music stations around the world were struggling, due to dwindling interest in classical music.

“Our shareholders bought the shares in Classic FM in 2019 with the clear intention, which was stated in our applications to Icasa, of changing its format in order to get it out of business rescue”, he stated. “Icasa approved our transfer and amendment requests, but for some reason unknown to us, [it] imposed a license condition that obliges us to play classical music from 7pm in the evening. Not only has this caused great confusion with listeners, but it has had a severely detrimental effect on our advertising revenue”, he added.

Referencing the Radio Days discussion directly, he said that Kagiso Media had submitted some objections to their license amendment, but added that Primedia had not done so. He believes that it was incorrect for Kagiso Media to insinuate that Hot 102.7 FM had “changed into a commercial station”, because in his view it is “legally impossible to change a community station into a commercial one”.

Madurai refuted the allegation that the new Hot 102.7 was non-compliant, saying the claim was “astonishing”. Both Primedia and Kagiso Media had sent letters threatening legal action from the day before the new Hot 102.7 FM launched, and the station would “ follow the right channels to respond” to the complaints. “We are entirely compliant with all license conditions…and we will continue to be compliant”.